CHICAGO – Before the controversy between the NBA and China started, a play mirroring similar themes has been running at Steppenwolf Theatre.
“The Great Leap” is set in China at the height of the Tiananmen Square student protests. It’s about a 1989 exhibition basketball game between college teams from Beijing and San Fransisco to make a statement about protesting, politics and the pick and roll.
"I thought it was interesting that the collision of real life and life in this play were coinciding,” actor James Seol said.
The play centers on a talented basketball player from San Francisco’s Chinatown named Manford, who convinced a college coach to let him play on the team.
"It highlights specifically the culture differences between east and west,” actress Deanna Myers said. “And how we view free speech."
Sanford goes on the basketball trip to China, where he finds himself swept up in the protest and possibly barred from playing.
The play has similar themes to what’s going on between the NBA and China after Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, a Northwestern graduate, tweeted “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
The fallout has been swift since Morey tweeted support, with stars like LeBron James speaking out against him.
It was intended to be a message of solidarity with protestors, who have engaged in a months-long anti-government demonstration in the Chinese territory.
Instead, it was interpreted as official criticism and opposition of the Chinese government by the NBA. The league now is in the position of risking access to a market of 1.4 billion people.
President Trump fueled the fire at home, by criticizing former Chicago Bulls guard and current Warriors head coach Steve Kerr.
The international firestorm is raising bigger questions. Some critics say major sports have become stand-in symbols of American freedom and “soft power” as much as Hollywood movies.
The play runs through Sunday at Steppenwolf. For more information, click here.