Whether in Oakland or Oklahoma City, Boston or Cleveland, Los Angeles or San Antonio, there is one person who can bring NBA fans together to cheer. Almost none of them know her name.
Rong Niu was born in China’s Shanxi province. A fourth-generation acrobat, she learned her trade from her father, practicing six to seven hours a day, six days a week, and came to the United States to perform at the Epcot Center at Disney World. She stuck around after that and wound up becoming a staple of NBA halftime shows with her theatrics. If you’ve been to a few games, chances are you’ve seen her balancing with one leg on a ridiculously tall unicycle while flipping bowls with her other foot to the top of her head. The name basketball fans would know her by is, of course, Red Panda.
As Red Panda, Niu also performs during halftime of college basketball games, at arena football games, and during some hockey intermissions, where they put out a mat—“Otherwise, it would be very slippery!” she says with a laugh. But it is in the NBA where she has become a legend, as beloved as the cute little critter whose name she shares.
Surprisingly, she didn’t take her stage name from red pandas. “I got the Red Panda name because the color red is a lucky color in China,” Niu says. “When you have a wedding or a happy celebration, they use red. So, I like the red color, and then the panda is the national animal. So, Red Panda—I put it together. Then I learned that there’s an animal called the red panda. In China, that animal is called the snow panda. So, I got the Red Panda name, and in America, they’re like, ‘Oh, the red panda!’ It’s too funny.”
Single, without any children, and based in San Francisco on the rare days when she isn't on the road, Niu spends the winter criss-crossing America with her seven-foot unicycle and set of bowls. That can be as much of a challenge as her act, in which she rides around the court and builds an ever-growing tower of bowls on her head with a series of tosses from her foot.
“Traveling, it’s pretty challenging sometimes, especially nowadays after 9/11,” she says. “The TSA, they have to always look at the unicycle and make sure there’s nothing in there. It’s pretty heavy, too, so I always have to do the curb check, because it’s over the limit. Every single year, I will miss a few shows because the unicycle didn’t make it, or the weather. Every single year. Especially during the winter. The bike doesn’t make it? Yeah, that’s it. It’s almost impossible [to find a backup unicycle].”
When her equipment does make it to whatever city she is in, Niu spends two hours a day practicing, though not on show days. When she is set to perform, she finds a spot to warm up, and then it’s time to electrify another arena. It’s incredible to watch every time she does it, which is why teams keep bringing Red Panda back for more.
“We had Red Panda out in March,” says Kathleen Caday, the Dallas Mavericks’ manager of game operations. “She’s one of the acts that’s on our permanent rotation and she still manages to get the crowd going. I’ve heard she will not get off the court until she gets all the bowls on her head, without missing. Well, she missed for the first time that I’ve worked with her, and I was expecting the crowd to brush her off since her act was ending and she just missed. Sure enough, she stayed on that court until the horns blew and the players came out. She tried again and got it, and the crowd went wild.”
“If I don’t make it, and sometimes I don’t, it’s a failure. It’s not good at all. I feel bad all day.”
Red Panda estimates that she drops a bowl “about 20-25% of the time,” but anecdotal evidence suggests a much higher success rate. On January 27, Cavaliers social media coordinator Courtney Shilling tweeted, “Seeing the Red Panda drop a dish today reminded me that we’re all human. Even the [goat emoji].”
When a drop does happen, Red Panda says she gives herself three chances to get it right—primarily because that’s how much time she has before she absolutely has to stop and let the game resume. But as she carries those bowls off the court, she carries the burden of the miss.
“If I don’t make it, and sometimes I don’t, it’s a failure,” she says. “It’s not good at all. I feel bad all day.”
Far more often, Red Panda leaves an arena feeling good about her show. It’s a feeling that she wants to keep having for as long as she possibly can. Having reached her 40s though (she declined to reveal her exact age), she knows that there is a limit.
“I don’t think it’s forever,” she says. “I wish, but I don’t think so. I’m still enjoying it quite a bit. I love performing. I like being challenged. I try to make it every time, and there’s always a chance I don’t make it. But there’s always a chance that the second time, I’m going to make it.”
Despite having been an acrobat from the time she was a child, Red Panda does know what it’s like to step out of the spotlight. Two and a half years ago, it was widely reported that Red Panda was riding her unicycle off into the sunset and calling it a career.
“There were a lot of stories like, ‘oh, she retired,’ but that was just on the Internet,” she says. “That wasn’t the whole story…It needs an explanation.”
So, Red Panda sets the record straight.
“The season was almost over (in 2013), and then my dad got diagnosed with cancer,” she says. “At the same time, I was doing America’s Got Talent. After a couple of months, we realized my dad’s cancer was late and serious. So, when the NBA season ended, I told America's Got Talent that I would be leaving and taking care of him. It was 10 or 11 months later that he passed away, so I missed that season. After he passed away, I vowed that I should go back to practice, because I hadn’t practiced by then for many months. When I went back to practice, I fell off the unicycle and broke my arm, in a really bad spot in the wrist area on my left hand. So, that was another few months, and basically add it together, and I missed two seasons, but then I came back.”
Red Panda made her return to the NBA at the start of the 2015-16 season, at the Memphis Grizzlies’ home opener. She’s been going strong ever since, and thinks of her late father, Qi Zhung Niu, every time she gets up on the unicycle.
“When I got back to it, it was really hard with a lot of emotions,” Red Panda says. “When I came back, they played a video right before I performed, since I was coming back from ‘retirement,’ and I was crying. So, that was really hard.”
The good thing is, every time she performs, Red Panda can count on the support of an arena full of people, cheering her on and supporting her as she tries to put together another perfect show.
"All I know is whenever halftime comes and she’s announced or we all see her come out of the tunnel, it’s like a rock star has come into our presence,” says Erik Malinowski, author of the upcoming book on the Golden State Warriors, "Betaball.” “Everyone stops and stares and soaks it in. She’s mesmerizing, even to old, jaded sportswriters."
Age, errors, logistics, and the sheer difficulty of her act all conspire against her on a nightly basis, But one of the NBA’s most respected and revered halftime acts guarantees the fans who stay in their seats instead of bolting for the concession stands will never be cheated.
“I try to make it every time, and there’s always a chance I don’t make it, but there’s always a chance that the second time, I’m going to make it. So, I love it.”