A game in the life of La Salle the Explorer

Our man in the oversize head had to wonder: Will my next move be a moonwalk . . . or a faceplant onto the boards at La Salle's Gola Arena?STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Our man in the oversize head had to wonder: Will my next move be a moonwalk . . . or a faceplant onto the boards at La Salle's Gola Arena?STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: November 11, 2012

"Just be goofy. No one can see you."

With those words of advice from La Salle sophomore Keala Evans - my appointed mascot handler - I got inside the La Salle Explorer's grinning and comically oversize head last weekend to see what it's like to be a Big 5 mascot.

The Explorer, nemesis of the Saint Joseph's Hawk, the Villanova Wildcat, the Temple Owl and the Penn Quaker, is a wide-eyed swashbuckler who pumps up the crowd at my alma mater during basketball season at the Tom Gola Arena in Olney. As that costumed weirdo, I hoped to understand why the city's storied Big 5 athletic league even needs giant animals and cartoonish characters in historical dress to keep the crowd happy.

Isn't Big 5 basketball enough?

For the next 40 minutes of play, I ran onto the court when timeouts were called, breaking out dance moves normally reserved for nights of drinking. I fist-bumped strangers and flirted with cheerleaders. I pestered writers at the media table. Here's what I learned from my time inside the head:

First off, these big heads are heavy. The Explorer's noggin is a surprisingly weighty foam and plastic monstrosity. I stared into the Explorer's empty eyes before I put it on, admiring his goatee - eerily similar to mine.

Inside the head, I felt sealed off. I could barely hear SportsWeek photographer Steve Falk as he ribbed me. I could barely see through the Explorer's mouth, a five-inch window that gave me near-perfect tunnel vision. I could barely breathe through the musk of stale sweat.

Evans had to guide me back to the arena, and I shuffled ridiculously as my feet slid around inside the costume's boots. For a split second before I followed the team's cheerleaders onto the court, I doubted my intentions. I could barely walk in the boots, let alone run and dance. Faceplanting onto the Gola Arena's hardwood would be a nightmare. But then I remembered: No one can see that it's me in here.

I sucked it up, confident that if I did fall on my face, I'd do it as the Explorer, not Vinny Vella.

Acting belovedly antic is harder than it looks. I had prepped for my big night, a low-risk exhibition game against Canada's Carleton University, by reaching out to the best mascot there is. Tom Burgoyne, who has crawled around inside the green felt of

the Phillie Phanatic for 25 years, told me this: "You can't half-a-- it. You've gotta be energetic and give the people what they want."

With those words in my ears, I waltzed up and down the sidelines in the opening minutes of the first quarter, eager to pump up the fans. People pointed and laughed, but few returned my high fives - and one guy tried to dislodge my head.

After a few dozen failed attempts at engaging fans, I slinked off to the corner by the bleachers. I would've stayed there, too, if it weren't for one of La Salle's rented security guards. "Hey man," he said as I clapped halfheartedly. "Shouldn't you be dancing?"

Ouch. Even mascots have pride. As the first half drew to a close, I amped up my routine. I took laps around the sidelines. I incorporated elaborate dance moves - Thriller! the Human Sprinkler! - and kept moving as La Salle's pep band pumped out Top 40 songs.

My aha moment came just before halftime, when a girl started mimicking me, challenging me to a dance-off of sorts.

I accepted, and it was a hit: Her friends laughed, she laughed, and I realized I would survive this mascot stunt after all.

Did the crowd love me? Did everyone cheer for me? Absolutely not. But there were people who at least smiled when they saw my eagerness to please and who danced when I danced near them. I lost myself in their enthusiasm and discovered my inner Explorer.

When Ramon Galloway sank his final shot in the game's closing seconds to seal La Salle's inconsequential exhibition victory, I threw my Explorer arms up in victory.

Are mascots essential? My barely adequate performance in the role certainly proves that a team can win and that fans will cheer regardless of what a goateed adventurer does on the sidelines. But Big 5 mascots are still a cog in their school's pep machine, a set piece that people accept, even if it's against their will.

Ian Klinger, the St. Joe's junior who works his triceps regularly as the Hawk, said it well (for a bird) when he told me, "When I'm in the suit, I'm representing everything St. Joe's is about."

Part of Klinger's gig - which, by the way, is full time and covers his tuition - is making appearances at weddings, birthdays and other events thrown by St. Joe's alumni. He genuinely cherishes the opportunity to embody "something that has such a major presence in the lives of other people."

So, no, Big 5 basketball doesn't need mascots. But I think it would certainly miss them if they permanently left the arena.

Go, team.

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