It was late at night at a hotel near Clemson. Rong Niu, the woman known better to American sports fans as the unicycle-riding, bowl-flipping halftime performer “Red Panda,” was not happy.
She was upset because someone had absconded with her custom unicycle from San Francisco International Airport, causing her to cancel a performance. Niu, whose act has thrilled basketball fans for more than two decades, was upset because she was now performing on a unicycle cobbled together from three of her other unicycles, which had thrown off her ability to perform.
Now, after a tool-buying trip to Wal-Mart following a forgettable night at Clemson, she was trying unsuccessfully to re-fashion her amalgam of unicycle parts into a precision machine.
“I’ve got two hours’ sleep and fly again the next morning for the next game,” Niu told the AJC. “I was so tired, so upset. Who did this? It’s, like, cold-hearted.”
Niu spoke Sunday afternoon in the media room of McCamish Pavilion, about three hours before she was to perform at halftime of the Georgia Tech-Duke game. Self-effacing despite years of glowing praise showered upon her by virtually all who have seen her act, Niu shared her tale of her missing unicycle, a story that peeved sports fans and media and ultimately led the Golden State Warriors to buy her a replacement.
Niu, the Chinese-born acrobat who has been performing at NBA and college basketball games for about 25 years, returned to San Francisco on Jan. 24 after performing at Dayton the previous day. She was to fly out to Los Angeles the next day for a UCLA game. However, she was unable to locate the bag containing her unicycle at baggage claim. The United Airlines baggage claim office could not find it, either, she said.
She stayed in communication with United, even returning to the airport late that night, when she said the airline had a longtime employee scour every possible corner.
“I waited for about an hour or something, he’s looking,” Niu said. “He couldn’t find it. So my heart started dropping.”
She returned the next morning for an 8 am. flight to Los Angeles, hoping that the suitcase would turn up and she could make her performance, but it didn’t. She had to cancel her performance and filed a police report.
Police called her that afternoon, she said, and told her that security video showed that the bag had been taken off the carousel at the time the other bags from her flight were on the conveyor belt.
Niu said that police told her that a man was stationed right where the luggage dropped and picked it up immediately, and that it happened so quickly that she might have missed it even if she were there.
That was only one of the puzzling details. Niu’s bag, she said, is painted with a square with an “X” inside the box.
“So nobody’s going to make a mistake,” she said.
Also, Niu said, as a frequent flyer, her bag has a special tag so that it is supposed to be placed on the carousel first, but it was among the last pieces of luggage onto the carousel. Niu said she was told by United that bags are scanned at every juncture – at check-in, going onto the plane, being unloaded, being placed on the carousel, etc. – but that it wasn’t scanned before it went on the carousel.
“So it’s pretty strange,” Niu said.
Her agent reportedly offered a $2,000 no-questions-asked reward. Police and news media circulated a photo of the suspect, a white male with red hair in a ponytail. Police are treating it as a theft, a characterization Niu didn’t dispute.
She does not hold much hope that she’ll ever be reunited with her unicycle, valued at $25,000.
The Warriors mitigated the loss with its decision purchase a replacement. However, she’ll need to travel to China this summer to have it made, where unicycle makers will take her measurements and build a unicycle just for her.
“The process of making is long,” Niu said. “They’re not that easy to make.”
In the meantime, she is trying to make do with a unicycle that she has put together with parts from three of her old unicycles.
“I tried to use the pieces and kind of put (it) together,” Niu said. “OK, this part is useful, that one is useful. So I put them together.”
Not surprisingly, it doesn’t fit like the one she lost, which she had ridden for the past two or three years. Most pertinently, the seat is perhaps an inch higher from the pedals than the old unicycle and can’t be adjusted lower. That might not matter for a leisurely bicycle ride, but it does when you’re 7-1/2 feet off the ground, steadying the unicycle with your left foot while cradling as many as five bowls with your right foot and leg and then flipping them onto your head.
“It’s given me such a difficult time,” Niu said. “I fear I fall off because I’m not in control. I’m not in control of the new (unicycle) because they’re not meant to be together, all the parts.”
Her performance has suffered, not surprisingly. A game at Clemson’s Littlejohn Coliseum was one of her first shows back. Her act starts with one bowl, then two, up to five. Typically, she said, four bowls isn’t a problem, but this time, “I missed it, like, three times.” Niu said she was embarrassed.
“I feel sorry,” she said. “Sorry, Clemson.”
But with each show, she said she’s regaining her feel. On Sunday at Tech, with Yellow Jackets quarterback TaQuon Marshall serving as her assistant, tossing her the next set of bowls to flip, she had trouble with the four- and five-bowl flips but still completed both, drawing a roar from the sellout crowd.
There is at least something to be gained from the experience for Niu. The story of her missing unicycle caused an uproar on social media and a swelling of support. (A tweet from a sports writer: “If an NBA writer finds the dude who stole Red Panda’s unicycle before the cops do, we can’t be held responsible for what happens.”) She has received numerous calls from friends expressing their sympathy for the loss.
“It felt like so much warm feeling, like, Oh, my god, a lot of people are that nice and warm-hearted and generous and willing to help,” Niu said. “It’s not only the money, it’s also they care, they really show they care, and that’s the nice part.”