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LeBron Memes, Merch Go Viral After Lakers Star Wades Into China Spat

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) - The LeBron James brand is taking a hit this week among fans both in Hong Kong and stateside over his comments about free speech - but it's also making him the face of whole new viral campaign.

James injected himself into a growing international controversy after he suggested free speech for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong can "carry "a lot of negative."

Fans gathered across basketball courts amid Hong Kong's high-rise buildings Tuesday to vent their anger, which echoed throughout social media as well.

Within hours of James' comments Monday, Barstool Sports started selling its "China King Tee" featuring the Lakers' star wearing a Communist-era Chinese military cap.

Various memes depicting LeBron as a communist sympathizer also surfaced.

James made his comments in response to a question about whether Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey should be punished for his tweet that reverberated in China and had consequences for the NBA.

"Yes, we do have freedom of speech," James said. "But at times, there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you're not thinking about others, when you only think about yourself."

Some seized on James' comments as hypocritical in light of the star's business interests in China, where he toured last year for Nike Basketball as part of a lifetime endorsement deal with the sneaker company that could reportedly earn him more than $1 billion.

In addition to his starring role in the upcoming Warner Bros. pic "Space Jam 2" - which was reportedly green-lit with the Chinese box office partly in mind - James' team has a multi-year partnership with Wish, an e-commerce platform which connects manufacturers in China to customers in the U.S. and other markets.

It's not the first time James has been criticized for his stance on China.

During his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2008, James opted not to join his teammates in signing an open letter by teammate Ira Newble that called on fellow players to push China to change its policies regarding its role in Darfur.

Only James and teammate Damon Jones refused to sign the letter.

Protesters said James' comments smacked of a double-standard, because he's used his clout as a sports headliner to press for social causes in the United States.

"Please remember, all NBA players, what you said before: 'Black lives matter.' Hong Kong lives also matter!" one of the protesters, 36-year-old office worker William Mok, said in addressing the applauding crowd.

Others said LeBron's comments made it seem that he's more worried about money than people.

"James was trying, you know, to take a side, on the China side, which is like ridiculous," said Aaron Lee, a 36-year-old marketing director. "He was being honest, financially. Financial is money. Simple as that. LeBron James stands for money. Period."

(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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