Several fans were escorted out of NBA preseason games this week after holding up signs and voicing support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong as the league grapples with the backlash over its statements in support of China.
At least three fans at games in Philadelphia and Washington, DC, reported being removed from the arenas, while others said officials confiscated their "Free Hong Kong" signs.
Patrick Hedger, 29, of Arlington, Virginia, told BuzzFeed News security officials at the Washington Wizards game asked him to leave Capital One Arena Wednesday night after he held up a sign and yelled "Free Hong Kong" inside the arena.
Hedger, who lived temporarily in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory in 2002 and 2011, said the ongoing protests — sparked by a bill that would have allowed extraditions to China — have been "breaking my heart."
After the NBA issued a statement saying that comments by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, who voiced support for the protesters in a now-deleted tweet, "deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China," Hedger said he felt compelled to act.
On Monday, he stood outside Capital One Arena carrying a sign denouncing the league.
When he learned that a Chinese team, the Guangzhou Loong Lions, would be playing the Wizards on Wednesday, he decided to take his protest into the arena.
During the Chinese National Anthem, Hedger stood silently in the stands, holding up his sign. Then as the arena grew quiet again he began to chant "Free Hong Kong."
Soon after, a member of the arena's security team approached him and asked him to leave.
"They said you need to put your sign down or leave," Hedger recalled, adding that security escorted him out of the arena. "I would have been kicked out if I had continued to hold my sign."
On Tuesday, Sam Wachs, 33, told CNN he and his wife were removed from the Philadelphia 76ers game at the Wells Fargo Center, also against the Guangzhou team, after he held up a sign and chanted "Free Hong Kong."
"They told me 'no politics'," Wachs said. "I asked why and they told me not to give them a hard time. A little after the signs were taken away, I stood in my seat and chanted "Free Hong Kong" until security escorted us out."
Other fans at Wednesday's Wizards game reported having their signs confiscated in the arena.
In a statement provided to BuzzFeed News, the 76ers said two individuals were escorted out of the arena Tuesday night because they were disrupting "the fan experience."
"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 statement said. "Ultimately, the decision was made by Wells Fargo Center personnel to remove the guests from the premises, which was accomplished without incident."
Scott Hall, a spokesperson for the Wizards, told BuzzFeed News that security staff removed signs from the arena during Wednesday's game in accordance with the arena's policies, which state that guests are not permitted to bring signs that are "commercial or political in nature."
Hall denied Hedger's claim that he was kicked out of the arena, saying no fans were asked to leave the game.
A spokesperson for the NBA declined to comment on the protests, deferring to the individual teams and arenas.
Hedger, a research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a DC-based nonprofit think tank, said he wasn't surprised by the response to his protest, but questioned officials' actions.
"I don't see how it was any more or less disruptive than an average NBA fan holding up a sign and screaming at the players and those people don't get kicked out," he said. "It was pretty deliberate that they didn't want to deal with this particular issue."