Friday the L.A. Lakers will take on the Houston Rockets at the Compaq Center in a matchup that is sure to draw a Shaq-size audience.
But the subtext of the game has been stirring even greater interest. This game marks the first meeting of the two star centers, three-time NBA Finals MVP O'Neal and rookie Yao Ming from China, the No. 1 pick in the 2002 NBA draft. Some fans see this as an opportunity for a real apology from someone they say spoke out of "ignorance and insensitivity."
The controversy revolves around the Lakers' center comment on June 28 to "Tell Yao Ming, 'Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh,'" which was accompanied with approximated kung-fu moves.
Although the remark generated relatively little attention in the mainstream media, it left much of the Asian-American community incensed - similar to the incident last year when throngs of Asian-American students rallied against Abercrombie & Fitch demanding that the retail chain pull the t-shirt reading "Two Wongs Can Make It White," off its shelves of 311 stores in 50 states.
O'Neal's comments seem to rile them even more. So much so, that thousands of young Asians across the nation are signing a petition to send to NBA Commissioner David Stern. They are unsatisfied with O'Neal's apology which they dismiss as, "nothing more than a misguided attempt to diffuse the public's outrage over his remarks and a hollow excuse to justify his prior racist statement."
"I said it jokingly, so this guy was just trying to stir something up that's not there. He's just somebody who doesn't have a sense of humor, like I do." said O'Neal before a recent Lakers' game against Cleveland.
But angry asian fans are not amused by this joke. They are demanding more from the recipient of the NAACP Young Leaders Award who they insist is a role model to scores of young NBA fans.
Phil Yu, 24, who runs the popular site AngryAsianMan.com, wants O'Neal to know that the Asian-American community feels strongly about this issue and is prepared to rally behind the cause.
"He hasn't expressed an understanding of why Asian-Americans found his comments offensive. Instead, he has turned it around and attributed the controversy to a lack of a sense of humor on our part," Yu told CBS News.
More than anything, those angered are saying there is a glaring double standard in America's tolerance for racist remarks.
"Mr. O'Neal's original comments and his "apology" that followed demonstrate the double standards America holds for racism. Racism is not limited to the colors of black and white," says Christopher Day, a diehard Rockets fan who says he experienced growing up in Houston amid taunting over his Chinese ethnicity.
"It's this kind of insensitivity towards Asians that led him to believe it was fair game to make these comments in the first place. If the situation were reversed, and another player made a crack about Shaq's ethnicity, I think he'd see things differently," says Yu.
For his part, Yao was nonplussed.
Yao, who leads O'Neal in All-Star votes, appears to prefer to keep the words to a minimum and stick to the hardwood when it comes to competition.
"Chinese is hard to learn. I had trouble with it when I was little," Yao said.
By Sue Chan