I can’t recall exactly when my infatuation with Thunder started. It could’ve been when I turned on SportsCenter one night a few years ago to find the muscular mascot dunking over Jamie Foxx, lightning bolts protruding triumphantly from his masked head. Or maybe it was when I saw him dancing between quarters during the 2007 NBA playoffs. That was the year Thunder’s team, the Golden State Warriors, upset the Dallas Mavericks. I remember thinking that the victory was owed as much to Thunder’s inspiring (if not distracting) antics as to the actions of the players.
The Warriors lost in the second round to the Utah Jazz, and with that, Thunder vanished from my consciousness. Little did I know that I’d never see him again. During the off-season, he disappeared. But I didn’t notice right away. After all, the Warriors don’t exactly top the NBA news tickers every day. Their 2007 playoff appearance marks their only postseason berth since the 1993-1994 season.
Fast-forward three and a half years. I have since moved from New York City to the Bay Area, and therefore the Warriors replace the Knicks as my local NBA team. While this can hardly be considered an upgrade given recent performance, the playoff triumph of 2007 is still fondly fresh in my mind.
One night, while flipping through TV channels, I came across one of the Warriors’ preseason games. At first glance, things seemed pretty normal. Oracle Arena was packed to the gills with screaming fans. Star player Monta Ellis, who, at the time, lead the NBA in scoring, was filling up the stat sheet. But upon further inspection, one key element was missing: the buff, bolt-headed mascot.
I rewound my DVR once… twice… my pulse starting to race. Still no sign of Thunder. I started to feel uneasy. Where could he be?
I sat down on my bed, my mind blank. They couldn’t just get rid of him, could they? In this vulnerable moment, nothing made sense in a world that was seemingly crumbling around me. Did he disappear back into the “sudden cloud burst” from which he first appeared (per his official team bio, still peculiarly available on the Warriors website)?
As I clutched my pillow and tried to sleep, I knew I couldn’t truly rest until the truth had been unearthed. My odyssey would begin the following day. I would discover what happened to Thunder, if not only for my personal reference, but for the benefit of mascots and sports fans everywhere.
* * *
The following morning, I flipped open my laptop, determined to find some answers. I quickly learned that the NBA’s Oklahoma City franchise – formerly the Supersonics, who were relocated from Seattle in 2008 – had selected the name Thunder. This forced the Warriors to remove the moniker from their mascot. I gritted my teeth in frustration. Ask any (ex)-Supersonics fan in Seattle, and they’ll tell you that owner Clay Bennett purchased the team with the sole purpose of moving it to Oklahoma City. In fact, “hijacked” tends to be the preferred term. But on top of that, he named his new Oklahoma City franchise after Golden State’s mascot? Was Bennett trying to alienate the entire western seaboard? I was also baffled by Bennett’s decision to make a bison the Oklahoma City team’s new mascot, but that was a battle for another day.
At this moment, I figured my best bet was to track down and speak to someone who had actually worn the Thunder suit. Surely the task of identifying at least one former Thunder would be no match for a determined young man and his Internet connection … or so I thought. I started out simply enough.
Google search: Golden State Warriors mascot identity
Results: The same articles about Thunder’s discontinuation that I had previously discovered. From the looks of things, “identity” wasn’t pulling its weight in this search string.
Google search: Thunder mascot identity
Results: Definitely an ill-advised search. I saw nothing but articles, photos and blog posts referencing Rumble, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s mascot. Clay Bennett strikes again! At this point I started to lose patience – it was time to have a sincere one-on-one with Google, and simply ask my question straight up.
Google search: Who was the Golden State Warriors mascot?
Results: Apparently Google wasn’t interested in my direct advances. I was fed the same news stories that I’d seen countless times, and my patience was fleeting fast. To add insult to injury, there was a strange search result at the bottom of the first page. Apparently an Icelandic illustrator had offered his own interpretation of American mascots. Besides suggesting that the NFL’s Green Bay Packers rebrand their mascot the cheddar-craniumed “Captain Cheese-head,” the illustrator offered several other ideas that made me chuckle but brought me no further to my goal.
Google search: Thunder mascot identity + Golden State Warriors
Results: Aha! Finally some progress. I stumbled upon a comment board entry from 2008 on a blog called Golden State of Mind. A user calling himself “gabezgsw” had written: “I knew of Thunder’s identity and he is a cool guy indeed.” It wasn’t much, but it was a start. I immediately created my own account and direct messaged gabezgsw.
