Draped in a gold-and-maroon dress, Rong Niu exhales. Six white metal bowls rest atop her jet-black hair, a bun holding everything in place. It’s March and 15 minutes separate the Sixers and Celtics from halftime, when this 5-foot woman routinely morphs into an NBA giant. She closes her eyes. When she takes the court, there will be no defense awaiting—only a towering unicycle and a sea of fans cheering on Red Panda, the league’s most popular intermission entertainment. She will glide across the hardwood. Her arms will gracefully beckon the crowd’s roar. Philadelphia’s mascot, Franklin the dog, will toss her bowl after bowl. She will balance the pedals with her left foot, while her right flips each dish into a miraculous stack above her head. All while wearing heels.
As the clock ticks closer to zero, Niu’s nerves spike. Anxiety pangs her chest. Her face runs warm. She often fumbles words speaking to operations staffers waiting to assist her act. Niu releases another deep breath, silently meditating in a small pocket of the Wells Fargo Center’s depths. “I’m hiding in the corner so I don’t have to say hi to anybody,” she admits. Instead, Niu clears her mind. She will balance the pedals with her left foot, while her right flips each dish into a stack above her head. A courtside waitress walks past to collect the latest order from the nearby backstage bar. “Oh my god!” she squeals at Niu. “You’re my favorite!”
With four minutes left on the game clock, an arena staffer ambles over. It takes two helpers to carry her unicycle out to the floor. Two more lug a sizable ladder, which Red Panda will climb to mount her one-wheeled ride. With 90 seconds on the scoreboard, the procession marches down the carpeted path towards the court. “Don’t drop any of those cups tonight!” a hefty security guard chimes. “They’re bowls!” another quickly corrects. Niu only smiles, maintaining her silence, her breathe. “People think I’m, maybe, weird,” she surmises. The arduous upbringing of an acrobat, overseen by a perfectionist father, can naturally have that effect.
GuiZhang Niu is not in attendance, but he is certainly present. Later, when she’s asked whether dad played more of a parent or instructor role, Red Panda pauses. “I would say… yea…” her voice trails off, her face scrunching in thought. Silence fills the dressing room. “I don’t know,” she finally concludes. She believes he is proud. Her act has traveled around the globe, improbably morphing a Chinese toddler into a grown, world class performer starring in NBA arenas across the U.S. He must be proud, even if apprehension still cripples the moments before every performance. “He said, ‘Always focus.’ He knew I get nervous,” Niu says. “He always told me that, just to think that all of those people come here to watch you. That means you are the king. You have to show that you are in power now.”
The two acrobats met somewhere in the Chinese countryside, like many artists sprayed throughout the land during Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution. GuiZhang Niu starred in a classic pole act, contorting his muscular frame into astonishing poses like a human flag. Along the way, he found a fourth-generation aerial talent named Jiang LongDi, a high-wire juggler who maintained her balance despite wearing a mandated army uniform. The couple soon married, settling in Taiyuan, the capital city of China’s Shanxi province. The government provided the family a one-bedroom apartment. A larger living room housed the parents’ bed and kitchen. In the smaller quarters, the two girls slept and began learning the family trade. GuiZhang tore down the ceiling’s rafters to provide practice space, leaving only a bamboo base and a sheet of paper just thick enough to withstand the elements.
Niu's routine is derived from a traditional Chinese acrobat act. Although her father ramped the level of difficulty, staggering the bowls rim to rim—balancing each dish on merely their curving lines—rather than simply stacking them inside each spacious basin. “Literally everything he decided,” she says. As a 7-year-old, Niu began flicking the dishes skyward while standing on the floor, building the leg strength that would later allow her to master the unicycle. Then after months of pedaling and balancing and maneuvering, she combined the two elements of the performance. For three years, GuiZhang would spend his mornings instructing at the nearby Taiyuan Art School, serving as the manager for its acrobatics program, and return home to mold his protege. Niu’s sister, five years her junior, never took kindly to the sage’s methods. “We didn’t know the line between when we practiced and eating at the dinner table,” Niu says. “We always thought, ‘He’s so serious.’” Every time his daughter dropped a bowl, he doubled over to scoop the miss off the floor. To combat his ailing back, GuiZhang fashioned a massive pair of scissors to retrieve the dishes. “It looks like a one-person act,” Niu says. “In my opinion, it’s two persons’ work.”
He designed his next creation on paper, and delivered the sketch of a seven-foot, custom unicycle to a nearby theatrical factory. Among its most-popular products: a bike that can hold 24 people. “Pretty much you can name it, they can make it,” Niu says. GuiZhang tailored the size and shape of each bowl as well. He demanded perfection. His pupil’s errors during practice sessions were met by a stern glare, lips pursed, brow furrowed. “That look is really scary. It’s like, ‘Oh my god.’ You know? He doesn’t say much,” Niu explains. “If I make a mistake, he says it’s my fault that I’m careless. I didn’t give an effort.” When he finally permitted her entry into his boarding academy, 10-year-old Niu seamlessly joined the 12-year-old cohort.
