The Man Behind the Rockets' Clutch the Bear Hangs Up His Sneakers

It promises to be a busy two weeks for Robert Boudwin. On Tuesday, he turns 42 and there is a decent chance his wife will give birth to twin daughters. But most who know him as his more public persona were caught off guard this past week when he went to Facebook and announced his retirement. For the past 21 years, Boudwin has been the man behind Clutch the Bear, the beloved Houston Rockets mascot.

During his Hall of Fame career (yes, there is a mascot hall), Boudwin has dropped from the rafters, leaped off trampolines, tightroped along arena dividing walls and run marathons...all in the bear suit. But with the prospect of a growing family and the unpredictability of a new season's schedule, he knew it was the right time to hang up his oversize high tops. "Some weeks I might be working 90 hours; other weeks, 25 hours," he says. "A lot of that time is night and weekend work. It’s not the most conducive job for being a father of five."

Boudwin is particularly proud of the fact that he is one of only five professional mascots (three in the NBA) remaining who invented their character (he is the only man to portray Clutch in Rockets history) and have played them for more than 20 years. One of the elder statesmen of professional mascots, he knew the ride couldn't last forever. "I've been doing this half my life," he explains. "I always knew the day would come when I would do something else. I wasn’t going to be 60 years old in a teddy bear costume.”

We profiled Boudwin in 2012, when he was a spry 37-year-old. "I think they'll be burying me in this thing," he told us of the Clutch suit. Today, he admits there will be things he will miss. He loved doing shows for schoolchildren in particular. He and his team performed more than 1,700 shows for more than 1.2 million kids in 20 years, so much so that he has influenced an entire generation.

At one such event last year, he recalled something a teacher told him: “That show was even better the second time.” When he asked if she was a teacher at another school where he performed, she described a different scenario. “No, I saw it when I was in fourth grade," she said. "I became a schoolteacher like you told me to 15 years ago.”

But, more than anything, Boudwin will miss making throngs of fans at Toyota Center laugh. "[When you do a skit] and it works and there’s a guffaw of 18,000 people, that was the most amazing, addictive, euphoric experience in the world.”

He now hopes to take his skills at marketing in a different direction. He did, after all, launch one of the most successful mascots in sports. “We went from ‘why is there a teddy bear for the Houston Rockets?’ to building a social media following, worldwide appearances, school shows, media stunts, children’s books, and that’s something that always appealed to me — the marketing and brand-building side of it.” He has already launched a new website and hopes to work with people looking for something non-traditional.

For the moment, Boudwin plans to take a couple of months off, something he hasn't done in two decades. As much as he has loved performing as the fuzzy, overweight bear, he says there are only two things he is focused on at the moment: "being a husband and being a dad."
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke