The open letter to NBA commissioner Adam Silver came from eight US lawmakers as politically diverse as Ted Cruz of Texas and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York, both from states with multiple NBA teams.
"You have more power to take a stand than most of the Chinese government's targets and should have the courage and integrity to use it," the letter said.
"It's not unreasonable to expect American companies to put our fundamental democratic rights ahead of profit."
The letter comes in the wake of a since-deleted tweet from Rockets general manager Daryl Morey supporting Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters.
That prompted the Chinese government to end sponsorships for the team and league and drop planned NBA telecasts in China, huge NBA logos and banner being stripped off buildings a sign of the anger.
After early NBA statements were seen as overly capitulating, Silver said, "I understand there are consequences from ... his freedom of speech. We will have to live with those consequences. As a league, we're not willing to compromise those values."
The full cost might not be known for months, with the NBA having made lucrative deals to a nation of 1.4 billion that loves basketball. But the lawmakers demanded values win over profits.
"Equivocating when profits are at stake is a betrayal of fundamental American values," the lawmakers wrote. "That you have more potential fans in China than in Hong Kong is no excuse for bending over backwards to express 'sensitivity' only to one side."
Lawmakers urged Silver to take four steps to harden the NBA's stance against China's retaliatory moves, most notably shutting down NBA activities in China, where two pre-season exhibition games were slated to be played.
"The NBA should have anticipated the challenges of doing business in a country run by a repressive single party government, including by being prepared to stand in strong defense of the freedom of expression of its employees, players, and affiliates across the globe," the lawmakers wrote.
They also pushed for an end to punishments to the Rockets, saying the NBA must be united against "future efforts by Chinese government-controlled entities to single out individual teams, players, or associates for boycotts or selective treatment."
That would also include NBA stars with major sponsor deals in China, including LeBron James, James Harden and now-retired Kobe Bryant.
Lawmakers want Silver to "re-evaluate" having an NBA Academy in Xinjiang, "where up to a million Chinese citizens are held in concentration camps as part of a massive government-run campaign of ethno-religious repression." About 240 teens are housed in the education and fitness centers.
Lawmakers fear self-censorship
The threat of capitulating on free speech issues to Chinese Communist Party censorship by the NBA and other businesses was a major emphasis for lawmakers.
"We would hope to see Americans standing up and speaking out in defense of the rights of the people of Hong Kong," the letter said, saying pressure on Morey to back away from his tweet "sold out an American citizen."
"We are deeply concerned that individuals associated with the league may now engage in self-censorship that is inconsistent with American and the league's stated values.
"This is an outcome that Americans reject, and one that you should reject -- especially given that the NBA represents a unique brand for which there is no competition inside or outside China."
A hard split could leave basketball-hungry fans in China struggling for banished NBA news, much like baseball fans in Communist Cuba struggled for news on US major league teams.
Lawmakers asked Silver to support the rights for all NBA players, staff, partners and fans to express their opinions no matter the economic repercussions and stress that while Chinese law will be respected in China, American laws and principles will govern global NBA operations.
They also want Silver to clarify in NBA documents that "public commentary on international human rights repression -- including in Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang --falls within expected standards of public behavior and expression."