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James Harden didn’t seem to care much about 7.5 million Hong Kong residents last fall, so there’s a decent chance two dead cops five hours southwest of Houston wouldn’t register on the list of concerns for the 11-year NBA veteran.

The Houston Rockets guard could have been paying tribute to Edelmiro Garza and Ismael Chavez upon arriving at training camp in Orlando, Florida, on Tuesday. Instead, wearing a mask associated with the Blue Lives Matter non-profit organization was nothing more than a matter of convenience for him, and he was quick to back away from implying support for police.

McAllen, Texas, mourns the killing of two police officers

McAllen, Texas, police officers Edelmiro Garza, 45, and Ismael Chavez, 39, were killed in an ambush Saturday while responding to a domestic disturbance call over the weekend.

They were shot and killed as they attempted to enter a home. The suspect later fatally shot himself, authorities said. A non-profit group that tracks police deaths says 30 officers have died in shootings this year.

So, when James Harden showed up at the Houston Rockets’ facility at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, on Tuesday while wearing a mask associated with the Thin Blue Line, social media was abuzz with speculation that perhaps he was delivering a message that he regarded Blue Lives Matter as something more than a rebuke of Black Lives Matter.

That turned out not to be the case.

“I wasn’t trying to make a political statement,” he said. “I honestly wore it because it covered my whole face and my beard. … I thought it looked cool. That’s it.”

James Harden has been nonchalantly dismissive before

James Harden made $148 million in his first 10 NBA seasons, was on the books for $37.8 million this year before the pandemic disrupted the season, and has three years and $131.5 million left on his contract. Like his peers, he can thank U.S. television contracts and the league’s relentless overseas marketing for the impressive stream of money.

When it comes to international markets, none is bigger than China. With 1.4 billion citizens, the country offers the NBA a potential audience four times the size of the United States. Televised NBA games are a big deal there, which translates into rights fees and advertising money for the league.

In turn, that puts money into the pockets of players and owners. So, a tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey last October in support of Hong Kong protests against increasingly aggressive Chinese interference in the semi-autonomous city created a problem for the NBA.

Morey’s tweet — though embraced by many in the Western world — was quickly deleted, the NBA apologized profusely to the Chinese government, and China Central Television removed the Rockets – highly popular thanks to Yao Ming’s career in Houston – from the broadcast schedule. Tencent Sports said it was pulling all games off TV.

LeBron James and James Harden line up behind the NBA

The crisis started by the tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey wasn’t going away. Chinese sponsors and approved partners dropped the league, and an exhibition game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets in Shanghai was stripped of any indication of Chinese approval. Even Nike pulled Rockets gear from its stores in China.

Desperate to stop the bleeding, the NBA turned to its biggest weapon:

“I don’t want to get in a word sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke. And so many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually.”

LeBron James, during a press conference

The Rockets were in Japan playing exhibitions at the height of the controversy. The team tried keeping players shielded from questions, but James Harden wasn’t reluctant to speak up as he stood alongside teammate Russell Westbrook:

“We apologize. We love China. We love playing there. Both of us, we go there once or twice a year. They show us most (the) support, so we appreciate them.”

James Harden