Clutch is more than a furry cheerleader with hilarious non-verbal antics parading around Houston's Toyota Center. Having shadowed the Rockets mascots at a recent game, I’m not sure anyone is more excited to see the NBA back in action than Clutch himself.
With the Rockets riding a seven-game winning streak going into Wednesday night's home game against the Milwaukee Bucks, there's more reason to be excited than many people probably thought as well.
During those tumultuous NBA Lockout talks, people were concerned about the players. Then came growing concern for the dance teams, the athletic trainers, the customer service staff and the food vendors. Those part-time folks that relied on that extra income to pay bills became another concern.
With sweat dripping down his face, Boudwin (who can now talk because he’s not near any of the fans) huffs and puffs, “Man, I missed this.”
But did anyone stop to think about the mascots who are just as much a part of basketball as David Stern himself?
Clutch (or Robert Boudwin, the excited human inside) is a full-time front office employee with the Houston Rockets, as is his “Mascot Coordinator” Dominic Davila, who wears “Rocketman” on the back of his silver suit — the silver suit that accompanies Clutch almost anywhere inside and outside the Toyota Center.
A day in the life of an NBA mascot:
- Clutch and crew arrive to the Toyota Center at least two hours before the game. (For the sold-out crowd on opening night, they got there four hours early to rehearse the season’s new skits. The skit Clutch was most pumped about was set to the tune of Aerosmith's "Back in the Saddle.")
Remember, Clutch is a full-time Rockets employee, so on game days, he walks from his upstairs office down to his personal dressing room on floor level which makes for an extremely long day.
- About an hour before tipoff, Clutch hops on his Segway, zips around the concourse high-fiving vivacious fans and then heads outside to the Budweiser Lift-Off pregame concert for photo-ops and a dance party. After a few minutes of pictures, he hops on stage, grabs a microphone, does a jig or two and then his “handlers” forcefully encourage him to get back on his ride and head up to the Memorial Hermann Sky Court, because they too have a game clock to abide by.
- Clutch heads back into the Toyota Center with his crew guiding him the entire way. “Clutch, duck your head,” they yell as he gets into a private service elevator. “Clutch, turn left and look down,” they call out so he’ll notice the little kid below him trying desperately for a high-five.
Boudwin's crew serves as his eyes and ears while he's suited up — not to mention his voice. The most important rule as a mascot — NO TALKING WHILE IN THE SUIT.
“Please take two hats, two T-shirts and a new box of popcorn to her and give her a big fat I’m sorry,” Boudwin says.
Clutch relies on his nonverbals (ferociously waving, shaking his midsection, jumping up and down) to show fans his excitement and feelings. But when it’s needed (and I assure you, it is), Dominic, his coordinator for the past 11 years, speaks for him.
“Sorry kids, Clutch has to keep going,” or “Watch out guys, Clutch is coming through,” he yells to keep Clutch on his already tight schedule. Somehow Clutch still manages to find time to get in the face of an opposing team's fan while Rockets fans laugh and capture it all on their iPhones.
- Pulling up to the sky court, there is already a line of fans of all ages, eagerly waiting. For the next 15 minutes, Clutch’s big furry hand autographs mini-sized posters and stops long enough for fans to take a photo. (Note: his handlers have to hand the poster to the fans, because Clutch’s hands are too big and clumsy to grab that flimsy piece of glossy paper.)
- Clutch makes his graceful exit (literally oblivious to all the fans trying to pull him from all directions for their own family photo) and heads down to his personal dressing room, which sits directly across from the Rockets team locker room. Finally, he gets to take his head off.
With sweat dripping down his face, Boudwin (who can now talk because he’s not near any of the fans) huffs and puffs, “Man, I missed this.” While in his room, he chugs two bottles of water, and changes the sopping wet Dri-Fit shirt he wears under his costume (he sweats through at least seven each game).
Because of how hot it gets in the suit, Clutch is supposed to take a break (with water and sans bear head) every 15 minutes. Sometimes he gets so into the crowd, he forgets how long he’s been out there and his team has to literally drag him behind the black curtains on the side of the court.
- Behind the curtain, Clutch is once again gasping for air. His arms are tired from holding up the bulky and awkwardly shaped 8’ x 4’ x 4’ box sign, which weighs exactly 40 pounds (the largest in sports) over his head multiple times while simultaneously leading the crowd in chants. Again, he changes his sweat-laden shirt right there in the confines of the hallway.
Meanwhile Mini-Clutch (also sweating and panting) hands a pink Starburst to his coordinator, who instinctively knew to unwrap it for him because his bear hands made it impossible. The pair heads back out to flirt with the Rockets Power Dancers.
- Back in his dressing room, Clutch and crew review their pre-printed schedule of events and appearances. As he gets ready for a seat visit to a fan in section 125, he’s checking his can of Silly String to make sure it’s got plenty of ammo. The whole crew heads over to the seats and for a solid 55 seconds, Clutch douses the diehard Rockets fan in pink and blue Silly String.
Meanwhile Mini-Clutch is on the concourse taking photos. A nearby woman asks Clutch to hold her baby for a photo (surprisingly the tiny baby doesn’t even cry) and Clutch nonchalantly walks away with the baby.
When Clutch finally returns the baby, fans are lined up waiting for their own photos to immediately upload to Facebook.
- During this whole charade, Clutch’s bulky arms accidentally spill a fan’s popcorn. Because of the major lack of peripheral visibility from the costume head, Clutch has no idea. Back in the dressing room one of the coordinators tells Clutch (who at this point has morphed back into Robert) that she looked displeased.
“Please take two hats, two T-shirts and a new box of popcorn to her and give her a big fat I’m sorry,” Boudwin says genuinely.
- A few minutes later, another timeout is called and Clutch is once again snapping his red Rockets uniform over his furry arms, putting his head on, and heading back out on the court. My all-time favorite Clutch move is when he strips off his jersey directly in the line of view of San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker who is trying to sink two free throws.
Clutch is left wearing nothing but his ginormous shoes (size 22 BB for double bear) and then once again scurries behind the curtain (while Dominic literally picks up the pieces).
Just from the play-by-play listed above, you can see Clutch is a busy man. Um, bear.
If you’ve ever wondered why he doesn’t stay in one place too long, it’s because fans will bombard him and he’ll never make it to another section or back on the court for his scheduled skits. Plus, fans will miss out on the improv nonsense.
Mascots have rules too. Here are just a few:
- Signs behind the basket during opposing team free throws cannot be larger than 17” x 11”.
- Mascots may not walk directly adjacent to the court (courtside) during play
- Mascots may not target or ridicule a specific player from an opposing team
- The use of pyrotechnic is prohibited once the game has begun and can only be used pregame with prior written league permission
After following Clutch around for an entire game, I’m not sure who gets more of a run in — the Rockets starting five or the bear and his crew.
Introducing the Clutch Crew:
Robert Boudwin — Clutch, in his 17th season.
Dominic Davila — Full time assistant/sidekick/manager/agent/bodyguard/secretary/translator/right arm (as quoted by Clutch)
Michael Gonzales — Clutch Crew on game nights
Michael Trussel — Clutch Crew on game nights
Brandon (Tuff) Schoenberg — Mini-Clutch