When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver went to the podium in Tokyo on Tuesday to answer questions about the international crisis his league has found itself in the middle of, he had already made an important choice. 

Instead of continuing acquiescence to Chinese political sensitivities that were stirred over a since-deleted tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in support of protests in Hong Kong, Silver put his league’s highly lucrative relationship with a country of 1.4 billion potential customers on the block and all but told China to deal with it. 

“The long-held values of the NBA are to support freedom of expression and certainly freedom of expression by members of the NBA community, and in this case, Daryl Morey as the general manager of the Houston Rockets enjoys that right as one of our employees,” Silver said. “What I also tried to suggest is I understand there are consequences from that exercise of, in essence, his freedom of speech and we’ll have to live with those consequences. It’s our hope that for our Chinese fans and our partners in China they’ll see those remarks in the context of now a three-decade if not longer relationship.”

It’s hard to know at this stage whether Silver changed course as a result of the backlash to the NBA’s initial squishiness or whether he had come to the realization over the course of the previous 24 hours that no amount of groveling was going to satisfy the interests that have complete control over how much or how little the league’s product is distributed in China. 

Either way, this much is clear: If the red line for China’s relationship with the NBA is this easily crossed — we’re talking about one comment by one league employee on a web site that is blocked on China’s Internet to begin with — how can you expect that relationship to last in the first place? 

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Though there’s certainly an argument to be made that the NBA has a social responsibility as an American cultural institution to stand up for free speech as well as the fragile rights of millions of Hong Kongers — many of whom also watch the NBA — you don’t really need to even delve into the politics to see why it’s critical for the NBA to draw its own line in the sand, even if it puts the Chinese market in jeopardy.

The NBA isn’t the first American entity to bend itself into ethical knots to keep China happy. But unlike an airline or a tech company with anonymous employees who do their jobs and go home, the NBA is uniquely situated in that its employees are public promoters with huge platforms who answer questions every day about all kinds of things. 

Though Morey’s tweet was certainly a self-inflicted situation, something like this was bound to happen. And if one tweet that isn’t even controversial to an American audience is enough to provoke the Chinese into suspending television deals and various business arrangements with the Houston Rockets, it’s truly worth wondering whether the NBA can really operate in that kind of environment without walking on political eggshells every time it sends a team over there for a game.

Though there will be a lot of bad-faith criticism of the NBA for being hypocritical from people who don’t like the league’s “wokeness,” the reality is that these kinds of uncomfortable arrangements are going to come with the territory of global expansion. And it’s not just China.

The NBA is currently partnering with FIBA to build a professional basketball league in Africa, which makes perfect sense for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that a country like Nigeria is projected to have a population of 400 million by 2050.

“I think ultimately it’s because of (the) transformational nature of digital media where in Africa, a continent of over a billion people, where there are something like 700 million cell phones, 400 million of which are smart phones,” Silver said at this year’s NBA Finals. “So we see enormous growth opportunities both in terms of players and for participation and ultimately an interest for the league.”

At the same time, though, Nigeria is a country where media are heavily censored by the government. It’s also a country where, for instance, LGBT people have practically no rights and can be imprisoned or executed. In a league where the commissioner and numerous players march in gay pride parades every year, you have to ask whether the NBA can really manage to be one thing here at home and something else to the rest of the world.

And that’s not an easy call because the NBA is the only American sports league that is positioned to make an impact on every single continent, and the financial implications of that pursuit are very real. But the compromises are, too, and Silver’s news conference was at least some indication that the NBA does have a breaking point.  

It may no longer be up to Silver what that means for doing business in China, but at least the NBA understands it can’t bend any further. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken