In March 2007, the Houston Rockets were home for the New Jersey Nets and a serious injury occurred on the floor, but it didn't involve any of the players. Clutch, the Rockets' mascot, attempted to launch himself in a full belly flop onto Sly, the Nets' mascot, who was lying supine on a conference table that was going to, in theory, snap under the weight of the two. Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment, the table was placed too close to the trampoline that was to send Clutch flying.
"I completely missed it and I didn't know it until I was in the air," Robert Boudwin, the man inside the Clutch suit for the last 17 years, recalls. "There's Sly from the Nets laid out on the table and I'm looking at him [thinking], 'Oh, I'm clearing him!'"
He came crashing to the floor, first landing on his giant bear head, which somewhat cushioned the blow. But the second half of the fall was on his lower back. Boudwin had opted for the tight, lycra "muscle Clutch" bodysuit over the normal teddy bear outfit, offering himself little protection against the fall.
"At first, I didn't feel anything but the humiliation of the skit gone wrong," he says. "So, I quick jumped up, threw an elbow on Sly and snapped the table. I jumped up after the elbow and my left leg just went to jelly."
He was dragged off the floor by his assistant, Dominic Davila, and team CEO Tad Brown, who tried to remove the huge costume head in the tunnel, but Boudwin protested, not wanting fans to see him as half man, half mascot. Davila and Brown managed to get him deeper into the tunnel out of the view of paying customers before the head came off again.
The result of the fall was a trip to the hospital and permanent arthritis in his sacrum that still bothers him, particularly when he runs long distances. Despite the pain and a recovery he admits took a month, he didn't miss a game, making it back only two nights later to the Toyota Center, where he gingerly hobbled around during the annual Clutch birthday celebration. "I spent most of my night on the Segway," he said.
Most onlookers might think that all mascots do is throw on a costume and clown around at games, that it's a job a high-school kid could do part time. The truth is, mascots work hundreds of events per year doing brutally physical work that leaves them bruised and exhausted. After 17 years of this kind of wear and tear, it would make sense if Boudwin, now 37, began to limit the skits that have caused him numerous injuries, but that isn't the case. "I dialed everything up this year," he says of the Rockets' current season. "I'm much more energetic." And it's all thanks to boxing.
Yes, boxing. The man behind the lovable, huggable bear is a fighter. Last summer, Boudwin was out of shape and going through a painful divorce. Eight months later and having dropped 75 pounds, Boudwin is in fighting shape and taking his sight gags to a new level of crazy, even repeating the stunt that injured him five years ago.
Of course, he almost didn't make it out of year one.
"Rockets Rat, get the heck out of my way! Where's Turbo?" The first season as the new Rocket mascot was not an easy one. The fans, who were in love with Turbo, the high-flying, dunking-machine superhero in tights, had a less than stellar reaction to the giant teddy bear they had begun calling "Rockets Rat." It didn't help that the team was fresh off its second championship and everyone's focus was on the games, not a goofy bear slinging silly string.
Being taunted on a nightly basis and struggling to make ends meet — like most employees new to pro sports teams, Boudwin had a paltry salary and the hundreds of events he would later use to augment his salary were as yet nonexistent — Boudwin tended bar five nights a week and had virtually no social life. The frustration mounted, and he began to rethink his decision to leave college and take the job.
"I was at home alone on New Year's Eve," he explained, "and I can remember crying on the phone to my parents just because I was so miserable."
It wasn't always this way. The self-described "Mr. Delaware" was a popular fixture on the relatively small University of Delaware campus before coming to Houston. The same was true of high school, where he got his first experience as a mascot. Senior cheerleaders at Boudwin's high school, in a suburb of his hometown of Philadelphia, traditionally recruited the wackiest senior guy to be the mascot for the year. Boudwin, who called himself "the class clown that didn't end up in detention," was the perfect fit, donning a makeshift Trojan uniform of face paint and, as he described it, "the largest girls' cheerleading skirt as a kilt."
When he reached college, it never occurred to him to try out for the mascot job until he met a bunch of cheerleaders — a recurring theme — at a dorm party who encouraged him to try out the very next day. When he showed up, his only competitor was the two-year incumbent, who was universally hated. An hour and one flying desk heaved across the classroom during his tryout later, he had the gig.
Boudwin admits that cheerleaders have been a common thread in his choice to roam the sidelines in costume. "I dated the captain of the cheerleaders in high school," he said. "I dated the captain of the cheerleaders in college." His ex-wife was a member of the Rockets Power Dancers when he met her, and she went on to run the squad.
His flirtatiousness is evident as Clutch, as he often pretends to hit on women while in character. At a recent game, he followed one particularly attractive woman from the floor, up the stairs and onto the concourse, walking behind her like a zombie to the delight of onlookers. "I figured, most guys would follow her," he said.
Back at Delaware, what seemed like a fun part-time job and a way to hang out with cheerleaders quickly turned into a serious passion. When he took over the job his sophomore year, then-university president Dr. David Roselle was attempting to rebrand the university right down to the mascot. Boudwin helped craft the look and personality of the now-famous Delaware mascot, YoUDee.