StanfordThunderLover: Hey Gabe, do you really know Thunder? You can be a cool guy too and tell me who he is. I’m researching a story on his unceremonious demise, and you could help give him a voice. Please help me out.
My overture went unanswered, and it soon became clear that Gabe preferred to operate in anonymity amid the shadows of the Internet. Dissatisfied with the findings yielded by my “expert” Google searching, I set out to speak to anyone with actual experience wearing a mascot costume. Through further extensive online searches and countless dead-end phone calls, I finally identified a good source: former Houston Rockets mascot Jerry Burrell.
Burrell, a former Arizona State University varsity athlete, was one of several former members of the university’s gymnastics team to break into the world of NBA mascots. He spent 12 seasons as Turbo, the Rockets superhero mascot, and eventually started his own mascot-training company, Impact Entertainment. Through his work at Impact Entertainment, Burrell has trained a handful of individuals who eventually ended up with mascot jobs in the NBA.
Even before speaking with Burrell, I experienced a breakthrough during our first e-mail correspondence. In addition to agreeing to a conversation, Burrell typed the following fateful words: “You may look up Sadiki Fuller on Facebook. He was trained by me and became Thunder for the Warriors and went on to train other performers.”
I finally had a name, and better yet – the guy was on Facebook! I opened a new window, logged in, and sure enough, there he was. In his profile picture he was unmasked and dunking a basketball in a full business suit. I smiled approvingly, expecting nothing less from the man they used to call Thunder. Should I “friend” him? Or perhaps lob in a “poke”? Finally I elected to send a simple message requesting a conversation. I was confident he’d reply in short order. Surely he’d want to comment on this perceived injustice … right?
* * *
After waiting several days without a response from Fuller, I decided to reach out to more contacts and focus on why Thunder was never replaced.
The Warriors are one of just four NBA teams without a mascot. Noting that the other three in the group (L.A. Clippers, L.A. Lakers, N.Y. Knicks) were major metropolitan teams, I found the inclusion of the small-market Warriors fishy. But who was I, a casual fan blinded by my allegiance to Thunder, to draw conclusions? I needed to speak with an expert.
I tracked down Pat Walker, a game entertainment consultant who spent seven years as head game operations specialist for the Supersonics. He shed some light on why certain teams lack a mascot presence.
“With the New York and L.A. teams there’s a certain prestige – they feel like the mascot might add some cheesiness,” Walker said. “At those games, it’s a who’s who. The Lakers have Jack Nicholson. The Knicks have Spike Lee. They don’t really need a mascot – people go to celebrity watch. The teams in those markets tend to play a little more conservative show.”
What was going on? Were the Warriors trying to step up their image? Go upscale? Or was something more sinister afoot? Could this be part of a larger league-wide movement to phase out mascots, perhaps in a misguided attempt to push the whole game upmarket? To get to the bottom of this mystery, I’d first have to identify any existing trends across the NBA mascot landscape.
* * *
As a child growing up in Illinois during the Michael Jordan era, I always enjoyed the rare treat of a live Chicago Bulls game. But what I recall most vividly, even more than Jordan’s tongue-wagging dunks or Dennis Rodman’s technicolor hairstyles and obscure body piercings, was Benny the Bull. This fur-laden acrobat (aided by a trampoline) would routinely throw down dunks that put even Jordan to shame. And when Benny danced with the cheerleaders during timeouts my hormonally scattered head would swell with jealousy.
But after college graduation, when I moved to New York, my game-going experiences were vastly different. Aside from grossly overcharging fans to watch one of the NBA’s worst teams, the Knicks organization didn’t have a mascot. Fans were instead treated to Jumbotron shots of disinterested celebrities like Jay-Z and The Guy From Scrubs, glorified mascots in their own right, who were fulfilling paid obligations to attend the game.
Having experienced the two ends of the NBA fan spectrum, I had major questions about the average fan-going experience. I turned to Walker, the NBA entertainment expert, for a briefing on the current state of NBA in-game entertainment, specifically the role of mascots.
“Teams don’t absolutely need a mascot to sell seats,” Walker said. “But I think mascots are a source that can bring the largest incremental fan experience and provide huge revenue opportunities – not necessarily in arenas but also outside.” This comes in the form of merchandise sales of items like stuffed animals, as well as public appearances.
