A Sixers fan brought a ‘Free Hong Kong’ sign to Tuesday’s game. Here’s what happened next

Listen 3:30
Sam Wachs holds a sign that reads 'Free Hong Kong' at the Sixers pre-season game. (Courtesy of Sam Wachs)

Sam Wachs holds a sign that reads 'Free Hong Kong' at the Sixers pre-season game. (Courtesy of Sam Wachs)

It was a serious protest, but it played out like a comedy.

At least, that’s the impression you get when Sixers fan Sam Wachs describes his removal from the Wells Fargo Center Tuesday night — an ejection that came after he and a companion held signs in support of protests in Hong Kong.

Wachs, 33, says he was escorted out in the second quarter of Tuesday night’s exhibition game between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Guangzhou Loong Lions after several interactions with arena security — one of which involved a confusing disagreement over deceased Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas.

The backstory here is complicated, spanning continents and centuries.

But it boils down to this: the National Basketball Association and the Chinese government are in an awkward standoff after the General Manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, sent and deleted a tweet supporting anti-government protests in Hong Kong.

As tension built over the last week, the Sixers — who’ve tried to sidestep the entire controversy — happened to host an exhibition game against a Chinese team.

Wachs, who lives in Philadelphia, is a “huge” Sixers fan. He also spent two years in Hong Kong as an English teacher. He still has friends and former students in the “special administrative region,” which has been a semi-autonomous part of China since 1997. He’s dismayed by what he considers a tepid NBA response to the conflict.

“It really struck a nerve with me that the NBA is so willing to frame this discussion using Chinese government talking points and disinformation,” Wachs said.

Ejected by Wells Fargo security

Seeking to bring attention to the issue, Wachs and a companion purchased seats behind the bench of the Chinese team and wore face masks — which have been banned at ongoing protests in Hong Kong.

They held up a pair of signs. One read, “Free Hong Kong” and the other, “Free HK.”

“We sat in our seats silently and just held up the signs,” he said.

About five minutes into the game, Wachs said, security confiscated the “Free Hong Kong” sign and asked what the second sign meant.

“And I said HK stood for [former Phillies announcer] Harry Kalas,” Wachs said.

“He said, ‘Isn’t Harry Kalas dead?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, free Harry Kalas.’ And he said, ‘Why would you free Harry Kalas?’ And I said, ‘Hey, I just wanna free Harry Kalas.’ And he said, ‘OK.’”

About ten minutes later, Wachs recalled, security returned to take the “Free HK” poster.

During the second quarter, after their signs were confiscated, Wachs began chanting, “Free Hong Kong.”

That’s when security escorted him and his companion out of the arena. Wachs recorded a video of his removal, which included some fans clapping as he was led out of the center. He said some fans quietly thanked him for his protest, but that fans of the Chinese team hurled obscenities at him.

The 76ers and Wells Fargo each released statements, saying Wachs and his companion were ejected because they were “disrupting” other fans.

“At last evening’s game, following multiple complaints from guests and verbal confrontations with others in attendance, two individuals were warned by Wells Fargo Center staff about their continuing disruption of the fan experience,” the 76ers wrote. “Ultimately, the decision was made by Wells Fargo Center personnel to remove the guests from the premises, which was accomplished without incident.”

Wachs said some fans swore at him and called him a coward for wearing a face mask. He said he responded that masks aren’t illegal in the U.S., and said he never swore back or insulted the fans.

He told security that fans were swearing at him, but security said they didn’t know anything about it.

Wells Fargo said its security that “responded to a situation that was disrupting the live event experience for our guests. After three separate warnings, the two individuals were escorted out of the arena without incident.”

Wachs doesn’t blame arena security for his removal.

“They’re just doing their jobs,” Wachs said. “It’s unfortunate that their jobs involve silencing people who are speaking out against Chinese talking points.”

Wachs isn’t clear about what arena policy he violated and says he has not yet been told whether he’ll be banned from future Sixers games or arena events.

Wells Fargo policy says signs brought to the arena must “be in good taste and appropriate for the event.”

‘A lot of money at stake’

What’s clear, though, is that NBA teams are on high alert given the Chinese response to Morey’s tweet and the importance of Chinese consumers to NBA revenue.

Basketball has made deep inroads in the world’s largest country, especially compared to the other major American sports. The game’s popularity in China has helped fuel an economic boom for the league.

That relationship is now in peril.

“Obviously there’s a lot of money at stake, but I don’t care about that,” said Wachs. “I don’t care how much money the NBA is set to make or lose from China. I believe that it matters who you do business with.”

The NBA has tried to walk a political tight-rope.

Commissioner Adam Silver says he supports the free-speech rights of Morey and other league personnel, while also saying it is “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet offended so many in China.

Just as Wachs isn’t satisfied with that response, it doesn’t seem Chinese officials are happy either.

Chinese state television (CCTV) says it will not air a pair of preseason games scheduled to be played in the country. And some community events leading up to those games have already been canceled. The 76ers went on a preseason tour of China last year.

“We’re strongly dissatisfied and oppose Adam Silver’s claim to support Morey’s right to freedom of expression,” read a statement from CCTV. “We believe that any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech.”

The Chinese government frames the protests in Hong Kong as part of a separatist movement. Wachs and others strongly disagree with that framing.

Protests broke out after the introduction of an extradition law that many Hong Kong residents saw as a threat to the region’s legacy of autonomy. The protests have now lasted several months, and show little sign of abating.

Wachs said some of his friends and former students are part of those rallies.

What I’m doing … it’s pretty easy,” said Wachs, who is part of a satirical, pizza-themed cover band that has made some online waves before. “But there’s a real risk to what the people I know there are doing.”

“I thought I could cause a little ruckus and get people mad at the NBA,” he added.

Wachs doesn’t know if there will be any more personal fallout for him. Some friends have advised him against traveling to China, noting that his picture has circulated on a Chinese social media site.

Wachs is ready to face those consequences but believes the basketball gods have already wounded him. He was ejected shortly before Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons electrified the crowd by making his first three-point shot in an NBA game.

“I feel that should be punishment enough,” Wachs said.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.