Consensus can be difficult to come by in the world of fabric and foam. But most agree that there likely isn’t a professional sports league that invests more in mascots or shines a brighter spotlight on their work than the NBA. “The NBA does a lot of great things,” said Trey Mock, who performs as Blue, the mascot of the Indianapolis Colts. “That league puts a lot into entertainment. I’m not trying to compare one league to another, but they have been plugging millions and millions of dollars into the entertainment side of the operation for a long time.”
The NBA can offer a lucrative career, current and former mascots told FiveThirtyEight. They estimate that roughly one-third of leading performers earn six figures annually, making it the gold standard among professional leagues.
Current NBA performers told FiveThirtyEight that while teams play only 41 regular-season home games per year, mascots log hundreds of additional events — community outreach opportunities, internal holiday parties, hospital visits, fundraisers, weddings and funerals. “Funerals are about as weird as you’d expect,” one mascot told FiveThirtyEight. More than one said they had been asked to serve as a pallbearer.
Being Bango was his life for 13 years. The now 42-year-old former mascot now resides in the suburbs of Nashville, Tenn., with his wife and five children where he owns and operates SOAR Adventure Tower, an interactive high ropes course catering to all ages. Vanderkolk recently chatted about his time as Bango with The Athletic Wisconsin.
Your most famous stunt is the ladder dunk during the Bucks’ 2010 first-round playoff series against the Hawks. You bought the ladder the day you decided to do it and didn’t get a chance to practice it, right? Oh, man. Yeah. You are right. (laughs) It was one of those stunts on my bucket list. I wanted to do it. I was just waiting for the right moment. I think it was Game 4 against Atlanta. You plan out your games and your skits and your stunts and all of your stuff. And I thought, “Man, if I don’t do it now, I won’t have a chance to do it.” I forget exactly what the series was, but there was no guarantee we were going to get another game. So, if I wanted to do it, I had to do it that game. I was going back and forth about what stunt to do or what skit to do and I finally decided, you know what, I’m going to do it. So, I bought my ladder on my way into work that day.
The most serious injury was the ACL tear at the 2009 All-Star Game, right? Or did you break an ankle at some point? I sprained my ankle more times than you can count and when you do that over and over and over again, you just end up with bone spurs in your joints. So, I have a ton of bone spurs. I’ve had it cleaned out, scoped a couple of times, tried to clean it up, but the ankle was just a little bit of an injury. My biggest injury was my knee. I tore my ACL in 2009 and then it was good for a couple of years and then I tore it again. Those were the two big ones. Other injuries were shoulder separations and broken fingers and little stuff like that, but nothing major.
They had the Luvabulls and the constant din of entertainment. But Benny took what was happening on the floor and brought it into the stands. And he made Benny into a personality. “He didn’t completely reinvent the way we did things,” Wohlschlaeger said, “but he came up with ideas to really promote the brand of Benny within what we were doing in a much grander way. He found ways to establish significant brand strength.”