originally published January 11, 2012

Today’s column will be rather photo-heavy, not because I’m trying to cheat my word-count (the whole “one picture is worth a thousand words” adage has come to mind before, and I have to say, I like the math), but because I’m going to be discussing a topic many people aren’t familiar with, and which would clearly benefit from visual aids. Yes, I’m talking about mascots.

I was directed to this topic via this little fellow, who resembles some sort of mouthless, mentally-stunted owl. This is Wheedle. From 1978 through 1985, Wheedle danced mutely in the Seattle Kingdome for fans of the NBA’s SuperSonics. He is based on a children’s book, Wheedle on the Needle, in which the character lives atop the Space Needle, devouring passing seagulls and throwing their inedible entrails down on the people below. (I’m guessing; I haven’t read the book)

The Sonics moved back to the Seattle Center Coliseum in 1985, leaving the Wheedle to weep forlornly in the upper bleachers during Seahawks games. The Wheedle was most likely reduced to dust along with the rest of the Kingdome in 2000.

This is the guy who replaced him. No, that isn’t a Wookie, holding a magical orb while it poops, that is Squatch, the geographically-appropriate Sasquatch mascot who joined the team in 1993 up until the Sonics’ relocation to Oklahoma City, at which time Squatch presumably returned to its native habitat of Robin Williams’ forearms.

My local readers may be interested to know that the Edmonton Rush Lacrosse club’s yeti mascot, Slush, apparently grew up with Squatch in the Cascade mountains, according to Slush’s backstory. In a true origin story of Batman-proportions, Squatch showed up at the Rush’s first game to ‘teach’ Slush how to be a mascot. This is on Wikipedia; someone felt this moment should be enshrined in history.

Meet the Utah Jazz Bear. Jazz Bear has won over 50 awards for charity service. This means that more than 50 times, some guy in a suit handed an award in all seriousness to a guy in a bear costume while an audience watched, probably wondering why they weren’t presently engaged in something slightly more fulfilling and/or life-affirming.

This Bear plays with fire (he and Smokey probably don’t get along). According to a Youtube video, he also gets hit by a car, rides a motorcycle, plays a flaming piano, and riles up the crowd by throwing buckets of popcorn at them. The high point of the video occurs just after the two-minute mark, when a fan runs onto the court with a sign declaring “JAZZ SUCK”. He gets chased by a couple guys in suits, then Jazz bear delivers a tackle of Urlacher proportions, laying the guy flat.

Another video shows the mascot having a little fun with a Cleveland Cavaliers fan, holding up an “I’m A Loser” sign behind his head. The fan goes nuts, and after being taken down to the court by security, he breaks away and makes a dash at Jazz Bear, who knocks the guy back on his ass. I am not making fun of Jazz Bear. Jazz Bear is freaking awesome.

On the slightly less bad-ass side of the mascot world, we meet Stuff The Magic Dragon, the unfortunate hallucination that greets fans of the Orlando Magic. From what I can see, he has New Year’s paper noisemaker things in his nostrils. We are supposed to see this as ‘fire’ I guess, but after watching Jazz Bear leap through a ring of actual fire, Stuff is just a disappointment.

In Miami, the Heat fans rely on this Muppet-gone-wrong for their team spirit. This is Burnie, described as “a rough depiction of some fire with a basketball for a nose.” His Wikipedia article actually states that he is the only Jewish mascot in the NBA. Burnie makes me want to give up writing. I could comb the most twisted and addled corners of my imagination, and I could never come up with something as messed up as Burnie. Burnie is the nexus of the universe. I fear Burnie.

During a 1994 exhibition game in Puerto Rico, Burnie picked a woman from the crowd and danced with her. She pulled away from him (during a dance move or in hopes of escaping this clear abomination of the Lord, I don’t know) and fell. As luck would have it she was the wife of a Federal judge, and Burnie was subsequently sued for one million dollars for emotional distress, and charged with aggravated assault and battery. Burnie faced twenty years in a Puerto Rico jail, which I would hope they would make him serve in full costume. The charges were dropped and the case settled for $50,000. No, I didn’t make any of this up.

Burnie isn’t the only mascot to endure some legal trouble. This is Benny the Bull, the mascot of the Chicago Bulls. During the ‘Taste of Chicago’ food festival of 2006, Benny rode through the crowd on a mini-motorcycle. He had no permit to do so, and when asked by a police officer to pull over (mascots are notorious for forgetting their paperwork), Benny took off. He was pursued by the officer and caught, prompting Benny to punch the cop in the face and break his glasses.

Barry Anderson, the guy inside the costume – sorry, this is a spoiler to those who believed these mascots were real – was charged with assault, but the charges were once again dropped when he agreed to pay for the repair to the glasses.

This menacing creature is Clutch, the mascot for the Houston Rockets, because a walking, dancing rocket would have been stupid. Some of you might remember the video back in 2008 in which a man dragged his girlfriend to center court and proposed during a Rockets game. She says no, the guy walks off being consoled by Clutch (as much as any man could be consoled by a 7-foot grinning bear), then gets a free beer when Clutch grabs one from a fan and hands it to him. It’s charming, very quirky, and most likely completely staged.

I hadn’t anticipated such diversity and weirdness in the world of NBA mascots. I think this site needs a mascot, something that says “Look! I’m lovable!” but also “If pitted against Jazz Bear in a knife fight in the rain, I could stand a good chance of winning.”


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