More pressure mounted, and that demarcation between parent and instructor grew irreparably blurred. She feared inciting that glare. “I was so scared of him,” Niu says. “He’s such a strict, strict, strict teacher.” Still, his dream became her dream. She yearned to perfect the technique. “I enjoy the challenge,” she says. Early mornings began with an arduous run that preceded seven hours of training. She began performing full-time at 12. Flipping up to four bowls at once, she displayed her fledgling prowess. Her father approved, in his own way. “He’s a person that’s very humble. He never bragged about anything. He wouldn’t say, ‘I’m proud of you,’” Niu says. “But you can tell from his eyes. You can read him.”
She joined the fabled Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe at 14, completing Taiyuan’s seven-year program in just four years. The troupe traveled through Asia, Europe and Africa. When Niu was 16, they stopped in Denver for a three-month stint at Elitch Gardens amusement park. The Colorado crowd erupted with each bowl Niu landed atop her skull, unlike she had ever heard before. “America, the audience gave me the most reaction. They’re very outgoing, very cheerful, even if I make a mistake,” Niu says. “I decided, it’s so special, that country.”
During another American tour a few years later, Disney World approached her offering a residency performing at the Chinese pavilion at Epcot. She didn’t hesitate. Sure enough, those rousing ovations persisted. “They gave much more respect and credit than compared in China,” Niu says. At the park’s urging, the 19-year-old would wade into the crowd following each performance, greeting guests with grateful hugs and handshakes, offering the secrets behind her craft. “With my broken English at that time, I tried to explain as much I can,” Niu says. Soon after, those embraces garnered a stack of business cards almost as tall as the bowls bunched above her head. Disney granted her permission to perform at private events across Florida. Her confidence bloomed, and long eyeing California, she relocated to San Francisco to freelance full-time.
Niu made the city’s Sunset District, which is nearly half Asian, her home. She performed free shows, primarily school assemblies. Locals soon invited her to perform in Chinatown’s New Year parade. “To them, I’m a young kid just starting,” Niu says. Her act needed a marketable name, they told her. She bounced ideas off fellow diners at Dim Sum restaurants. Red, a lucky color in China, would bring good fortune to her daring feat. The Panda is the country’s national animal. Combining the two, coincidentally, forms the English word for the endangered animal of that namesake. What better way to honor a rare species with such unique skill?
Red Panda’s act forged forward. After collecting video from spectators, she spotted filming her performances, Niu delivered the clips to a professional editor, who cut a seven-minute highlight reel of GuiZhang’s star. She ordered 1,000 copies, then stuffed the VHS tape and business cards into envelopes, blasting agents and venues across the map. Only her phone hardly rang. Neither Circus Circus nor Cirque du Soleil called. Finally, after one year, a talent agent named Reynold Clark dialed Niu the day before Thanksgiving 1993. One of his acts had sustained an injury, and the Clippers needed an immediate replacement for halftime the following evening. Within hours she jetted to Los Angeles.
The Clippers ushered her into Memorial Sports Arena early the next morning, affirming her bowls and unicycle wouldn’t damage the hardwood. The court survived, although she nearly brought the house down that night. Niu delivered a perfect performance in her NBA debut, tossing her four bowls cleanly atop her dome. “I got a four-times standing ovation,” she says. “Pretty much every time I flip... I can’t believe this!” By the 1994–95 season, Red Panda appeared at over 40 NBA outings.
Her star turned. College blue bloods came calling as well. When she’s announced as an evening’s halftime entertainment, it’s regularly met with a guttural roar. The Sixers annually open their schedule to Niu, inviting her to choose any two games that best suit her availability, preferring her appearances accompany their bigger, nationally-televised contests. If Philly makes the playoffs, their first booking call pings San Francisco. Niu practically holds a Bay Area residency with the nearby Golden State Warriors, impressing those within the locker room. “It’s ridiculous. It’s unbelievable,” head coach Steve Kerr has said. “It’s one of the best halftime shows. She’s fantastic.”
Her parents joined Niu in San Francisco in the early 2000s. GuiZhang witnessed all of Oracle whoop for his trainee. She ascended to the America’s Got Talent stage in the spring of 2013 but ended her stint early to caretake for her lifelong teacher. Doctors discovered esophageal cancer in her father. The only English speaker in her family, Niu opted to sit out the 2013–14 basketball season, instead shuttling her dad to countless appointments. As he faded, his exterior softened. Where she once read approval across his face, she finally saw love. “The teacher was not as much,” Niu says. “I respect him.” GuiZhang died in May 2014. “Talking about it,” she says, her eyes welling with tears, “I still feel bad.”
