The Bear facts: The Utah Jazz 16-year mascot, Bear, balances life of court jester, charity king
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — He speaks, and with a slight Minnesota accent — just not in public. He grew up on a farm, went to school at Moorhead State, knows what it feels like when a bursa sac bursts, knows what a bursa sac is, served in a risky military position in the Gulf War.
And, yes, he and Mama Bear have three little bears.
That you might not have known about the Utah Jazz's mascot, Bear.
You do know, perhaps even cheer or fear, how he makes a habit and a living out of jumping on a plastic sled and sliding face-first at scary speeds down steep stairs at EnergySolutions Arena.
Over the years, you've also witnessed Bear launch his furry self through rings of fire to dunk basketballs, rappel from the rafters or do the splits (on purpose).
You've watched him goof off with referees and players, spray funky materials on people, use opposing fans as skit props, land hard on his undercarriage, rev up his loud motorcycle, display much more athleticism in a 00 Jazz jersey than the only Utah player to wear that number (Greg Ostertag), and literally go to great heights to both entertain and freak out thousands of onlookers.
You've seen the Hall of Fame mascot do a whole lot of wacky stuff in action.
So, would it shock anybody to learn that one of the NBA franchise's most cherished assets — the guy who leads the crowd in mass pandemonium and does the "Y-M-C-A" while dangerously standing 20-plus feet in the air — admit that he was something between courageous and crazy when he was a cub?
Didn't think so.
Sure enough, long before he increased the worth of Silly String's stock value, Bear got a kick out doing logic-defying and dangerous acts around — and on top of — his family's farm in Minnesota.
As a kid, the little daredevil knew exactly where his dad stored the ladder and the car keys, and he wasn't afraid to put them to use.
When his parents weren't looking, of course.
"I remember," Bear fondly recalls, "almost once a week climbing up our house, or the warehouse or the barn, or climbing the garage or a tree."
The climbing conquests weren't the only way he drove his parents wild. He'd also sneak into their cars and drive around in a nearby field.
All before turning 11.
Bear laughs about having no supervision in his youth.
Go ahead, cringe.
"They were just not able to keep up with me," he says of his dearly departed parents. "I was pretty OCD, ACD, AC/DC, ADD, all that stuff. I was just pretty hyperactive."
Just so happens he's made a career out of taking those wild antics to another level. His mischievous farm-boy fun proved to be hands-on training.
"I have the capacity now and the job," he explains, "to act like a 10-year-old and get paid for it."
Sure beats the sanitation gig Bear jokingly tells some people he has in an effort to maintain his cherished anonymity.
Bear didn't grow up thinking he'd become Bear.
In college, he worked in a gymnastics gym, even though he admits to having more farmer in him than gymnast. One day at work, somebody from a new Continental Basketball Association team called the Fargo Fever popped in and asked if anyone would be interested in becoming the North Dakota squad's mascot.
The athletic Moorhead State student couldn't resist the adrenaline rush or the cash: $25 per game. "Being a poor college student, I was, like, '25 bucks!?' Man, I'll do it."
And that's how Thermo the Bobcat was born.
With a "bulky and cumbersome" suit — a far cry from his customized and movement-friendly Bear costume — he specialized in prank falls, beating himself up and, yes, sledding down steep stairs.
Thermo was a hit — until he got fired. The Fever feared he'd kill himself or someone else.
"They thought," he says, "I was a liability hazard."
Publicity over his dismissal actually helped him get a gig in Manitoba, Canada. The Winnipeg Thunder told him, "You're kind of what we're looking for — somebody a little bit more crazy."
And that's how Kaboom the Polar Bear was born.
Kaboom finished the season and returned to school, but soon his phone rang again. On the other line — the U.S. military. His new job was quite a bit more dangerous than being a mascot. The National Guard volunteer was assigned with the risky task of being a forward observer in Operation Desert Storm. His "13 Fox Trot" unit bravely scouted ahead of the front line, spotting and calling artillery to help protect and guide the troops behind them.
Dangerous, sure. But that was part of the thrill for Bear.
"You'd see the rounds come in, you'd have to adjust your artillery to hit something," he says. "It was kind of fun. It was like a video game."
After returning from war, he considered becoming a career Army guy. But another call — this one from a hoops team called the Sioux Falls Skyforce — convinced him otherwise. He showed them his highlight tape and was hired.
And that's how both Thunder the Wolf and his idea of becoming a professional mascot were born.
From there, he sent out resumes to all NBA teams, and his timing couldn't have been better. The Jazz, the Sacramento Kings and the Seattle SuperSonics were all hiring mascots and held a combined tryout in Salt Lake City. Still a poor college student, he almost sold his truck to buy round-trip airfare to Utah. His thinking was, "This is something I really need to do to see if I was meant to do, and I'll kick myself if I don't do it."
He didn't have to sell the truck, after all. The Jazz called him just as he was searching the classified ads for a listing phone number, offering to pay his way. They had a hunch he was their kind of crazy, too.