Walker explained that mascots can be effective marketing tools within a local community, providing a face for the team that is particularly identifiable to young fans. “Mascots are comparable with most players in many markets,” he added, referencing the level of fan recognition both enjoy.
Burrell, the former mascot and current mascot-trainer, was equally adamant about mascots’ worth.
“If there wasn’t some moneymaking purpose, teams wouldn’t have [mascots],” Burrell said. “Their presence is definitely something that teams value, although some teams value it differently.” All this poked holes in my conspiracy theory. So did the fact that mascots, it turns out, are on the rise.
“It’s definitely increased, although different teams have different ideas about how to use a mascot,” Burrell said. “Now you’ve got 25 teams that have a mascot, which is up from 18 to 20 teams when I was in the league [from 1992 to 2003]. Mascots are also now the more full-time type now – they’re part of a team’s marketing presence.”
Walker shares a similar sentiment. He sees the league as a whole evolving to include more elements of entertainment. “The NBA has really greatly enhanced both its game presentation and marketing platforms and promotions through the mascot better than any other league,” he said.
Once again, I had gained valuable insight into the mascot industry. By all accounts, it is alive and well, which makes it even more confusing that the Warriors haven’t replaced Thunder. In order to solve this mystery (and my internal crisis, having received no response from Fuller) I had to dig deeper.
* * *
Through my research I found that there are two types of mascots in the NBA. The first is the traditional big, furry animal mascot, first popularized in the 80’s by the Phoenix Suns Gorilla (don’t ask about the affiliation between Phoenix and gorillas – there is no explanation). This group has been kept alive by such ever-present characters as Stuff the (Orlando) Magic Dragon and the Houston Rockets’ Clutch the Bear. These are more kid-friendly and geared towards family entertainment. The second category of mascot consists of the slimmed-down, athletic type that usually dons Spandex and takes on a superhero persona, such as the Atlanta Hawks’ Skyhawk and the Washington Wizards’ G-Man. Thunder fell into the latter grouping, although a muscle suit made him appear more intimidating than most.
I tend to favor any mascot that can throw down an array of dunks – an attribute held by the more streamlined, Spandex-clad faction. But Walker believes that Thunder’s place in this group ultimately contributed to his downfall.
“The mascot was one of a handful in the league that was a human character, versus a furry, lovable one,” said Walker. “While he had a large skill set with some of the acrobatics that he would do on the court and in the crowd, I think the character itself may have been limited on what it could do from a humor standpoint, which is a large part of being a mascot.”
Walker also pointed out the Warriors’ decision to revert back to its old-school logo and colors. The emblem and uniforms prior to the 2008 season actually carried Thunder’s likeness, and until this season the same color scheme had been used. In Walker’s opinion, the team had already planned this change when it decided to leave Thunder’s position vacant.
“I don’t necessarily think the mascot didn’t work for the market, I just think they had a character they didn’t feel was the best fit for the organization,” Walker said. “And the timing was probably good with the Oklahoma City Thunder adopting another name. From a PR standpoint, I think it was good timing.”
As Walker said this I grabbed onto the arms of my chair. The room seemed to be spinning. I buried my head in my hands in an attempt to come to grips with what I was hearing.
He couldn’t possibly be suggesting that the Warriors actually used Oklahoma City’s name selection as a convenient alibi to get rid of Thunder, could he? Refusing to accept this explanation without getting another viewpoint, I decided that I needed to talk to Burrell, and fast.
Burrell was straight to the point. “I don’t think the fact that the team in Oklahoma took on the nickname Thunder had anything to do with the demise of the Warriors mascot,” he said when asked for his thoughts on Thunder’s disappearance.
He provided his own theory as to why the Warriors elected to leave Thunder’s position vacant. And rather than discuss the franchise’s rebranding, Burrell focused on Fuller’s mastery of the position, which he claims set an impossible standard for subsequent mascots.
“No one could do what Sadiki did,” Burrell said. “He came in there and was just a gifted performer. He was an amazing athlete. He’s doing stand-up comedy now and is obviously someone who got the idea of making people laugh – he was great at that. He had a skill set that they couldn’t replicate with any of the other guys that came through.”
Was it really possible that Thunder’s inability to live up to the standard he set led to his unceremonious removal? I found this ironic. Also, mental note: Fuller does stand-up comedy now.
