It was a day when he was lambasted on talk radio and the Internet, linked socially to Louis Farrakhan by a New York Post gossip columnist and threatened with fines by the NBA for not speaking publicly, and near the end of that day Shaquille O’Neal apologized.
He said he was not a racist for his taunt of Houston center Yao Ming, said his relationship with the Nation of Islam leader was his business, and, simply by saying all of that, eased any pressure he might have felt from the NBA. The league had grown concerned that O’Neal had gone more than a month without formally addressing the media.
The Laker center was criticized by a weekly Asian publication more than six months after looking into a cable television camera and, according to a column under the headline, “Shaq is a Racist,” saying, “Tell Yao Ming, ‘Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh,’ ” apparently mocking the Chinese language.
About a month ago, the audio of that interview was played on a local radio show. By Friday, the column in AsianWeek had become a popular issue for the call-in shows, and O’Neal arrived at Staples Center for the Lakers’ game against the Cleveland Cavaliers aware of the public firestorm.
“If I offended anybody,” O’Neal said, “I apologize.”
Yao, in Atlanta, seemed to accept O’Neal’s explanation.
The Lakers, in the meantime, have received “several” phone calls regarding O’Neal’s interview, according to one official.
“To say I’m a racist against Asians is crazy,” O’Neal said. “It’s probably [someone] just trying to start trouble.... I’m an idiot prankster.
“I said a joke. It was a 70-30 joke. Seventy percent of people thought it was funny, 30 didn’t.
“At times I try to be a comedian. Sometimes I say good jokes, sometimes I say bad jokes. If I hurt anybody’s feelings, I apologize.”
Also, the Post reported in Thursday’s editions that Farrakhan was among the guests at O’Neal’s Dec. 26 wedding in Beverly Hills. O’Neal has spoken previously of his Muslim faith, even making a display of it during the past Western Conference finals, when he greeted fellow Muslim and Sacramento King Hedo Turkoglu with a kiss before every game.
“I don’t judge people,” O’Neal said of his association with Farrakhan. “Of course I believe in God. Only God could have given me what I have.
“When you know yourself, who you are and what you are, you don’t worry about certain things. I’m not going to lose sleep over this.... Hopefully, people won’t judge me by what they think my beliefs are.
“The world we live in, there’s trials and tribulations. We move on. What I believe right now doesn’t matter. My views are my views.”
O’Neal insisted that his reference to Yao was intended as a joke, not as a put-down of Yao, the rookie who leads all centers -- including O’Neal -- in the conference All-Star balloting.
Before the Rockets played in Atlanta on Friday night, Yao said, “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.
“I think there are a lot of difficulties in two different cultures understanding each other, especially countries of very large populations, China and the United States. The world is getting smaller and has a greater understanding of cultures.”
As for O’Neal’s run at the language: “Even when I was little I took a long time to learn Chinese.”
Clipper center Wang Zhizhi, in Seattle to play the SuperSonics, said he had not heard what O’Neal said and therefore would not comment.
The Lakers released a statement from General Manager Mitch Kupchak that read, in part, “Knowing Shaquille, I am certain that this was nothing more than a misguided attempt at humor, and that he did not intend to insult or criticize Yao Ming or any member of the Asian race.”
Lei Bo, a spokesman for the People’s Republic of China consulate in Los Angeles, said Thursday he had never heard of O’Neal. “I’m not a basketball fan,” he said.
Given an account of O’Neal’s interview, Lei said, “I only hope that Yao Ming continues to play well with his teammates and that his American counterparts treat him well.”
At stake, perhaps, for O’Neal is a long list of endorsements, including high-profile national accounts with Radio Shack and Burger King.
“If this were a story with substance then I think it’s possible there would be a problem,” O’Neal’s agent, Perry Rogers, said Friday. “But there’s nothing behind it. The fact is, Shaq is someone that absolutely treats everyone equally. He has never judged anyone based on race, religion, age or sex. I’ve never seen him make a distinction between people.”
After Friday’s game, O’Neal sat in front of his locker, a small tape recorder to his right ear.
“Toy-inchee,” he said, then rewound the tape. “Toy-inchee.”
He looked up.
“Chinese,” he said, “for ‘I’m sorry.’ For when I see Yao Ming.”