No one has to tell Daryl Morey that timing is everything in sports. In October of 2019 the esteemed general manager of the Houston Rockets posted perhaps the most ill-timed tweet in the short history of Twitter on the eve of his team’s NBA exhibition series in Tokyo: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” With violence escalating between the police and protesters in the streets of Hong Kong, the impact of those seven words would end up costing the NBA billions of dollars in revenue in China. It would also force NBA commissioner Adam Silver to publicly defy the wrath of Beijing by declaring at an extraordinary press conference in Tokyo that the NBA would always support Morey or any other employee’s freedom of speech. NBA's China row explainer: what is at stake and how did we get here? An MIT graduate who pioneered the use of analytics in the NBA, Morey had to know his number would eventually be up and almost one year to the day of that fateful tweet it was. When the Rockets announced on Thursday he was leaving the team, the timing was suspiciously perfect. The basketball world was distracted, having just crowned a champion in the Los Angeles Lakers, while baseball was down to its final four teams including the hometown Houston Astros, and the NFL was reeling from a series of Covid-19 infections. Throw in the non-stop rancour and madness of a momentous US presidential election featuring the two candidates in duelling prime time and it quickly became, Daryl who? The whole affair basically seemed like a lifetime ago. But not to China, they never forget a slight. The Rockets, who were the team of national hero Yao Ming and the most popular club in China, had become the team of Daryl Morey and a state-sanctioned pariah. According to Silver, Beijing explicitly told him he had to fire Morey after the tweet. However, Silver would not capitulate, even as NBA games disappeared from state broadcaster CCTV and a number of businesses cut ties with the Rockets and the league. But now, suddenly, just as the NBA reappeared on TV in China during the finals Morey is gone. Naturally, Morey and the Rockets deny his decision had anything to do with the China affair. According to Morey, from the beginning of the scandal Rockets’ owner Tilman Fertitta fully supported him. “It’s never been a factor in anything here,” he said. Hong Kong-tweeting NBA Rockets executive Morey steps down Fertitta quickly dismissed the notion that Morey’s departure will make it easier for the Rockets to do business in China. “It is not even anything that popped in my head or considered,” he said. “I didn’t even think about the two tied together.” Be that as it may, everybody in the NBA offices in New York, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai most definitely knows that it will become a hell of a lot easier to do business in China with Morey no longer around. With revenues for the NBA in China at close to US$4 billion annually, the stakes are significant. The stakes are also quite significant for the rulers in Beijing, who risked the ire of hundreds of millions of basketball fanatics by denying them their NBA fix. Over the past 25 years, the league has become a deeply embedded part of the sporting and cultural fabric in the country, particularly among fashionable youths, with stars like the late Kobe Bryant taking on mythical status. The NBA was never going to satiate the cackling chorus of politicians and commentators back in the US who accused them of being soft in acquiescing to authoritarian China, while very publicly spouting the mantra of freedom and civil liberties at home. Silver, however, firmly believed that the popularity of his league in China would eventually transcend the diplomatic stalemate. “As a league, we have to stand for something,” he said. “We stand for freedom.” With Morey now safely out of the way, China looks to be the least of the NBA’s worries. It’s a booming market with room for growth. In the US, however, the sporting landscape seems irreversibly altered and weakened in the wake of Covid-19 restrictions, while the game’s stars have very publicly prioritised social justice. Chinese NBA fans react after controversial Rockets’ chief quits TV ratings for the play-offs were the lowest in years and the Lakers, despite the presence of the league’s premier superstar LeBron James, were a hastily assembled super team who failed to captivate the public’s imagination. While the Rockets and a number of domestic media outlets went to great lengths to define Morey’s legacy by his successful 13-year run in charge of the team, his departure was perfectly timed on both sides of the Pacific. And timing, of course, is everything in sports.