Inside the Shaquille O’Neal Taunt Controversy: A day-by-day account of the NBA “Ching-Chong” incident, from the man who started it all

Print Friendly

December 16, 2002. Morning.

I am awakened by a strange nightmare. Am I a boy again? I hear someone making degrading sounds towards me and all Chinese people. He sounds like a big guy. Will he now try to pound me into the pavement, just as other bullies have tried?

Wait, this is no dream, the voice emanates from my clock radio. It’s Shaquille O’Neal saying, “Tell Yao Ming, ‘Ngachangwahngwahh!’” I try and write down what he says, but I cannot transliterate all the gibberish correctly. I roll it around in my head, and it sickens me. After being woken up so harshly, it takes me a moment to figure out what is happening. Shaq’s taped message to Yao Ming is being re-played on the Tony Bruno Show, a syndicated Fox sports show.

“No one can understand what Yao says anyway,” quips Bruno as he equivocates that Shaquille O’Neal’s racial taunt may be construed as “insensitive” but that it certainly is “not racist.”

What? I want to destroy the radio, smash it into submission. Instead, I imagine 50 ways to hurt a racist basketball star.

December 17, 2002. Morning and afternoon.

Again I am woken up to Shaq’s racist taunt, as Bruno replays it several times. I learn that during last night’s game, the Miami Heat — in honor of Yao Ming’s first game in Miami — passed out 8,000 fortune cookies to fans. This promotion, along with Shaq’s racial taunt, is being used by Bruno and his guests as a springboard for a series of anti-Chinese jokes, as they offer their own Chinese-degrading promotional ideas. Bruno and crew have a joyous time with it all. One listener calls up to offer discounted dry cleaning when Yao plays in his town. Bruno adds, “No tickee, no washee.” Another caller says that free bike parking should be offered to the Chinese fans. It goes on and on.

For the last two days, I’ve been trying to call the Bruno Show, but the lines are clogged by racists. The Bruno Show ends, and on comes the most popular sports show in America, the Jim Rome Show, and for the second day in a row, I e-mail him to ask him if he has the guts to slam Shaq’s racism as he has slammed racism against other minorities. Rome only derides the Miami Heat for their fortune cookie promotion, asking if the Heat would pass out fried chicken in “honor” of a black player.

December 17-31, 2002.

I try to raise a stink about Shaq’s racism. I send out mass e-mails describing how “being a chink in this nation never ends.” I call the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA) in Los Angeles, Houston and in Washington D.C. The D.C. headquarters tells me that the organization is in the midst of wrapping up their work on the Trent Lott pro-segregation comment and that they are winding down for the holidays. They have assigned the Shaq issue to Eleanor Lee, who is out of the country and returns none of my e-mails. In correspondence with Clara Chiu of OCA Los Angeles, I lobby for quick and decisive media action on “this explosive issue,” but my pleas are channeled to Executive Director Christine Chen’s office to sit quietly in an inbox. Either the OCA considered the Shaq issue unimportant, or they simply wished to stay out of the media. I had to seek angrier APAs.

The National Asian American Student Conference (NAASCon) first came to my attention when they organized nationwide protests against last year’s racist Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts. Inspired by them, University of Texas Austin students and faculty organized a protest at a local Abercrombie store, during which we asked customers to refrain from shopping there. Incensed by Shaq’s comments, NAASCon Chair Bethany Li, a student and her fellow student organizers help spread the anger via the Internet.

As I continue my research, I discover what a racist brute Shaq truly is. He publicly threatened Yao with violence on two occasions and racially taunted Yao in the media on as many as three occasions. Thinking back to O’Neal’s attempt at punching Indiana Pacer Brad Miller from behind, I wonder what violence O’Neal might commit against a man whose race he disrespects.

I inform the Houston Chronicle about Shaq’s taunt, and a sports editor tells me that they won’t write about it unless they see it on the Associated Press wire. So I call AP Los Angeles, and their sports reporter waits for me to finish talking so that he can hang up. Sports Illustrated, supposedly the paragon of American sports journalism, refuses to return any of my calls or e-mails. Of course, the Los Angeles Times dares not stain the name of one of their cash cows — their attitude towards me screams out that the Times considers anti-Asian racism a non-story.

