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Queens Chronicle

Tsai in the China shop

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Posted: Thursday, October 17, 2019 10:30 am

This past spring Joe Tsai, the co-founder of Alibaba, China’s answer to Amazon, purchased the majority interest in the Brooklyn Nets from Mikhail Prokhorov.

It wasn’t coincidence that the NBA, which has made a sizable investment in China, scheduled a pair of preseason games there between Tsai’s Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers. The trip was supposed to be a victory tour for Tsai as well as a way to establish the Nets as one of the NBA’s premier brands.

The team acquired two of the NBA’s biggest stars, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, as free agents this past summer, and you’d better believe that Tsai had the Chinese market in mind when he signed them. The Nets may not have had much of a playoff presence in recent years but they are adept at merchandising.

Tsai’s world, and that of the NBA in general, turned upside down two weeks ago when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for the Hong Kong demonstrators who are fighting for the same freedoms that we take for granted in the U.S.

China immediately lashed out at the NBA and made it clear to the league that it shouldn’t take the nation’s billion-dollar market for granted. The NBA’s first reaction was a press release designed to assuage Beijing as much as possible by making it sound as if Morey was an outlier who would be dealt with harshly.

In fairness, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver walked that back a few days later, backing Morey’s right to express his opinion.

Tsai’s first reaction was to back the Chinese government, refusing to offer even the slightest support to the courageous Hong Kong demonstrators. Tsai conceded that Morey was entitled to his opinion. He also tried some PR spin by saying China was concerned about separatists, as opposed to squashing basic human rights.

It’s hard not to be somewhat sympathetic to Tsai’s plight. This was a crisis that he didn’t create and was totally unprepared for. He runs a billion-dollar conglomerate in China and the government of Xi Jinping can shut any business down in a hurry. Nonetheless, his support for Beijing over Hong Kong probably won’t play well in liberal Brooklyn.

Before Donald Trump was president, I asked Prokhorov, the first foreign national to own an NBA team, if he was concerned about how the inevitable tensions between Russia and the U.S. might affect him. “We’d be better off if we left the politics to the politicians and just enjoyed sport for its own sake,” he replied.

History has shown, however, that’s not realistic.

The Shadow League, a digital sports platform concentrating on athletes and entertainers of color, honored WNBA star, Jamaica native and Christ the King High School alum Tina Charles Thursday night.

Charles has spent the past six seasons playing for the New York Liberty. She was mum about her future with the team, which has been one of the worst franchises in the WNBA the last two years.

Like many WNBA stars, Charles makes more money playing overseas than she does domestically. She is hopeful that will change with the next collective bargaining agreement between the WNBA and its players association, but right now she is looking to play in China this winter.

The annual Miami Project/Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis Sports Legends Dinner took place in Manhattan Oct. 7. As per custom, a lot of sports A-listers were in attendance.

Former NFL receiver Cris Collinsworth, who now serves as the analyst on NBC Sunday Night Football, was the emcee. Prior to the event I joked with Collinsworth that he should tell NBC Sports CEO Mark Lazarus to flex a New York Jets game to Sunday night.

“That’s a mess over there! What are they going to do?” Collinsworth asked me. I told him the Jets season is obviously lost but it’s a chance for new general manager Joe Douglas to see which players on his team are worth building around. (Note: The Jets’ 24-22 win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, when they had to hold on for dear life in the fourth quarter, doesn’t alter the fact that they are not a very good team.)

Skier Lindsey Vonn, who has relocated from her native Minnesota to northern New Jersey because her fiancÈ is New Jersey Devils star PK Subban, also was there.

As fate would have it, the Minnesota Twins were about to meet the Yankees that night in Game 3 of the American League Division Series. “I always root for the Minnesota teams but I am not that hopeful about tonight,” Vonn said, fully aware the Twins are playoff patsies for the Yankees. Sure enough, the Bronx Bombers went on to win that game and sweep yet another series with the Twins.

Vonn brightened when I informed her that the American Dream theme park, which started out as the Xanadu project and is scheduled to open late this month in East Rutherford, NJ, after nearly 20 years of delays, will have an indoor ski slope.

Also attending the event was fencer Monica Aksamit, who won a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and is hoping to go for the gold at the 2020 Olympiad in Tokyo. Raising money for training is always difficult for any athlete who is in a sport that gets minimal attention — even for the modelesque Aksamit, who resembles Cybill Shepherd in her 1970s prime. Frankly, I am surprised that NBC, which pays over a billion dollars for Olympics broadcast rights, doesn’t try to find a way to feature Aksamit more on various telecasts.

The Mets’ firing of Mickey Callaway as manager had a domino effect 90 miles southwest in Philadelphia, where the Phillies dismissed Gabe Kapler as their manager last Thursday.

It was an agonizing decision for both Phillies general manager Matt Klentak, who hired Kapler two years ago, and team owner John Middleton, who liked him very much. They waited nearly two weeks after the season ended to fire him, though some of the delay may have been because Kapler is Jewish and they may have feared that it would be bad PR to dismiss him during the High Holy Days.

My guess is that had the Mets kept Callaway it would have been a lot easier for Klentak and Middleton to retain Gabe Kapler. The reality is that the Phillies finished five games behind the Mets in the standings in spite of adding a pair of All-Star players to their roster, outfielder Bryce Harper and catcher JT Realmuto. Thus they felt they had no choice but to make Kapler walk the plank.

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