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Watch Pizza Collection sing about...pizza

The members of Pizza Collection sing songs about pizza

When Wachs isn’t busy protesting China’s crackdown on Hong Kong, he and his friends make songs about pizza as part of Pizza Collection. Check out a few of their greatest hits below, then delve into the whole catalogue here.

 

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To The Daily break down the NBA's history in China

The New York Times’s Europe editor Jim Yardley, author of Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing, talks to The Daily’s Michael Barbara about China’s 30-year infatuation with basketball—and how one tweet put that all in jeopardy.

Listen here.

Citizen of the Week: Sam Wachs

The Sixers fan was kicked out of a game last week for protesting China’s crackdown on Hong Kong. Does his team have something against freedom?

The Sixers fan was kicked out of a game last week for protesting China’s crackdown on Hong Kong. Does his team have something against freedom?

Not too long ago, public pronouncements in favor of freedom and liberty were kinda the American brand. But these are strange times. When Daryl Morey, general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, tweeted something not, on the face of it, the least bit controversial—“Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong”—all hell broke loose for the sports league, which has a multibillion dollar deal with China.

Prefer the audio version of this story? Listen to this article in CitizenCast below:

A bit of background: In contrast with the stodgy NFL, the NBA has embraced progressivism, its players forcing out a racist owner and wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts in the wake of the death of Eric Garner at the hands of police.

That’s why it felt odd, and smacked of hypocrisy, when the league initially seemed to blink in the face of the Chinese backlash to the tweet, calling it “regrettable” after the Chinese Basketball Association severed ties with the Rockets and the country’s state broadcaster refused to air the NBA exhibition games in China last week, as planned.

That kind of market-based bullying is consistent with the Chinese playbook. Fearing just such reaction, fashion companies including Versace and Calvin Klein have in recent months apologized for listing Chinese territories, including Hong Kong and Tibet, as independent countries on their websites or clothing, and American Airlines removed references to Taiwan from its website.

For the NBA, the inconvenient fact is that Beijing has brutally cracked down on Hong Kong freedom protesters, and you can’t boldly champion criminal justice reform in the U.S., as our Sixers have rightly done, and then go all mealy-mouthed when it comes to human rights abuses in countries where you’re now exporting your product.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver—normally silver-tongued when it comes to mouthing all the right progressive platitudes—followed his league’s initial “regrettable” reaction by underscoring that the NBA supports its players’ and employees’ free speech rights. “It is inevitable that people around the world—including from America and China—will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences,” Silver said. “However, the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.”

Some praised Silver for publicly endorsing the right of those in his employ to say that they’re in favor of freedom. Yes, it was more than the NFL had done in the case of Colin Kaepernick. But that’s kind of a low bar, no? There’s a difference between defending Morey’s right to say what he said, and publicly stating that what he said was right—and the difference between the two may involve the fact that one option capitalizes on the multi-billion dollar Chinese market.

VideoFor the NBA, the inconvenient fact is that Beijing has brutally cracked down on Hong Kong freedom protesters, and you can’t boldly champion criminal justice reform in the U.S., as our Sixers have rightly done, and then go all mealy-mouthed when it comes to human rights abuses in countries where you’re now exporting your product.

That’s why I reached out to Sixers’ fan Sam Wachs, who last week exhibited the type of moral clarity one wishes Silver and the NBA had shown. The 33-year-old video and podcast producer and his wife (who has requested to remain nameless) attended the Sixers’ exhibition game against a Chinese team at the Wells Fargo Center in order to protest Beijing’s crackdown after the Morey tweet controversy hit. Security seized their “Free Hong Kong” signs and ultimately ejected them. Here’s an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Larry Platt: Are you a Sixers fan?

Sam Wachs: I’m a huge Sixers fan, a lifelong fan. I also follow the news and politics, but I don’t even call what’s happening in Hong Kong politics. It’s really a human-rights issue. I spent two years in my twenties teaching middle school English in Hong Kong, and some of my former students are participating in the protests. So when Daryl Morey had to delete his tweet it was eye-opening just how many compromises the NBA has had to make in order to do business with China. It struck a nerve.

Sam Wachs, who was kicked out of a Sixers game for protesting China, poses with students in Hong Kong
Wachs with students in Hong Kong, where he spent two years teaching middle school English

LP: So did you decide to go to the game expressly to protest?

SW: Yeah. I was pretty angry that the NBA had let this invade my entertainment, you know? This wasn’t about basketball, it was all about money. The media coverage and the NBA’s reaction to the Chinese reaction echoed Chinese misinformation—that criticism is an attack on “Chinese sovereignty”—when in fact the real issues are about freeing political prisoners, ending police brutality and ending the face mask ban. But what could I do here in Philadelphia? Well, when I checked the schedule I saw the Sixers were playing a team from China at home and I could get inexpensive seats right behind their bench.