When I offer the story to AsianWeek, they snatch it up — asking me to write a guest column — which I write with vigor, hoping that my needling words might inspire APAs to protest at Lakers games or organize a press conference for Shaq to formally apologize. I send my finished column to AsianWeek, NAASCon and the OCA. NAASCon throws the column up on its website, and within 48 hours, it has circulated around the nation and is re-sent to me. Meanwhile, I desperately search for an APA organization to help me organize said press conference.

January 3, 2003.

AsianWeek publishes my guest column, “Tell Shaquille O’Neal to Come Down to Chinatown: Shaq’s ethnic slurs deeply offend one Yao fan.” Media begin contacting me.

January 10, 2003.

In the early morning hours, ESPN Insider publishes an online editorial by Chad Ford that quotes large passages from my AsianWeek column. Because ESPN Insider is read, as its title hints, by insiders of the sports media, sports writers all over the nation now know the Shaq slur story. The story is heavily reported on by LA-based media, including Jim Rome, who spends a whopping two hours on the story. Rome’s attention sets the tone for other sports media, and by the end of the day, radio shows all over the nation have discussed and argued over an issue few Americans hitherto have pondered: racism against Asians. By midnight, I have fielded calls and e-mails from media, organizations and individuals from all over the country. The national controversy officially launches.

Although I have phoned Shaq’s representatives about his racism over the last month, this evening he must address it directly. Trying to stem the heat without admitting wrongdoing, O’Neal strikes with every excuse in the book. He was trying to be funny, he claims, and some people obviously don’t have a sense of humor. Anti-Asian jokes have been cracked before, he asserts, and he wasn’t the first one. He’s not a racist, he declares, and people know that. And of course, there is the obligatory backhanded, “If I offended anyone, I’m sorry.”

January 11-17, 2003.

A Media Circus

My media campaign to draw attention to Shaq’s racial taunts has now succeeded beyond every conceivable objective. I speak by phone to the media from morning until night. Some days, I do not eat my first meal until late afternoon. Most media are sympathetic to my message. The climax of my participation in the media orgy is my appearance on MSNBC’s Jerry Nachman Show, wherein I describe what it was like as a child to be racially taunted while being kicked and spat upon by Shaq-esque tormentors.

One of the most common questions asked me is, “Is Shaq a racist?” At first I leave it up to the listeners to decide, but upon being forced to give an answer, I say yes, unless he apologizes sincerely and understands the wrongness of his actions, he is a racist.

Besides outrage, many APAs express a sense of liberation, for having their struggles against racism publicly recognized and validated. These sentiments strengthen my heart.

Bruno Gets Brutal.

Rather than apologizing to me for the series of racist jokes he featured on his show, Tony Bruno organizes a counterattack against me for criticizing his show in my AsianWeek column. As soon as the issue becomes a national controversy, Bruno’s producers begin pressuring me to appear on their program and claim that I lied in the column. When I tell them that I will not appear on the show unless I am provided a recording of Bruno’s Dec. 17 show, Bruno producer Evan Mandelbaum insists that they have no such tape. Mandelbaum calls back the next day and threatens to sue me for libel; again I refuse to appear on the show. Frustrated, Mandelbaum tells me he is going to send the tape of the Dec. 17 show to my “boss,” meaning AsianWeek editor, Neela Banerjee. “Please do,” I tell him. Of course, he never sends any tape.

On the morning of Wed., Jan. 15, I hear Tony Bruno telling his national audience my name, my city of residence and my employer. He talks with his co-hosts and a guest about my lack of journalistic integrity. Another Bruno producer (good cop) calls me and asks if I now want to be on the program to give my point of view. Again I insist on the tape. The tape has been disposed of, he tells me, and we hang up. Shortly thereafter I hear the voice of AsianWeek editor Banerjee on the Bruno Show. Bruno’s producers have apparently pressured her into getting on the air, in order to talk about the issue. When Bruno’s producers call me this time, I insist on going on the air to clear my name.

