LOS ANGELES — Shaquille O'Neal, silent with the media for most of the past four weeks, ended his unofficial boycott Friday to defend himself against charges of racism and to explain his association with controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
The New York Post's gossip column reported Friday that the Los Angeles Lakers' star center had become close to Farrakhan, a polarizing figure because of his history of anti-Semitic commentary. O'Neal did not deny his friendship with Farrakhan but said he does not necessarily share his views.
Coincidentally, a guest columnist in AsianWeek has charged O'Neal with racism for remarks he made in jest several months ago about Yao Ming, the rookie center for the Houston Rockets. On Friday, O'Neal offered an apology.
Yao, a Chinese national, made history in June when he became the first foreign-born player to be selected No. 1 overall in the NBA draft. Around that time, O'Neal appeared on a national sports talk show and was asked about him.
"Tell Yao Ming, 'Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh,' " O'Neal reportedly said.
The sound bite was played repeatedly on a talk radio show last month — and reportedly used as a platform for further Asian jokes — when it caught the attention of Irwin Tang, a research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin.
Tang, writing in the latest edition of AsianWeek, called it a "racist taunt" that should have been flagged by the media long ago. That it has gone virtually unnoticed, he said, is indicative of a double standard where Asians are concerned.
And, speaking on behalf of the National Asian American Student Conference, Tang demanded an apology.
"That type of comment is as bad as using the 'n' word," Tang said in a phone interview, "and I don't think people realize how mean-spirited that type of racial taunt is sometimes. . . . When you say something like that, it's not just personal. They're insulting me, they're insulting my family, my future children and all the people around me."
It isn't the first time O'Neal — a self-professed comedian, or "idiot prankster," as he said Friday — has offended people with his attempted humor. Last year, he jokingly claimed to have slept with a number of female celebrities, causing two of them to issue statements denying it.
"Those people that know me, know that I have a sense of humor," O'Neal said, referring to his comments on Yao. "I would never seriously say something derogatory to people. If I offended anyone, I'm sorry."
O'Neal added: "I apologize that some people don't have a sense of humor like I do. Because when I did it, the whole room laughed. It's nothing personal. But to say I'm racist against Asians is crazy."
O'Neal made no apology for his association with Farrakhan — who attended his Dec. 26 wedding in Beverly Hills — saying, "I know people, and their views aren't always my views."