Web Exclusives: From the P-Nut Gallery
a column by Nate Sellwyn nsellyn@princeton.edu

January 29, 2003:

The Big Bigot?

Racism rears its head on basketball court once again

By Nate Sellyn '03

Shaquille O'Neal — a.k.a. Big Daddy, a.k.a. Diesel, a.k.a. Shaq Fu, a.k.a. Ad Nauseum — found himself in a 338-lbs. pot of boiling water last week. A man accustomed to the media frenzy as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, O'Neal was particularly busy leading up to his team's game against the Houston Rockets on January 17. Houston, of course, features 7'-5" rookie sensation Yao Ming, the NBA's first Asian player. Yao is touted by some as the NBA's second greatest center, and this was his first matchup with the reigning king of the league's big men. Thus, O'Neal found himself on every nationally syndicated sports show in America, including "The Dan Patrick Show" on ESPNRadio.

Said Patrick, "We laughed and joked and poked fun at ourselves as well as others whom he and/or I know on a personal level. Yao was no exception. And at the conclusion of the interview, when Shaq lightheartedly mocked the Chinese dialect, we all laughed." Everyone in the studio, that is.

The resulting uproar from the Asian-American community almost drowned out the noise of the NFL playoffs.

Shaq's "lighthearted mocking" consisted of several derogatory comments, the most publicized being, "Tell Yao Ming, 'Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh,'" which was accompanied with approximated kung-fu moves.

Wow, right? Horrible! Twenty-game suspension! Get the lummox out of the NBA! One California writer even compared O'Neal to Senator Trent Lott. But the P-Nut believes this was a little over the line.

The NBA didn't step in at all, and they were — for once — correct not to discipline. O'Neal isn't a big bigot. He's just a big idiot.

O'Neal is one of the funniest guys in the NBA, often unintentionally — as the various monikers he has bestowed upon himself at one time or another reveal. This is simply an incident where he didn't realize he was going to offend someone, and went too far to get a laugh.

Was it racist? Yes, but he didn't realize it would be, and he certainly learned the error of his ways. O'Neal's coach Phil Jackson felt the same way, "It's an unfortunate situation," he told reporters. "I'm sure that Shaq had no meaning like that behind it. I'm sure he was just doing something that was fun loving or something he thought was humorous."

Furthermore, O'Neal was honest and sincere in his apologies, both to the media and to Yao Ming. O'Neal learned how to say, "I'm sorry" in Chinese and apologized personally to Ming before the game.

Ming was put in a difficult position by the comments. He's not the kind of guy to take a great deal of offense. However, if he shrugged Shaq off, the Asian-American community would accuse him of becoming Americanized.

Ming ended up being a class act throughout. Since the start of the season, he has been a comedian himself, in both Chinese and English. When asked about the comments, he downplayed them with grace. "There are a lot of difficulties in two different cultures understanding each other. Especially two very large countries," he told the press. "The world is getting smaller, and I think it's important to have a greater understanding of other cultures. I believe Shaquille O'Neal was joking, but I think that a lot of Asian people don't understand that kind of joke." Then he added, "Chinese is hard to learn. I had trouble with it when I was little."

It's amazing how much more media attention this has received than some of the things O'Neal has deliberately done. Last Christmas, for example, he spent $500,000 from his own wallet to load up a rented truck with high-tech gifts. Then he drove around Compton, a poor Los Angeles neighborhood, and handed out the presents to children. Didn't read about that one, right? NBA players — despite what Charles Barkley may want you to believe — are role models, and they are responsible for their actions and words. O'Neal is a fantastic role model when he tries to be. It's a shame how this incident, and his inability to think before speaking, overshadowed that.

What's the Princeton connection? Well, racism in basketball has to remind Tiger fans of last year's game at Yale. Who can forget how the crowd taunted Princeton guard Will Venable '05, calling out 'token' every time he stepped on the floor. With Andre Logan '04 injured, Venable was the only African-American player dressed for Princeton. This, without question, was a real incident of sports racism, from a group of people who should unquestionably know better. O'Neal can be excused, Yale can't. More amazingly, Shaq apologized, but Yale students have yet to.


You can reach Nate at nsellyn@Princeton.EDU