Why Shaq Is Not Funny

By Dennis Herrera
[Originally published in the San Francisco Examiner, January 16, 2003]
I’ve made it a general rule in life to avoid public criticism of people whose height exceeds my own by more than a foot-and-a-half. And the fact that I’m about to break that rule in no way diminishes the compelling wisdom of a principle that has served me well throughout my career in law and, more recently, politics.

Now I’m certainly not feigning political heroism here. I am, after all, a San Franciscan. Disparaging Los Angeles-based sports teams in this town is just another way we strike up conversation. Few such gripes rise to the level of social significance, of course, and fewer still are worthy subjects for political commentary.

But this one is. And let me tell you why.

It starts with remarks made by Shaquille O’Neal, star center for the Los Angeles Lakers, a Hall of Famer-to-be and — like many players in (and out of) the NBA — a world-class trash talker. Now I’m not editorializing against trash talking per se. For good or bad, it’s no less a part of professional basketball than it is law or politics. Unfortunately, several comments Shaq has made in recent months take trash talking to a new, decidedly unprecedented low.

Shaq’s intended target was Yao Ming, rookie center for the Houston Rockets, the season’s No. 1 draft pick and — like many players in (and out of) the NBA — a young man whose language fluency is principally limited to his native tongue. Which, for this 22-year-old Chinese national newly arrived from Shanghai, happens to be Mandarin. Which happens to be the most widely spoken language on the planet.

Shaq’s first controversial remark came on Fox Sports last June when he announced, “Tell Yao Ming, ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-so”-Chinese-sounding gibberish in a mock Chinese accent that he punctuated with kung-fu moves, just to make the ethnic mockery complete. A more recent example reportedly came on ESPN last month, when Shaq, again affecting a mock Chinese accent, boasted to a wincing national audience: “Yo, Wah Ching or whatever your name is: ching-chong-waah-ah-so! Come and get it.”

It bears noting here that slurs such as these against Yao Ming are far from a universal sentiment in (or out of) the NBA. Former Laker great Magic Johnson predicted at the beginning of the season, “I think Yao Ming will make probably the biggest impact of any player ever coming from international basketball.” And he’s been right so far. Ming received more votes from fans (including me) for NBA All-Star than any center in the league (including Shaq). Sports Illustrated dubbed Ming, “The Next Big Thing.” And Houston Rockets forward Steve Francis paid perhaps the highest compliment to his friend and teammate when he said, “He’s just like me — only 7’5″ and Chinese.”

Now I suppose I could offer some basis for my criticism of O’Neal in my role as an elected official in the City and County of San Francisco, a modern and diverse city that prides itself on being a model of tolerance and respect for racial, ethnic and sexual diversity.

I suppose I could also express my indignation as a member of an ethnic minority myself, as someone who remembers what it meant to be a ten-year boy watching Roberto Clemente earn his 3,000th base hit in 1972.

In a forceful opinion piece published in AsianWeek last week, professor Irwin Tang wrote, “Yao Ming is our Jackie Robinson.” And he’s right. Jackie Robinson wasn’t merely an inspiration to African Americans because he was a black pioneer in Major League Baseball. He was an inspiration to all because he was a great competitor. He taught a segregated nation that the thrill of athletic achievement can transcend the mistrust that human differences sometimes breed. He showed us that sports is, at its best, humanity’s truest meritocracy.

The truth is O’Neal’s derisive remarks about Yao don’t offend me as a San Francisco elected official. And frankly, they don’t offend me as a member of a Latino minority, either.

They offend me as a fan of the game.

To his credit, O’Neal did offer a manner of apology last week. But to his critics, his words (“If I offended anyone, I apologize”) express only marginally more contrition than an apology for getting caught.

O’Neal’s further explanation didn’t help either. “I said a joke,” he said. “It was a 70-30 joke: seventy percent of the people thought it was funny. Thirty didn’t.”

The issue, of course, isn’t about what percentage of people thought Shaq’s comments were funny. It’s about the difference between trash talk and an ethnic slur. One is acceptable in the spirit of sports competition. The other is antithetical to it.

One intimidates a competitor because of who he plays for. The other intimidates a ten-year-old fan for who he is.

On Friday night, O’Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers will be in Houston to face the Rockets and Yao. The game can be watched locally on ESPN, and you can bet I’ll be rooting for the Rockets.

Not that I’m an especially big Houston fan or anything.

It’s because Yao Ming is just like me — only 7’5″ and Chinese.