"He sure did get our mascot program off to a very good beginning," Roselle said. "He greatly increased the attractiveness of wearing a costume." One local newspaper went so far as to claim that YoUDee was the most popular resident of Delaware, besting the governor and even Vice President Joe Biden. "Everybody knows who YoUDee is and Robert is the guy who got that going," Roselle said.
That success ultimately led to his tryout with the Rockets. Working as an instructor for the Universal Cheerleader Association in California in the summer of 1995 — a summer he called the "best ever" because he was surrounded by "beautiful California girl cheerleaders" — he was recommended to the Rockets as a possible candidate for their new mascot that would fit the "teddy bear" concept team owner Leslie Alexander wanted.
His interview with the team was unorthodox, to say the least. The four finalists were taken to Memorial City Mall, where they took turns clowning around the food court. "They didn't have a bear costume yet, so they rented a gorilla costume from Frankel's," Boudwin said. The candidates drew straws to see who would get the honor of wearing the sweaty gorilla costume last. Boudwin was third. With the league in a lockout, Boudwin had returned to Delaware to begin his senior season when he got a phone call from the Rockets. He was in Houston a week later, and began crafting a uniform and personality for the bear that would ultimately be named Clutch.
While his popularity in costume didn't at first carry over from Delaware, there were moments that helped convince Boudwin to stick it out. One particular instance involved the rival Seattle Sonics, a coach's son, a security guard and, as usual, silly string.
Coach George Karl's freckle-faced young son was notorious for screaming for his dad's team in opponents' arenas. A fan suggested to Clutch that he do something about the kid, which he did by spraying him with silly string, to the delight of fans in that section. But when an overzealous security guard who was unfamiliar with the new mascot tried to usher him off the floor, Boudwin had his first real moment of pushing the envelope in Houston. He showered the guard with a barrage of silly string and it was caught on camera. "I had never heard 16,000 people laugh at something I had done before," he said.
It's 7 p.m. on a Saturday in late March and about 100 friends and family members of Boudwin have gathered at the Slava Boxing Gym to watch the main event, a charity sparring match between Boudwin and Eric "Grizz" McMahon, the mascot for the Memphis Grizzlies. Decked out in black with a rainbow-colored mohawk, Boudwin is warming up on a speed bag before a quick three rounds against his sparring partner, a large Russian man aptly named Ivan, before facing McMahon.
It is about 10 degrees warmer and about 20 percentage points more humid inside the dingy, well-worn gym than it is outside. Tucked inside a corrugated aluminum warehouse complex just north of downtown, it looks like the set of a boxing-movie workout montage, complete with a pair of sparring rings, an assortment of heavily taped punching bags and rusty exercise equipment. The dressing room consists of dime-store sofas and a shower that hasn't been safe to use in years — a conspicuous warning sign alerts visitors to the obvious.
"You go there to work out, sweat, inflict pain on yourself and then leave," Boudwin said, "It's smelly, dirty and everything a boxing gym should be."
Before 2006, Boudwin had never been in the ring. In fact, he had never really been in fights; well, almost never. "[My younger brother and I] actually used to fight so much, we got kicked out of a hockey league and we played on the same team," he said. "The refs didn't know what to do because they'd never seen two kids on the same team fight."
In 2006, he joined a co-worker at a gym near the Toyota Center, but was unable to keep up with it when he moved out to the suburbs with his wife and newborn twin sons. After his divorce last year, he moved back into town and immediately began working out at Slava to get into better shape, something that's a necessity for Boudwin and his fellow mascots, who deal with the brutal physicality of being mascots night after night.
Jazz Bear, the mascot for the Utah Jazz, who prefers to keep his human identity a secret, said: "I've got a workers' comp list that is a mile long." After 20 years as an NBA mascot, Jazz Bear, 44, has undergone five major surgeries and admits it takes him 15 minutes to get out of bed in the morning. "I'm like an 80-year-old stuck in a 40-year-old's body," he said, the permanently back-bowed pinky finger of his left hand on display as evidence.
Longtime mascots like Jazz Bear and Rocky from Denver — who also prefers to keep his human identity to himself — bristle at the notion that what they do is a part-time gig that could be done by anyone. "Sometimes we're not taken seriously," admits Rocky, who, at 45, is the oldest and longest-tenured mascot in the NBA. Much of their work is done away from the bright lights of the arena. NBA mascots average more than 200 events per year including games. Boudwin has performed at as many as five events and two games in two cities in less than 48 hours. The grueling schedule requires hours of prep time and rehearsal not only to get bits right, but to keep from getting hurt and to look convincing doing them.
"It's very hard to make somebody believe that it was spontaneous when we've known all week that this is exactly what was going to happen," the Grizzlies' McMahon, 32, explains. "Ninety percent of our jobs are behind the scenes."
It's obvious these guys are a tight-knit group. Not only do they take time to meet in the offseason to trade notes and share experiences, but many of them have become close friends. "At times, this can be a bit of a lonely job," admits Boudwin. "Rarely does a day go by where I don't talk to another mascot."