In our on-air conversation, Bruno explains that he allowed listeners and others to crack anti-Chinese jokes on his show as a way to demonstrate racism against APAs. I call him on this load of baloney. I explain to the audience that Bruno may have ostensibly been producing examples of racism, but in effect, his guests, his callers, and he himself were all enjoying a “racist funfest,” laughing and having a jolly good time while cracking MSG jokes and such. Bruno loses his temper and begins shouting at me, and I point out that he would have never allowed a series of callers to crack anti-black or anti-Jewish jokes on the air. A few minutes after I get off the radio, I receive an e-mail from a Bruno listener saying, “You never backed down, held your ground, and you are one of the most well-spoken, calm and collected guys I’ve ever heard on the radio.” The listener wrote that I had “opened his eyes” to anti-Asian racism. I write back to tell him that his e-mail makes my ulcer-in-progress well worth it.

The Press Conference.

In my Jan. 3 column, I called for a press conference during which Shaquille O’Neal would apologize to the APA community. After conversations with the LA Lakers and the Houston Rockets organizations, it becomes apparent that neither cares to deal with APA “issues.” They want the controversy to disappear so that they can concentrate on making money on basketball.

But OCA Houston is very much interested in doing something — they are just not sure what. On Jan. 10, the day the story goes national, OCA Houston president Charlene Tsai calls and asks me if I would like to help research a letter to the NBA. I tell her that I am busy handling the media mayhem, and that a letter will only be effective if it is accompanied by a multiracial press conference before the Jan. 17 LA-Houston basketball game. The American public must hear our voice.

At a Jan. 13 emergency meeting, the OCA Houston board of directors decides to organize the press conference in addition to sending a letter and petition to the NBA. Rogene Gee Calvert, city councilman Gordon Quan’s chief of staff, along with the other OCA members, unite most of Houston’s minority communities on the issue. But none of us can cajole the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), local or national to participate or even issue a statement. NAACP Houston President Howard Jefferson tells Calvert that the civil rights organization will not involve itself in an “international” affair. Interestingly, the NAACP had just one month previous bestowed upon Shaquille O’Neal a “Young Leaders Award.” The disinterest of the NAACP, along with the docility of the LA APA community, are the two most disappointing aspects of the entire Shaq snafu.

The OCA asks me to speak only during the Q&A session of the upcoming press conference, so I encourage them to broaden their message as much as possible; after all, Americans of all stripes suffer from ethnic and religious slurs.

Friday, Jan. 17 proves a magnificent day for a press conference — brilliant and windless, perfect for speaking through a microphone. One fan opens up a poster reading, “Senator Shaq Lott,” but is asked to put it away. The OCA, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Anti-Defamation League, and representatives from various Asian ethnic communities stand before Houston’s Compaq Center (the Rockets’ stadium), speaking to press from around the nation. Tsai, along with OCA national president Raymond Wong, demand a sincere apology from Shaquille O’Neal and reforms in the NBA’s race policies. I find the OCA statements too focused on Shaq — in the speed-of-light modern media, that perspective is old already. After the microphone is turned off, I launch my own, broader, broadside at the press: “In honor of Martin Luther King, whose holiday is coming up on Monday, we should eliminate all racial taunts and jokes from schools, from workplaces and from our national dialogue.” Indeed, for activists trying to build on the progress of this year, the larger goal should be getting written commitments from mass media, schools and employers to eliminate racism from the American conversation.

The BIG Game.

The Rockets win in an overtime thriller. Yao holds his own against Shaquille O’Neal, at least enough for the Rockets’ guard Steve Francis to take over the game with a career-high 44 points. Off a Francis pass, Yao slams home the game-winning dunk in overtime. During the second quarter of the game, ESPN commentators Tom Tolbert, Mike Tirico and Bill Walton (a Hall of Fame player) literally ignore the game and argue for several minutes about Shaq’s taunts. Although Tolbert claims that APAs should learn to laugh at themselves, Bill Walton lays out a tenet to live by: “There is no place for those kind of comments in our world, our culture, our society, by Shaq or anybody else.” Walton adds that Shaq’s apology was “unacceptable.”

After the game, Shaquille O’Neal refuses to apologize sincerely. He focuses the attention on me, calling me an “idiot writer trying to start a racial war.” O’Neal’s histrionics only bolster my hopefulness for the future. As the black Canadian commentator Mike Tirico said during the game, “All jokes are uncomfortable to each certain class, whether it’s race or religion. We are now more cognizant of the Asian population, their impact in the United States, and their concerns in this regard.”

And our impact in America will deepen, I hope, as we ensure that our concerns, and our dignity, are from now on, respectfully regarded.

About the Author