Burrell also stressed the importance of continuity within the mascot ranks, and pointed out that the Warriors trotted out four or five different Thunders after Fuller left. Having worked as the Rockets’ Turbo for 12 years himself, he is no stranger to establishing himself as a known commodity amongst regulars. To Burrell, it’s hard for fans to connect with a mascot like Thunder, which experienced so much turnover.
With sound theories provided by both Walker and Burrell, I decided that the only way to truly gain closure on Thunder’s removal was to ask the Warriors organization itself. So following a few well-placed phone calls and e-mails, I traveled to the Warriors’ facilities. I figured someone there would surely have some answers. Armed with a notepad, a Sharpie (might as well get some autographs) and a raw hunger for truth, it was time to crash a team practice.
* * *
I was warned prior to my Warriors visit that questions about the old mascot were off-limits. According to a team representative, they did not wish to “dig up old skeletons,” referring to the considerable backlash the Warriors experienced in the wake of Thunder’s dismissal. But this didn’t stop me from trying.
When I arrived at the team’s practice facility, the first thing I noticed was the décor. Divided into three distinct sections, each wall segment featured the jersey design and color scheme from a specific era in Warriors history. And at the end, right above a basket being used for a half-court drill, was the old Thunder emblem. In a gym decked out with the Warriors’ new logo, this was the only remnant of an era long forgotten.
Following practice, I sat down for a one-on-one interview with Andris Biedrins, a standout player for the Warriors and one of the league’s top rebounders. Having spent every season of his seven-year career with Golden State, I figured Biedrins would be an ideal source. During our conversation, when I had determined the coast was clear, I slipped in a question about Thunder. Did he have any conspiracy theories, or at least some sort of insight into the situation?
It turned out that Biedrins actually knew the final member of the Thunder lineage, but had no knowledge of the organization’s decisions relating to the mascot. He did, however, express a desire to replace Thunder. “We should have him back,” said Biedrins. “Or at least somebody.”
So while he wasn’t of much assistance to my investigation, Biedrins and I had a delightful conversation, and I can safely say he’s the most gracious and charming 7-foot-tall Latvian I’ve ever met. But with that said, I still left the Warriors facilities empty-handed.
At this point, it looked like my last chance to extract some hard facts from an official source would be to reach out to Fuller one last time.
* * *
Two weeks and two Facebook messages later, Fuller was still radio silent. Not one to give up without a fight, I decided to pursue other methods. Having picked up intel from Burrell that Fuller is now a stand-up comedian, I took to Google for a shot at redemption.
Google search: Sadiki Fuller stand-up comedy
Results: Bingo! The first entry for this Google search was a biography provided by TLC Productions, Fuller’s management company. And while learning more about my mysterious subject’s comedy background was interesting, I was drawn to the phone listing at the bottom of the page. I immediately dialed the number, and when nobody answered, I left a message requesting (pleading?) that they have Fuller contact me.
Looking to diversify my efforts, I located Fuller’s Twitter account (@sadikifuller). He appeared to update his feed on a fairly regular basis, and if I was to catch his attention, this had to be the way. I logged into my account (@JoeCiolli) to make one final push. Limited to Twitter’s customary 140 characters, I had to make each word count.
@sadikifuller I’m a grad student of journalism at Stanford that wants to talk to you about your time as GSW mascot. Plz DM me if interested!
Note: DM means “direct message”
* * *
As we go to press, I have yet to hear from Fuller. The reason for his silence could be anything. Maybe his stand-up comedy schedule has kept him too busy, he doesn’t routinely check his social networking accounts or he simply doesn’t want to revisit the Thunder situation. Or perhaps he truly did disappear back into that “sudden cloud burst” (although the YouTube footage of his recent stand-up at the L.A. Laugh Factory would suggest otherwise).
Regardless, Golden State Warriors fans are still without a mascot. And while Walker believes that the team could potentially introduce a new one after the pain of Thunder’s departure further wanes, I’m not optimistic. However, feeling somewhat comforted by Walker and Burrell’s expert insight, I can at least sleep at night knowing that the mascot’s removal was a situational decision and not indicative of a wider trend.
Exhausted from my tireless pursuit of the truth, I turned on my TV and crawled into bed. The Warriors were on, and even if Thunder was nowhere to be found, I supposed I could just watch the game. What a novel concept.