That camaraderie is important for a bunch of guys who, from the outside, often look and act like crazy people in costume. "You need to look like a lunatic," Boudwin said, "but you can't be a lunatic."
"I need a can of silly string primed and ready to go, a sign that says 'Rockets Stink' and an inflated basketball." It's 90 minutes before the Houston Rockets tip off against division rival the Memphis Grizzlies and Boudwin is shouting orders to his assistants in an oversized dressing room in the bowels of the Toyota Center. Despite the fall that left him with a chronic injury, he is about to attempt the stunt again. For Boudwin, it's all about pushing the envelope.
While silly string and hugging children may be at the heart of what most mascots do, Clutch's pure-id persona allows for some pretty outlandish behavior. On environmental night at Toyota Center, fans were treated to a videotaped skit of a green-suited Clutch pouring hot coffee on the head of a Rockets employee for overusing paper cups. Other scenes found him full-on tackling people when they didn't recycle. But not every bit makes it past the higher-ups with the team.
One of Clutch's signature moves has been having his photo taken while he's holding a baby and pretending not to return the child to the mother. In one skit he pitched early in his tenure with the Rockets, he wanted to take it a step further by actually racing off the floor carrying the baby with the mother chasing him. Backstage, he was going to switch the baby with a doll, come back out with the mother in hot pursuit, hit a trampoline and dunk the doll before revealing the gag to the audience. Boudwin thought the gag, which he had modified from a stunt he saw in the movie Jackass, would be funny. "I pitched that to our CEO at the time and I remember the response was, 'Hmmmm...no. That's sick.'"
Early in his career, Boudwin admits, he often missed the mark. "At first, I couldn't stand him," Rocky says of Clutch. "He was obnoxious." Boudwin believes that was a fair assessment. "I think where I was weak as a young performer is when I would get a negative reaction," he said. "I would take it very personally and then I would exploit that person to make the other people in that section laugh, and that's not a good choice."
Unlike stand-up comedians, who can rip hecklers and poke fun at anyone, Boudwin knows now he has to keep it light and remember that most fans are there to see the game, not the sideshow. "In stand-up comedy, [the comedian is] the cake. I'm just the icing," Boudwin said.
Since those early days, he has refined his act and channeled a near boundless energy into making himself one of the most well-respected mascots in the league. "He's driven like nobody I've ever met before," says Jason Kholl, the team's vice president of corporate development and a close friend of Boudwin's. "Everything he does, he does it the best." And it's not just his co-workers who think so. "I think he is if not the best, one of the best in the league and who has ever been," McMahon said.
But the maturity and the success haven't stopped him from walking the line between funny and over the top. As lovable a character as he may be, he must play to adults much of the time, which means some wild stunts and risqué moves on and off the floor.
During a dance-off routine between his fellow mascots and the Power Dancers at a recent game, Clutch was stripped down to just an oversized pink thong during the song "Sexy and I Know It." And at virtually every game, he tightropes along the barrier dividing the floor from the lower bowl seats, a bit that can be dangerous given the costume's tunnel vision and nearby drunk, rowdy fans. "At times I have to be the dad with the stern voice even with adults," says Davila, Boudwin's right-hand man since 2001. "Once they realize [I am] the bodyguard for Clutch, they back off."
Everyone wants a piece of the furry mascot, particularly the kids who follow him around with Justin Bieber-like adoration. Boudwin indulges them all, signing dozens of autographs and posing for as many photos every game. "The worst thing that ever happened to mascots was the camera phone," Boudwin said, "but I'm never going to turn down a picture or an autograph."
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Boudwin's enthusiasm has even managed to coax sometimes reticent celebrities out of their shells. He has sat on the laps of Madonna and Jack Nicholson. He's played ping-pong with tennis star Andy Roddick and persuaded Adam Sandler, Kevin Costner and even Tiger Woods to come onto the floor to putt, even though he hadn't told them in advance what he was going to do. "He gets people to come out of their comfort zone," Kholl said.
Back at the gym before the fight, Boudwin worked a speed bag to warm up. On his way to the dressing room, he spotted his two young sons and forced them to give him a kiss before he got in the ring. Despite the fact that both he and McMahon were in full protective gear, Boudwin took a couple hard hits from the Grizzlies' mascot and faked a knockout after the final bell. "I won one, I lost one," he said of his two sparring matches. It's a far cry from when he started boxing six years ago. "When I first heard boxing, I thought I didn't want to go get beat up," he said.
Now he can see that the energy he gets from boxing makes it easier for him to push his own limits and those of his alter ego, Clutch. Recently he ran the Houston Marathon, and the following weekend he did the Rockets 5k fun run in costume in the rain. "It was brutal," he said. "The 5k as Clutch was harder than the marathon."
Talking with some of the other mascots, particularly older ones like Rocky and Jazz Bear, it's clear they don't believe they can do this forever, the physical toll and the excessive time commitment for an NBA mascot being what they are. But Boudwin seems more energized than ever. "I think they'll be burying me in this thing," he said.