Only eight of 25 applicants showed up for the tryout at Westminster College. Two things from the experience stick out in Bear's mind: 1. He left believing the others were so good he didn't have a chance, particularly not against an Arizona State tumbler and an out-of-the-gym dunker. And, 2. Being the last guy to perform and wear the gorilla costume wasn't exactly ideal. The foam pad inside of the mask had collected moisture. Lots of moisture. "It was like somebody squeezed a sponge over my face and it was all their sweat."
(Bear has nine costumes because he sweats through his 30-pound fur furnaces so fast, so he can laugh about it now.)
Bear also reminisces about getting a call-back. For the second tryout, three wannabe court jesters had to entertain people at Valley Fair Mall while wearing a Barney suit. Judges wanted to see how well they interacted with crowds when not wowing them with their athleticism.
Bear took his turn in the purple suit and then returned to North Dakota, again doubting that he'd become Bear (or Barney). A few phone calls later, though, and he had his choice of mascot jobs in Utah, Sacramento and Seattle.
Stunned and unsure about leaving the security of his small town, he didn't respond to any of the offers. Fans can thank Grant Harrison, then the Jazz's director of promotions, for convincing him to take the job in Utah.
And that's how Bear, whose new wage was a bit sweeter than $25 a game, was born.
Bear debuted at the Delta Center on Nov. 4, 1994, rappelling down from a catwalk high above the court (a stunt now banned by the NBA) to introduce himself. He chuckles about an early review: "Bear appears to be in dire need of Ritalin," Deseret News columnist Doug Robinson wrote. "He possesses serious energy. Winnie the Pooh, he's not."
And thank goodness for that. Christopher Robin's chubbier friend would struggle to strut around on stilts, walk on handrails, do one-paw handstands atop a 21-foot ladder (his newest trick) or bike off a ramp at the bottom of stairs.
And Pooh would never think about soaring through the arena on a zip line or sledding through a chute from the upper bowl to the court below — stunts Bear is daydreaming about trying.
He's tamer than he was 16 years ago, Bear insists. No Ritalin required anymore for the NBA's longest-tenured mascot (at least the man behind the mask). But he still gets a rush out of making crowds go nuts doing his trademark stunts that many cuter and cuddlier mascots wouldn't dare try.
"You get down and you look at everybody, and the crowd's cheering; it's euphoric," Bear admits. "It's so fun. It's a good time. I wouldn't know what to do without it."
By the way, Bear hopes not to find out how being without that energy surge feels like for at least a few more years — health permitting. He's injured just about every body part, it seems. Earlier this season, he broke a big toe, and he recently pulled a quadricep muscle, and then there was the time a bursa sac in his elbow burst during a game, requiring its removal and stitches before he returned for action. That night. Bear is from the John Stockton mold — he doesn't miss games, only four in 16 seasons, with two absences happening because he attended his parents' funerals.
Bear's intense drive is simple: "I enjoy what I do. I like being able to take the costume and the character and give back to the community. I just feel part of the community. I feel part of the team."
There's another big thing Bear wouldn't want to do without. Along with the 50-plus home games he attends, Bear makes about 250 out-of-arena appearances. About 95 percent of his visits are for philanthropic purposes — to spread cheer at places like Primary Children's Medical Center, to help children in need get Christmas presents (Bear Hugs for Kids) and for dozens and dozens of other worthwhile causes.
The Jazz's goodwill ambassador, he is.
"I think the most important part of my job is doing charity work, doing things with children and trying to be part of the community," he says. "But all of it is fun."
Fun for the whole community, which is why two different governors honored him with a Jazz Bear Day in Utah and why the wildly popular mammal has probably signed more autographs than all of the current players combined.
Per mascot tradition, Bear prides himself on keeping his inner-Clark Kent secret. (The newspaper agreed to protect Bear's real name, mostly out of fear of Silly String repercussions.)
Bear tells most who ask that he works for the Jazz's game-operations staff, which, unlike his sanitation sensationalism, is the truth. The unmasked man just doesn't reveal that he's the one diving into the stands, walking on his hands, slinging balls to fans or tackling guys in sumo outfits.
"Believe it or not," Bear said, "(I) still have friends, really good friends, that don't know what I do."
His wife and their three young daughters know. But he says they're "under sworn secrecy never to tell anybody," which they haven't.
They've seen what the old farmer from Minnesota can do to people with aerosol cans.
Because he's out and about usually six days a week during the Jazz season, Bear jokes that he spends more time with his assistant, Luke Larsen, than with his own family.
"During the season a couple of years ago," he says, "my middle daughter asked my wife if I still lived in the house."
That's why Bear hibernates with his family in the summer.
"We try to take time off," he says, "because we have to reintroduce ourselves, and (I) say, 'Hi, I'm your father. I'd like to get to know you again.' "
After that part's over, Papa Bear, Mama Bear and the three little bears all grab their sleds and head for the stairs.
Or so you might imagine.
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