Dreams come true at the Coleman Coliseum. Thank you Red Panda, the greatest show on hardwood.
A sloppy 20-minute opening led to a 3-point lead at the break with the Texas A&M Aggies in town and made way for Why Me Yes, really showed up Wednesday night, with all due respect to the tournament-bound Crimson Tide.
If they announce Red Panda in the books, you’ll erase your schedule. So I did.
Watching Tide stars like Jahvon Quinerly, JD Davison, Keon Ellis and Jaden Shackelford scrape through a turbulent schedule heading into the postseason isn’t bad for a Wednesday night, but this was the first of more than 15 games in Coleman, where half time ended. No toilet or pretzel break.
With all due respect to other impressive half-time acts like trampoline dunkers, flying frisbee dogs or little league basketball scrimmages… this just turns out differently. What’s so fascinating about a unicyclist throwing bowls on her head? If this description isn’t enough for you, just understand that you have to see the action live. Once you do this, things change. There was before and there will be after – and you’ll keep chasing it until it rolls through your town again.
My First Red Panda Experience: Jan. 18, 2011. Led by trainer Anthony Grant, Alabama John Caliparis upset the Kentucky Wildcats 68-66 after guard Ben Eblen caught a loose ball and took a free throw to ice it and the collegiate to shock the basketball world.
But even after Eblen’s exploits, the thunderous “Rammer Jammer” and Caliparis’ typically brutally honest post-game remarks after The Tide clinched that all-too-rare victory over the heavily favored Wildcats, I couldn’t shake what I saw at half-time. And it was a flawless victory. Not a single bowl fell down, as is usually the case. Chaos reigned in Coleman.
The music, an instrumental remix of the song “Da Hua Jiao” for which you can’t find a clean audio somewhere online, is hypnotic. It lures you even further when she accomplishes feats you never knew were possible. Nothing should overshadow the win over Kentucky as the NCAA tournament is out of reach and a crushing NIT Championship loss is on the horizon.
A well-loved intermission act at college and NBA venues across the country, Chinese acrobat Rong Niu travels the country spinning bowls from her foot to her head from a unicycle. Wearing a sequined leotard and white heels, Niu climbs a ladder onto the four quadrants of her 7-foot unicycle (tragically stolen but later replaced in 2018) at the arena, placing the shells on her foot and flipping them upside down.
Niu told AL.com’s Michael Casagrande that she even has evenings off. “I’d say a 75 to 80 percent chance that I’ll make it. Sometimes a really bad day. And three times I couldn’t make it. Ahh. It’s so annoying.”
Wednesday wasn’t what I would call a free night. So she dropped a bowl. Big thing. The crowd didn’t care. She dusted them off, repositioned them on her shin, and landed each one of them, bringing the house down.
Nothing is guaranteed, but Alabama’s strong schedule is setting them up for an NCAA tournament spot. With back-to-back losses and a whole lot of madness in early March, could things go wrong thanks to free bids at various conference tournaments? Sure, but that didn’t seem to particularly matter to Coleman, especially the crowded student section, which Red Panda couldn’t go wrong for.
They were all grinning from ear to ear and shrieking as if the Beatles were galloping into Shea Stadium, more than half of them fumbling for their phones to record a piece of history. When Red Panda comes to town, you don’t want to miss a thing. But the cameras don’t do the magic justice if you were lucky enough to see it in person.
TIED TOGETHER: A conversation with Red Panda, America’s favorite unicycling, bowl-flip halftime act
Apparently mortified by the response, she waved to the students and thanked them for the ovation. But it’s old hat for Red Panda. Wherever she goes, fans shower her admiration. I’m surprised people haven’t thrown rose petals at her yet as she makes her way to the arena floor.
Coleman wasn’t full on Wednesday, so consider those who saw Niu the lucky few. Alabama has a lot at stake this season. Every game counts (including Wednesday’s tough loss to Texas A&M). And soon everyone will own, and then every second. But if you count those seconds until the halftime buzzer sounds, you’re in the Red Panda house.