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February 05, 2003

Crossing The Line
By Dan Patrick

It's not Wilt Chamberlain-Bill Russell, but with a shortage of talented centers in the NBA, Shaquille O'Neal-Yao Ming is the closest we'll get to a big-time big man matchup. And with the additional intrigue derived from Shaq's highly publicized comments to Yao in "mock Chinese," the Lakers-Rockets showdown took center stage.
Yao Ming
It didn't take long for Yao to dominate on the court.

Shaq made similar comments on my radio program several months ago. Yet the uproar was suspiciously in sync with one of the better matchups of the season. The controversy no doubt became a contrived storyline heading into the game. But there is still a larger issue to consider and explore.

When Shaq was a guest on the program in early September, the interview was largely consumed by deprecating humor, targeted both at himself and others. Shaq was preparing to host a roast for Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith, and his humor was at full throttle. During the interview, he called Smith a "watermelon head" and harassed Mark Madsen's dancing ability -- or, rather, his lack thereof.

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.

In retrospect, it's clear that both Shaq's comments and our encouragement were insensitive -- an attempt at humor with a hint of ignorance, crossing the line between humor and disrespect. But I don't believe that makes Shaq a racist.

In retrospect, it's clear that both Shaq's comments and our encouragement were insensitive.

Had the exchange occurred in the presence of Yao, knowing his keen sense of humor, the imitation most likely would not have garnered any ill will. I would guess that Yao might respond with his best gangsta-rap impression and everyone would laugh. No harm, no foul. Inner circles of friends often poke fun at stereotypes and other sensitive issues -- ironically, it's often a sign of closeness and respect.

But once the comments are made for public consumption, the matter immediately extends beyond the parties involved and becomes a larger issue, open to both debate and scrutiny. As a public figure, Shaq should have known better. He slid under the radar the first time but was ultimately called out on his repeat offense.

Shaq has since apologized to Yao. And in the everyday world, that should suffice -- subject closed. But as one of the first Chinese players in the NBA, Yao is in fact a pioneer. With that comes the additional responsibility of role model and spokesman for the entire Chinese population. So Yao is in a precarious position. If he shrugs off the comments, he'll no doubt be criticized for becoming Americanized.

It's amazing how a seemingly innocent joke creates such worldwide consequences.

While playing up stereotypes is understood in personal settings, there's no place for it in the public forum. But knowing Shaq, I'm sure he didn't mean to hurt anyone's feelings. The only hurtin' he hopes to cause is on the court.

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Patrick/Dibble Archive


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