Basketball heavyweight Shaquille O’Neal broke his silence on China’s conflict with the National Basketball Association Tuesday, siding with Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s support of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Mr. O’Neal — whose basketball career spanned almost 20 years and multiple teams — spoke on the conflict while participating in TNT’s coverage of the NBA’s season kick-off games.
“As American people, we do a lot of business in China, and they know and understand our values, and we understand their values,” he said. “And one of our best values here in America is free speech. We’re allowed to say what we want to say, and we’re allowed to speak up about injustices, and that’s just how it goes. And if people don’t understand that, that’s something they have to deal with.”
Mr. O’Neal called the conflict was “unfortunate for both parties,” but that “Daryl Morey was right.”
The NBA has been steeped in controversy after Mr. Morey inadvertently created an international conflict when he tweeted a picture calling his followers to “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
Mr. Morey deleted and apologized for the tweet, but it led China’s state broadcaster to cancel plans to show a pair of preseason games in that country and even asked the NBA to fire Mr. Morey, which China denies. Chinese NBA stores also pulled Rockets’ merchandise from their shelves.
The NBA originally said the tweet was “regrettable,” but NBA Commissioner Adam Silver supported Mr. Morey and his right to freedom of speech, leading to the feud to continue nearly a month later.
Mr. O’Neal said he would not be threatened by silence or financial attacks for his support of freedom.
“Whenever you see something wrong going on anywhere in the world, you should have the right to say that’s not right, and that’s what he did,” Mr. O’Neal said. “When it comes to business sometimes, you have to tiptoe around things, but again, they understand our values and we understand our values and here, we have the right to speak.”
Mr. O’Neal’s statement comes to some as a bit of a shock, as he has had a beneficial relationship with China for years.
He signed in 2006 with Chinese sportswear brand LiNing Company while with the Miami Heat and shortly thereafter received a 50-foot statue of himself erected in a Beijing city park.
With China generating an estimated 10% of the NBA’s revenue and is projected to increase over time, according to CNN, not every star player has supported Mr. Morey’s statement.
Lakers’ star player, LeBron James, criticized Mr. Morey’s comments on China as not being “educated.”
His comments were met immediately with backlash on social media from critics who accused him of kowtowing to China and led protesters in Hong Kong to burn his jerseys as protests in Hong Kong get increasingly more violent.
• Valerie Richardson contributed to this article.