Why a couple staged a pro-Hong Kong protest to get kicked out of NBA game

Fans hold signs ahead of a an NBA exhibition basketball game between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Guangzhou Loong-Lions on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Sam Wachs, left, and his wife hold signs ahead of a an NBA exhibition basketball game between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Guangzhou Loong-Lions on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in Philadelphia. (AP)

The masked man in the “Free Hong Kong” shirt decided he had endured enough preseason basketball for one night.

“You ready to leave?,” Sam Wachs asked his wife during the second quarter of Tuesday night’s exhibition game between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Guangzhou Loong Lions. When she nodded, Wachs began to make a spectacle in hopes of getting thrown out of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia and drawing further attention to his cause.

Standing at his seat a few rows behind the Chinese team’s bench, Wachs shouted “Free Hong Kong!” over and over again. He paid no attention to the fans around him eyeing him warily or to the usher frantically pleading with him to take a seat and quiet down.

Wachs is a Philadelphia-area native who first fell in love with the 76ers during the Allen Iverson era, but the 33-year-old chose to attend Tuesday’s game for a purpose besides supporting his favorite team. He was incensed by the NBA’s initial response after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey enraged the Chinese government by tweeting a message of support to Hong Kong protesters last Friday.

Scrambling to appease China and to avoid alienating fans in its most lucrative foreign market, the NBA released a statement on Monday expressing “great respect for the history and culture of China” and describing Morey’s tweet as “regrettable.” That angered Wachs, who spent two years teaching English in Hong Kong and supports the protesters’ fight for democratic elections and against police brutality.

“I was disappointed and angry at how the league proceeded to advance China’s misinformation about the protest movement, framing it as controversial,” Wachs said. “There’s absolutely nothing controversial about a Democratic protest. I think the only controversy is to the league’s bottom line.”

When Wachs realized his hometown 76ers were hosting a Chinese team the following night, he saw an opportunity to publicize his stance. He made “Free Hong Kong” shirts and posters — one read “Free Hong Kong,” the other “Free HK” — and dropped $35 apiece on the two closest seats to the Guangzhou bench he could find.

Unsure if they would even be allowed to enter the arena with their protest paraphernalia, Wachs and his wife did their best to conceal it. They initially wore sweatshirts that hid their shirts and velcroed their signs together to make them look like one “Go 76ers” poster.

The couple had only been displaying their signs for a few minutes when Wells Fargo Center security guards approached to confiscate them. The Wells Fargo Center’s policy for signs requires they be no larger than 14 inches by 14 inches, not attached to a stick or a pole, and ”be in good taste, and appropriate for the event."

When Wachs asked why they couldn’t keep the posters, he says he was told, “No politics.”

“I asked them questions, but they got annoyed,” Wachs said. “It was pretty clear there wasn’t going to be any sort of negotiation. It was hand over the sign or you’ll have to leave.”

Security guards returned during the second quarter only minutes after Wachs launched into his one-man “Free Hong Kong!” chant. This time, they escorted Wachs and his wife out of the arena, an outcome the couple welcomed if it helped get out their message.

“I didn’t put up too much of a fuss,” Wachs said. “I wasn’t on public property and they ultimately can kick me out. But look at why I was kicked out. The NBA doesn’t want to talk about this. They want to sweep this under the rug and I want to make that difficult for them.”

In truth, the NBA had little to do with Wachs’ dismissal. The 76ers are tenants at the Wells Fargo Center and have no control over security there.

“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 said Wednesday in a statement. “Ultimately, the decision was made by Wells Fargo Center personnel to remove the guests from the premises, which was accomplished without incident.”

Wachs insists that he wasn’t “confrontational or disrespectful to anybody.” The way he recalls it, most fans ignored him and his wife. He believes the only people who were angry with them were Guangzhhou supporters.

“They were saying things that are part of China’s misinformation campaign,” Wachs said. “I wasn’t mad, but it made me sad.”

In retrospect, Wachs has only one regret about a protest that has since gone viral on social media and drawn the attention he sought. The lifelong 76ers fan wishes he had delayed it long enough to witness cold-shooting forward Ben Simmons’ first NBA 3-pointer.

Quipped Wachs, “If I had known that Ben Simmons was going to make a three, I would have waited until the third quarter.”

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