NBA commissioner Adam Silver has come under pressure to speak out more strongly in defence of free speech

Shanghai (AFP) - The NBA and Brooklyn Nets abruptly cancelled a media event in Shanghai on Tuesday as the American basketball league struggles with a public relations crisis sparked by a tweet from a Houston Rockets executive backing Hong Kong democracy protesters.

Nets players, the team’s Taiwanese-Canadian owner Joseph Tsai, and NBA China officials were scheduled to be on hand for the publicity event, ahead of a pair of exhibition games in China against the Los Angeles Lakers this week.

But the NBA China sent out a brief notice to media just two hours before it was due to start, saying it had been scrapped.

The announcement gave no reason and NBA representatives did not immediately respond to AFP queries for an explanation, and to confirm whether other events and the games themselves would go ahead.

The NBA’s China crisis erupted on Friday when the Houston Rockets’ general manager posted a tweet backing protesters in the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city of Hong Kong who are demanding greater freedoms.

China, which allows no dissent on the sensitive issue, immediately sought to punish the Rockets, with state-run TV cutting its games and Chinese sponsors abandoning the team.

The NBA initially put out a statement saying that Houston GM Daryl Morey’s tweet was “regrettable”.

This triggered outrage from senior American politicians who accused the NBA of caving in to China so that they can protect its lucrative Chinese market.

The Nets’ Taiwanese-American owner Joseph Tsai, who made a fortune with Alibaba after co-founding the e-commerce titan, said in a Facebook post on Monday that Morey’s tweet was intolerable to the Chinese government and its citizens.

He also said freedom of expression did not extend to issues China deemed untouchable.

The Nets are set to play the Lakers in Shanghai on Thursday, and in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen on Saturday. Two teams come to China each year for the pre-season games.