LP: Did you have a game plan going in?

SW: I read the Wells Fargo policies beforehand, which were pretty vague. I knew this wasn’t something they would have wanted. So we disguised our signs. On the outside, they read “Go 76ers” but we velcro’d them together, and on the inside of one it read “Free Hong Kong” and the other said “Free HK.” I wore a sweatshirt over my “Free Hong Kong” T-shirt. When the game began, we put our face masks on—the kind protestors are banned from wearing in Hong Kong—and sat silently, holding our signs up. We weren’t blocking anyone’s view. After about 10 minutes, security came over and said we’d have to give them our signs, or we’d have to go. This was pretty funny: I gave them the “Free Hong Kong” sign, but told them the “Free HK” sign actually stood for “Free [legendary late Phillies broadcaster] Harry Kalas.”

 

LP: You’re kidding me. The guard bought that?

SW: He didn’t seem prepared for it. He said, “Isn’t he dead?” [Laughing] He went away with the one sign and came back a few minutes later, saying I’d have to give him the Harry Kalas one, too.

Read MoreLP: That’s hilarious. What was the reaction of the fans around you?

SW: Everyone was pretty supportive. I had a nice chat with the guy next to us. Another couple said, “We appreciate what you’re doing.” There were about six or eight fans of the Chinese team behind their bench and they were swearing at us. “Don’t talk about Hong Kong!” They said. They called us cowards for wearing the masks. I said, “These are legal here, China hasn’t banned them here.”

LP: So how’d you get ejected?

SW: They took the signs midway through the second quarter. We decided to just stand and chant “Free Hong Kong!” and after about two minutes, security came back and led us out. The security guys were just doing their jobs and they were professional and polite. We didn’t go to the game with the premeditation of getting kicked out, but by then it seemed like that would be good, that getting ejected would be the best way to call attention to China’s human rights abuses and how the NBA was handling it.

LP: When did you know you’d made an impact?

SW: It started blowing up on Twitter. Soon, we were hearing from NBC, CNN, The Ringer. USA Today picked it up. We even got a request to be interviewed from Tucker Carlson, which we ignored.

We didn’t go to the game with the premeditation of getting kicked out, but by then it seemed like that would be good, that getting ejected would be the best way to call attention to China’s human rights abuses and how the NBA was handling it.

LP: Tell me about you. You’re passionate about the Sixers and Hong Kong—what else?

SW: I moved back here from L.A. five or six years ago, I produce podcasts and videos for a nonprofit. Oh, and this is pretty dumb: I’m part of The Pizza Collection; we spread the joy of pizza through song. I think we have the largest collection of pizza songs. When the original Beddia was closing, we held a “Pizza For All” rally, singing pizza songs for everyone waiting in line. They were pizza hostages—had to listen to us.

Custom HaloLP: Very funny. It’s good to hear you take human rights abuses seriously, but you don’t take yourself too seriously.

SW: I feel like we kind of made maximum impact with this protest. I mean, I don’t expect China is going to back down or that the NBA is going to say, “We’re cool with losing $4 billion.” But if there are more people who are curious now about what’s going on in Hong Kong, that’s a good thing. And, if I’m being really honest, I really just wanted to annoy the NBA.

LP: You did a gutsy thing here, speaking truth to power. We need more citizens doing what you did.

SW: What we did didn’t take courage. My former students who are protesting in Hong Kong, they’re really brave and up against some scary forces. I’m not too optimistic for them.

LP: You know, it wasn’t always like this. For years, the Flyers and Sixers were owned by the late Ed Snider. In the ’70s, the Soviet National Team came here for an internationally televised exhibition game and most people thought they left the ice during the game in protest because the Flyers played so rough. In reality, they left because Snider allowed local activists to wave “Free Soviet Jewry” signs throughout the stadium—a protest that was televised back to the Soviet Union.

SW: Wow. That’s really interesting. I didn’t know that.

Do SomethingLP: And the Soviet team only came back on the ice after Snider told them that they wouldn’t get paid if they stormed off. So, back then, the Communists were the ones lacking in character who had sold their soul for the almighty dollar.

SW: You know, I want to make clear I really do love the Sixers. Like, we missed Ben Simmons hitting the first three-pointer of his career—we got kicked out before he took the shot. And every one making a big deal of his three pointer really kind of bothers me. Like, if I was him, I’d feel insulted. He’s 23 and already an all-star.

LP: You’re a good fan—did you feel conflicted protesting your team?

SW: Totally. A part of me was, like, “I love the Sixers — what am I doing?” If it’s tricky for me as a fan, how complicated must it be when billions of dollars are at stake?

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Photo courtesy Sam Wachs

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