Krystal Niu, better known as Red Panda, has been providing halftime entertainment to NBA fans for more than 20 years. An acrobat who started training at the age of 7, Niu's act requires her to pedal on a 7-foot unicycle with one foot, balancing ceramic bowls with the other, then tossing those bowls onto the top of her head to form a pile. The difficulty of executing the act combined with her longevity has endeared her to basketball fans, resulting in an outpouring of disappointment when Niu retired after the 2012-13 season.
So it came as a surprise to many when Niu made her return Oct. 28 in Memphis for the Grizzlies' home opener. Niu is back, but not before enduring the toughest two years of her life.
In mid-2013, toward the end of NBA season, while Niu was auditioning for Season 8 of America's Got Talent, her father, Gui Zhang Niu, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
"It was a surprise," Niu said. "He was a very healthy and strong man. He never even had a simple cold. There were no symptoms, no pain, nothing."
The diagnosis came after Niu's father went to the hospital after having trouble swallowing his food. With her father set for chemotherapy treatments, Niu withdrew from America's Got Talent, finished the remaining commitments on her performance schedule and shifted her focus toward taking care of her dad.
While Niu was tending to her father, she occasionally found time to practice in order to stay sharp. During one of her practices, Niu fell backward off her unicycle and fractured her wrist. It was the first major injury she suffered through all her years as an acrobat.
Niu's father was released from hospital near the end of 2013. As she recovered from injury, a return to performing was on the horizon for Red Panda. Then her father's cancer came back and spread quickly. In May 2014, he passed away at the age of 75. Afterward, Niu's mother dealt with health complications. Performing at the halftime of games was the last thing on Niu's mind.
"It was hard," Niu said, fighting back tears. "It was really hard."
A year later, her mother's health is much improved. Last October, having fully healed from her wrist injury, Niu started plotting her return and began practicing again. For years, Niu's routine consisted of spending two to three hours per day perfecting her act. But given the time off, she pushed herself and changed the routine to seven hours a day in an attempt to regain her flexibility and form. In the morning, Niu would do light stretches, go for a short run and pedal on her unicycle for 15-minute intervals. After a short run, she got back on the bike to complete her practice.
Before her performance at Memphis last week, Niu did what she called a warm-up run at a university in October in front of 2,000 fans.
"I was very, very nervous," Niu said. "There were complicated feelings. I was thinking about my father while I was setting up. I was flashing back to so many different memories. My mind was not focused.
"It makes it even harder because my father is the one who taught me my act. He's been there with me since I was seven years old."
Niu was born in the Shanxi Province of China and joined the Taiyuan Acrobatic Troupe after studying for four years at the Taiyuan Art School. In China, Niu performed in groups and was told when and where to perform. In the 1980s, seeking a new opportunity to express herself individually with her acrobatic skills, she moved to Orlando after being recruited by Disney World and performed at Epcot Center for several years.
The first six years in the United States -- before her parents joined her -- were difficult for Niu, as she tried to master a new language in a foreign place without many friends. Niu later moved to San Francisco (where she still resides today) and credits the Chinese population in the city for helping her feel more at home. She landed in the Guinness Book of Records for her act and became a regular at NBA games.
"All the time I spent practicing, it's a good feeling to get a positive return on it," she said.
A week and a half into the NBA season, Niu has performed in Memphis, Orlando, Oklahoma City and Minnesota. As we spoke last Wednesday, she was in Utah prepping for a halftime performance at the team's home opener that evening. The travel schedule is hectic, even more gruesome than what the schedule makers put together for the teams. On the occasional off day, she spends time with her mother in San Francisco.
After getting back to the routine these past few weeks, Niu admits to feeling more like her old self again. After two years away, Red Panda is back, and doesn't plan on leaving anytime soon.
"I missed it," Niu said. "The crowd. The energy. The challenge. From my heart, I feel like this is a part of my home. Although I lost my father, I still have this part of my life with me, just like before."