Day 6

Why this NBA fan smuggled pro-Hong Kong signs into an arena — then got kicked out

As the NBA clashes with fans and Chinese officials after an employee's pro-Hong Kong tweet, Sam Wachs tells us why he decided to take a stand of his own in Philadelphia.

'I wasn't making a political statement, I was making a human rights statement,' says Sam Wachs

Sam Wachs, left, holds a pro-Hong Kong sign ahead of an NBA exhibition basketball game between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Guangzhou Loong Lions on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/The Associated Press)

Lifelong Philadelphia 76ers fan Sam Wachs says he isn't all that surprised he was kicked out of Wells Fargo Centre on Tuesday. 

After all, the 76ers were playing an exhibition game against the Chinese Basketball Association's Guangzhou Loong Lions and Wachs was chanting his support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.  

Wachs says he bought the tickets to the game after seeing the NBA's initial reaction to a tweet from Houston Rockets' general manager Daryl Morey that expressed support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

Wachs smuggled in two signs reading "Free Hong Kong" and sat behind the visiting team's bench. The signs were taken by security. After that, he stood on his chair and chanted until staff ejected him.

Wachs' protest isn't an isolated one. On Wednesday, protesters at a game in Washington had their signs confiscated by arena staff as well.

The NBA has since backed Morey's right to speak freely. Chinese officials responded by cancelling media broadcasts, press conferences and pre-game events at subsequent NBA exhibition games.

Wachs spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury. Here's part of their conversation.

So Sam, what made you decide to stage this protest?

I used to live in Hong Kong in my 20s ... and I'm also a very passionate NBA fan.

I was deeply disappointed that the NBA wants to not address this issue. They don't want people to be looking closely at their relationship with China and the implications of that.

But when you do business with China, problems come up, and they don't want to deal with that. They just want to make money from China.

It angered me that they would just prioritize money — I understand it's a lot of money, but I don't really have a stake in that. I don't really care about that.

And then I was upset that the Sixers, my team, really bent over backwards leading up to this game to not address this issue. Frankly, it was insulting to my intelligence.

A woman holds signs showing Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and Hong Kong protests outside the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai, China. (Aly Song/Reuters)

The NBA has said that they will not stop staff from commenting on Hong Kong and that they will protect their employees' freedom of speech ... What more do you think they should be doing?

I think that there is a difference between not firing the general manager of the Houston Rockets and making him delete his tweets and issue an apology and then having the star player of the Rockets talk about how great China is — I think that there is a difference between that and really supporting free speech.

I think it's good that Daryl Morey didn't get fired. I think it's good that as of this time I haven't been banned from going to Sixers games or anything like that. But I don't know. I don't really think they're being sincere when they say that [they support free speech].

Even among those who agree with your message, some say that a basketball game is not the right venue to demonstrate to make a political point. What do you say to that?

I would say that in this case it was the perfect place to make a statement.

I would say that I wasn't making a political statement, I was making a human rights statement. And I would say that the NBA has made it impossible to ignore this.

They want to act like their relationship is with the CBA [Chinese Basketball Association], but everything in China is owned by the government. They're working with the Chinese government, and I believe it matters who you do business with.

I think if the NBA took a $4 billion contract from ISIS, people might be upset by that.

Fans in LeBron James jerseys pose for pictures with Chinese flags in Shanghai, Oct. 10, 2019. The NBA's popularity in China is under threat, as officials limit its broadcast in the country. (Aly Song/Reuters)

What do you think will happen next? Do you expect that NBA games in the regular season will be disrupted by fan protests like yours when the season opens later this month?

I certainly hope that they will be.

I'm not naive. There's a lot of money at stake for the NBA, and they're going to say that this is a difficult, controversial issue, which is their right to say that even though I believe it's a very dishonest way to frame the discussion.

So I'm not sure what will change. Hopefully people make it hard for the NBA to act like this isn't an issue.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Sam Wachs, download our podcast or click Listen above.