After a full year without practice, she climbed her reliable unicycle once more. In order to fully honor her father, the show had to continue. “I was still thinking about it,” Niu says. “I thought I was focused, but I guess I wasn’t really. I think I started too soon.” One night a bowl clattered to the floor and wedged under her wheel. The bike slipped into the air, flipping Niu like one of her helpless props. Her arm shattered as she broke her fall. She laid motionless on the floor, life momentarily paused. How disappointed her father would have been. Then the sharp pain arrived. After being fitted for a restrictive cast, Niu found herself sidelined for another 10 months of turmoil.
Rumors swirled of her retirement. Red Panda had, after all, disappeared for almost two full NBA seasons. Niu shuttered herself inside, refusing to leave the house for months, sitting all alone with her swelling depression. At long last, her will finally returned. She began walking the city’s rolling hills, regaining power in her lower body. Niu soon decided she wanted to mount a comeback. GuiZhang wouldn’t be able to critique her effort or focus. She closed her eyes, flashing back nearly 30 years. She exhaled. Once again facing San Francisco on her own, could she rediscover Red Panda as a true solo act?
Four years of success now separate Red Panda from that dark chapter as she wheels to each corner of the Wells Fargo Center court, pleading for more noise. Five bowls, her current max, rest along her shin. Franklin the dog covers his eyes from the opposite baseline. Niu breathes. She envisions the technique, and calmly flips each dish towards the jumbotron. They clink sequentially above her head, the lip of the fifth bowl slightly ajar. Back in her locker room, she scores the effort a 95. She landed the final rep, but it was not pristine, even if the only eye that could detect such an imperfection is no longer with her. “It’s so weird. Every time I think about him before I perform or after,” Niu says. “Especially after he passed away, it seems like I reflect even more. There are some things that I remember so clear that he taught me.”
When Niu first traveled, she would phone Taiyuan when unsure of the proper steps to reconstructing the unicycle. Approaching 50 years old, she lugs the entirety of her equipment in two rolling suitcases, each marked in sharpie with a giant R. If she didn’t separate her materials, one bag would weigh far more than the 50-pound limit for checked baggage. Giant memory foam cushions coat her luggage. She blankets each intricate piece of the bike in a travel wrap. The wheels under one of her trunks no longer function. Each season routinely requires several replacement bags. “The airlines break them,” Niu says. She has cancelled countless performances due to missing luggage and flight delays. Once, TSA unzipped her belongings and she lost invaluable tools. Niu only knows how to label in Mandarin, and where to purchase in China. She’s learned better, and now ties her collection of wrenches together with sturdy string.
Red Panda typically reaches the arena 90 minutes before tipoff. It takes roughly 30 minutes to assemble the hefty unicycle’s three pieces into one cohesive machine. Next, she’ll follow the same 20-minute stretching routine she first learned in boarding school. She does her own hair and paints her own makeup. With the third quarter underway, she typically departs, preferring to beat the traffic back to her airport hotel. Teams provide her travel and lodging, and she commands between $2,500 and $3,000 per five-minute performance.
If she struggles to doze, Niu finds late-night comfort in MTV’s Ridiculousness, a collection of outrageous internet clips. “I always laugh,” she swears. Having to shuttle two enormous equipment bags, she packs her personal belongings in a backpack. The road brings exhilarating performances, but also countless hours of solitude. “It gets lonely, boring,” Red Panda says. Her nomadic trade has not afforded time for a family of her own. Her mother lives nearby in San Francisco. After GuiZhang’s death, they lost contact with Niu’s sister, an accountant in Orlando whom she declined to name. On flights, Red Panda reads how-to-books on fundamental topics like health and relationships.
If not familial, she has fostered true connections, charming arena staffers across the country. Her basketball foothold remains firm. “After I came back, I appreciate it more,” she says. “I have this act that my dad taught me. I feel I’m so lucky to have this opportunity, for most of my life performing at the NBA.” She has practiced, modestly, in one of the grand halls at Christ Church Lutheran ELCA for over three decades. Whenever the community has changed its locks, they mail Niu a new key to the building. Many longtime congregants were unaware of her national allure until an ESPN documentary crew recorded a training session this spring. “I know that she’s something that draws some attention,” says interim pastor Lyle Beckman. “I don’t know exactly all the gifts she brings to her sport.”
In the summers, she used to book three-month spells on cruise ships. This offseason she’s helping a building management company complete odds and ends like paperwork and overseeing maintenance. Niu will make her annual return to Shanxi later this month. She visits a few relatives and her classmates from boarding school. She’ll also retrieve a new ensemble of costumes from a local shop that outfits opera singers and dancers, as well as acrobats. They have long kept her measurements on file.
The 2019-20 season awaits. Red Panda has no intention of retiring any time soon. She still craves perfection. She’s obsessed with mastering the technique. It’s carried her this far, honoring her late father around the league and the world. “If you think at the beginning you can’t do it, if you put your hard work and your heart in there and you like it and you want to do something different from most people, keep working on it,” she say. “This is what my dad told me. People didn’t think it could work. And we tried. And kept on trying to be a better percentage. All is possible, I guess, if you keep on trying.”