- Tom Archdeacon columnist
Rong Niu quietly said what everyone in UD Arena was thinking:
“This is nervous time.”
Out on the court, the Dayton Flyers — who had jumped out to a 12-0 lead on Davidson — had watched the Wildcats surge back with 11 straight points in less than three minutes.
And now their Atlantic 10 rivals wouldn’t go away. With 7:21 left before halftime, Peyton Aldridge had just hit a 3-pointer to keep Davidson within one.
You could sense Niu’s nerves, but it wasn’t about the basketball being played on Blackburn Court.
It was the stack of white bowls resting on her head.
She had just left her cramped dressing room — where “Welcome Back to Dayton” had been scrawled on a small board on the wall — and now was crouched in the hallway next to the door to the Davidson dressing room.
She wore a short lavender frock and white heels. Her black hair was pulled into a pony tail, above which rested the dinnerware. Propped against a nearby wall was her 7 ½-foot unicycle.
She said she was imprinting the feel, the balance of the bowls. After a couple of minutes, she removed them, stood up and then bent forward at the hip in an exaggerated stretch.
“I want to do perfect,” she had said earlier. “That’s why nervousness. It’s unpredictable. There’s always a 20 to 25 percent chance I won’t make it. And then I am upset.”
Back on the court, during a timeout, the PA announcer told the crowd: “Please stay at halftime for the return of the Red Panda!”
That’s Rong’s performing name, and although she would be competing with the concession stands and restrooms for fans’ attention, she would hold sway with most of the crowd of 13,173 during intermission.
Of the acts that populate the halftime sideshow stage, from the Frisbee-catching dogs and trampoline dunkers to the Simon Says guy and those little girl jump-ropers, the Red Panda is the most respected, most beloved in all of basketball.
Astride that tall unicycle, she rides around the floor and then in an ever-increasing succession, kicks those bowls — one, then two, three, four and finally five — into a towering stack atop her head.
She first started learning the rudiments of the trick from her late father when she was 7 back in China. It took her seven years to learn the five-bowl feat — more to perfect it — and now basketball crowds at college and NBA arenas across the nation marvel at it each season.
Three nights before Dayton, she was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama for the Tides’ game with Mississippi State. Saturday night she’s at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles when UCLA hosts Stanford.
As she sat in the dressing room before Tuesday’s game, she reached into one of the two suitcases with which she travels — the unicycle breaks down into three sections — and pulled out a paper that held her itinerary.
She has no entourage, no helper. She goes alone from her San Francisco home.
Already this month she’s performed at the University of Oklahoma, Orlando Magic, University of Missouri, Grand Canyon University, Milwaukee Bucks, LSU, Virginia, Texas, and St. Louis.
After UCLA comes Creighton, Clemson, Michigan State and then USC.
The schedule is just as full in February, after which comes her annual trips to to the ACC and Big Ten tournaments, the NBA playoffs and sometimes the Finals.
She’s been doing basketball halftimes for a quarter century now, so you wondered what still drives her each night.
Is it the applause? The memory of her father, who died almost four years ago? Or, that always gnawing pursuit of perfection?
“That’s a very good question,” she said before a few moments of silent contemplation.
“Of course there’s my father and the applause, but really it’s the perfection,” she admitted. “I want to make it perfect. That’s why every single night … the nervous time.”
A career is born
Rong was born in the Shanxi Province in northern China. Her parents were acrobats, her mother a third generation performer. Her father first taught her to ride a unicycle and then, while pedaling, to balance a bowl on her head and another against her shin.
At age 9 she was admitted to a special government-funded boarding school for Chinese arts. Her parents were instructors there and she began to practice six days a week, seven hours a day.
“My father say, ‘OK, this is tradition,’ and we added one bowl and then another and another,” she said. “We tried different angles, then flipping. After a few times, one went it! And it was, ‘OK, this is possible!’
“I just practice, practice, practice and the percentages got higher and we added more bowls until I could do four.”
When she was 16, she was invited to join the prestigious Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe, which she’s described as “the NBA of acrobats.”
At 19, she decided to move to the United States even though she had no contacts and barely spoke English. She settled in San Francisco and to keep up her skill, she performed for free wherever she could.
She was spotted by an agent at a parade in Chinatown and together they came up with a stage name.
Red is the color of good fortune in China and the panda is the national animal of her homeland. Soon after, the Red Panda got an offer to perform at Disney World in Florida.
Back in San Francisco she got a call on Thanksgiving in 1993 from the Los Angeles Clippers. Their halftime act for that day’s game had canceled. Could she fill in?
She hopped a flight, was a rousing success and a career was born.
In 2013, she made the semifinals of the America’s Got Talent TV show but dropped out when her father — her parents now lived in America — was diagnosed with cancer.
She cared for him until he died in May 2014 and then looked out for her mother who was saddened by the loss and dealing with her own issues.
As she tried to regain her competitive form, Rong fell off the unicycle and suffered a badly broken left wrist.
Out of commission nearly two years, she finally returned for the 2015-16 college and NBA basketball seasons, including another trip to UD Arena.
Not quite perfect
Rong had taken a redeye from San Francisco and got to Dayton early Tuesday morning. She practiced with Dayton marketing intern Tom Sweet briefly at the Arena that afternoon and then walked back over for the game from the Marriott Courtyard, lugging her big suitcases behind her through the cold and snow.
In front of the halftime crowd, though, she was a different person.
She was the Red Panda.
She climbed a ladder set up in front of the basket near the student section, slipped onto the unicycle as traditional Chinese music filled the arena and began to pedal around the floor, arms extended as if to say “Hello” to the crowd.
As soon as she balanced one bowl on her head, Sweet promptly tossed her another and she flipped it up to cheers. Once she got to three, a guy in the stands behind the Davidson bench told everyone nearby, “OK, here we go!”
After she successfully did them, the UD pep band stood and cheered enthusiastically. Then she readied for four.
“Best entertainment of the year,” said Tony Caruso, the UD equipment manager, who watched from the visitors’ tunnel.
When the four landed perfectly, Rong exhaled a “wooo” of relief. Finally, there were the five. The crowd counted each bowl tossed up to her.
As she worked one unicycle pedal back and forth to stay upright, she balanced the five on her right leg, got in rhythm, swung her leg and finally launched the bowls.
Three clattered out of the stack and hit the floor. You could see the disappointment on her face, but she quickly commanded Sweet to grab the bowls and toss them again.
She was worried she was going to overshoot her 5 ½-minute time limit and didn’t want to end on a miss. She was rushing now, but the crowd was urging her on.
“C’mon you got it,” someone yelled.
And she did.
The next kick was perfect.
The crowd erupted with a standing ovation. She mouthed a “thank you” and patted her heart to show appreciation.
As she headed for the tunnel, the Red Scare students did exaggerated bows. People leaned over the tunnel railing to high-five her.
Back in the hallway, she found herself dwarfed by Davidson’s 6-foot-11 Will Magarity and the 6-8 Aldridge, who were about to retake the court and try for a comeback that would match hers.
It wouldn’t happen. Dayton won, 65-64.
“The crowd is just so encouraging, so sweet,” she said with a smile that soon faded a bit. “But aaaaaaw, I was not perfect today. I wish I’d given them more. I wish I was perfect.”
As she shook her head, you saw a rarity — her second miss of the day.
More? She could not have given more.
With this crowd she was more than perfect.
She was fully beloved.