Red Panda, perhaps the most successful halftime act in basketball, will have to grind out a long couple of months before the end of the college and NBA seasons.
Rong Niu, the Chinese-born, fourth-generation acrobat whose unique halftime show has enthralled fans around the world for more than a decade, will not be able to get a replacement for her custom-made 7-foot-tall unicycle until the summer.
Niu rides the cycle around the court, flipping bowls into the air and catching them on her head in an ever-growing stack. She’s able to flip and catch up to five bowls at a time — although she’s done six in practice sessions — and build a stand up to 16 bowls high.
The act hit a glitch this week, however, when her unicycle was stolen from the San Francisco airport after Niu, a resident of the Bay Area, returned from a gig.
She was already using her backup cycle.
“My favorite one was damaged last year by American Airlines,” she said. She was forced to cancel one gig while she cobbled together an emergency unicycle to use for the rest of the season.
“It’s not really a unicycle at all,” Niu said in an exclusive interview with the North State Journal. “It’s put together with spare parts.”
The result has not been ideal. Niu had a disastrous outing at Clemson on Tuesday night, one that had ESPN announcer Seth Greenberg tweeting that clearly age had taken its toll and it may be time for Red Panda to hang them up.
“Clemson was not good at all,” she said. Since then, Red Panda has found some familiarity with the Frankensteined cycle and has had four relatively successful halftime shows, the most recent on Friday night, at Princeton.
“It went well,” she said, adding an ominous, “tonight.”
Niu blames her recent struggles, which include several dropped bowls, entirely on the missing cycle.
“It’s like a car,” she said. “You get used to driving your car, and a different one feels strange. It takes me a long time to get used to a new unicycle. I like to have at least a summer season to work with it.”
Police have released a photo of the suspected thief, a ponytailed, bearded man who took the bag containing the disassembled unicycle off the luggage return conveyer belt and wheeled it out of the airport, but Niu sounded skeptical that she’d ever see the cycle again.
“The picture is very fuzzy,” she said. “I just don’t understand how someone could be so cold-hearted.”
She wasn’t sure why someone would take her unicycle. “I don’t think he knew what he had,” she said. “He doesn’t even know how to put it together. I can promise you that.”
There is also the concern, which Niu was hesitant to discuss, that a strange man stealing such a personal item from a female performer may be a stalker.
“It’s scary,” she admitted, adding that the stress, on top of her shaky performances on the replacement cycle, have led to a difficult week for the performer.
In a bright spot from an otherwise tough week, the Golden State Warriors offered to pay for a replacement cycle to be custom-made for Niu in China. She was overwhelmed by the offer.
“They were so kind,” she said. “I was feeling so bad about how someone could do that, and then there was such an outpouring of kindness.”
The price tag on a new cycle will run between $25,000 and $30,000, so she is grateful to the Warriors. It won’t alleviate her struggles in the short term, however.
“I’m traveling,” she said, “so I can’t even contact (the company in China) until I get home. I don’t have the number with me.”
Then it will take time for the unicycle to be assembled, for her to travel to China to pick it up and for her to break it in. So it’s unlikely she’ll be able to debut the Warriors cycle at a halftime until sometime next season.
Until then? “It’s just going to be like this,” she said.
Here’s the full audio from the conversation with Red Panda