Shaquille O’Neil: the ugly American – From Courtside

Brett Ballantini

WHEN I SAT DOWN TO INTERview Shaquille O’Neal a year ago, I didn’t know what to expect. He was the biggest star in the game, boosting two title rings on his fingers and a Superman logo on his arm. His game was undeniably Impressive. But what of the man?

After talking with Shaq, I came away as impressed with his character and candor as I was with his game. I’d hoped we could forge a connection through humor, so after the pregame part of our interview was finished I handed O’Neal a Crunch bar with the suggestion, “For later.” I got a laugh. (And after the game, the bar was no longer in his locker.)

Now I see someone different. I see O’Neal even more clearly. I see a man colored by his racism.

I have been teased at times for being too soft-handed with athletes. But to tear the game down indiscriminately serves no purpose. If given a choice between digging for dirt and polishing the positive, I’ll shine every time. The world can be an ugly enough place without me crowing about it.

But that makes it all the more important that O’Neal’s comments about Yao Ming not go unanswered.

All season, O’Neal has been tiptoeing the line of racism with regard to Yao and other Asian players. He has used a derogatory “Asian” accent on more than one occasion–most notably on the already-embarrassing “Best Damn Sports Show, Period,” where he punctuated his ignorance with “kung fu” gesture He’s directed threats of violence toward Yao that fall outside the boundaries of the floor, worse than anything the much-abused O’Neal faces with “Hack-a-Shag.” He claims Yao “called him out” twice in Chinese and once in “American.” Subtle, Shaq.

Taken independently, you might be able to absolve O’Neal of everything but a bit of bravado. Perhaps he’s threatened by this immensely talented young star. Perhaps he’s putting the young fella in his place, reminding the world that Yao will have to earn his stripes and not just be coronated.

Taken in sum, however, it’s racism. All O’Neal’s bluster and fury and ignorance came to a head in early January when he instructed reporters–his adoring extended posse–“Tell Yao Ming, `Ching-chongyang-ah-soh.'”

Shame on him. O’Neal is by far the biggest talent in the league, a force comparable to Wilt Chamberlain in the history of the NBA. He’s a three-time champion and Finals MVP He knows the basketball world hangs on his every word, that the NBA’s international face is his face first and foremost, and this is what he fetes us with: “Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh.”

Mocking people for their race, color, gender, ethnic background or heritage is the most insidious thing one can do. There are no exceptions.

Surely O’Neal has had hateful words directed at him, and suffered countless acts of racism. And that makes his behavioral the more unacceptable. O’Neal has every, right to talk trash about Yao’s early accolades or a particular weakness in his game–that’s part and parcel in the NBA. But to attack another person’s humanity is the most cowardly of acts.

Asian and Asian-Americans are made acceptable targets of racism in all walks of American life. O’Neal is by no means alone in his racism. Fox Sports Radio’s Tony Bruno defender O’Neal’s earlier racist taunts in December and then invited listeners to further the insult by with what to mildly veiled taunts of their own.

ABC’s Christmas Day broadcast of the Boston Celtics and New Jersey Nets was marred by Brent Musburger’s hand-wringing over the prospect of “the hordes of China” voting Yao as the West’s All-Star starter over O’Neal. For Yao’s first game in Miami on December 16, the Heat “honored” Yao by passing out 8,000 fortune Cookies–the quintessential Asian stereotype–to spectators. ESPN was promoting its first Houston Rockets-Lakers telecast in mid-January with countless fired references to a “Ming Dynasty” and the “Emperor” vs. the kings.” Ugh.

To his credit, Yao has remained gracious even in the face of O’Neal’s increasing ugliness. “There are a lot of difficulties in two different cultures understanding each other,” he says. “I believe Shaquille O’Neal was joking with what he said, but I think a lot of Asian people don’t understand this kind of joke.” And as for whether O’Neal should apologize, Yao says, “That’s something heal have to decide for himself.”

Naturally, O’Neal dismissed any controversy his racist remarks created by insisting that he has a “sense of humor,” something that anyone he offended obviously lacked. I wonder how his opinion might change if I shuck and jive my way up to him the next time L.A. comes to town.

I also can’t help but question the purported respect O’Neal has for coach Phil Jackson when the very culture Shaq mocks defines much of PJ’s character as a man and teachings as a coach.

The NBA strives to be on the cutting edge of globalization, boasting international players every bit as talented as America’s best stars. Asians comprise of the world population. O’Neal’s racism, and the NBA’s willingness to look the other way in response, could slam the door shut on basketball’s biggest market.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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