Who Is Actually “Behind The Mask” Of A Mascot?

Think really hard about what entertained you the most the last time you attended a basketball game. The announcer’s overzealous starting lineup call in the dark to the tune of Alan Parson’s Project? The 30-foot toss directly to the guy with the 50-inch vertical for the alley-oop? The incredibly hot dance team?…. How about your favorite mascot?

As the new basketball season gets kicked off, so does a completely original new docu-series from Hulu titled “Behind The Mask” — which is exactly where they take you.

Award-winning filmmaker Josh Greenbaum has always been fascinated with the secrecy of the mascot industry and did everything he could to hunt down four mascots at different levels to find out what the job is really like and who is actually inside those suits you see at games. Because after all, we see these entertainers at nearly every sporting event, cheering after every play, taking pictures with fans…acting completely insane to rally the crowd — and may never know who is actually inside the costume.

Kevin Vanderkolk is the man behind the Milwaukee Bucks’ “Bango,” and is featured in the show. He might be one of the very best mascots in pro sports, having won the NBA’s “Mascot of the Year Award” in 2012. He says “my biggest challenge…is balancing my family life and my work life. I think you’ll see in the show it’s more than just a full time job.”

Vanderkolk is a finely tuned gymnast and father of five; he’s also married to a neurologist. Needless to say anyone would find a sneak peak into his life fascinating, especially considering the plethora of stories he has to share. His favorite story stemming from the NBA All-Star game in Houston, Texas a few years back when he got locked out of the arena in costume while making his way back from a red carpet event outside the venue.

“I was trying to pull on the door and one of the security guards noticed I was trying to get in and he came up and he told me I needed to leave the premise…. I was in character, I can’t talk, so I waved to him, motioned to him that I was sorry, [thinking] I’ll just go around the corner and go to a different door. Well little did I know he followed me and radioed to all the other security guards in the area that there was somebody in a costume trying to break into the building. Every time I approached the building I was stopped by security guards. It got to the point where I had to break character and pull one of those security guards aside and tell him ‘look, I’m with the NBA. I’m an NBA mascot. I’m just making an appearance.’ They refused to let me back in. They said if I didn’t leave the premise at once I would be arrested,” says Vanderkolk.

The show will also display challenges these entertainers face that one may never even consider.

As a graduate of the University of Alabama, I’m proud to say that my Sophomore year roommate was the famous “Big Al.” Because football games in the south are played in three thousand percent humidity, it’s not uncommon for a mascot performer to lose his or her bodyweight in sweat in a very short amount of time. Most do not know there is actually a completely new performer in a completely new outfit each quarter of every game. Forcing the performers to work longer and you risk heat stroke and/or severe dehydration. My point — when you lose that much sweat in a costume thicker than the carpet in your living room, your entire apartment will end up smelling worse than an onion patch on a hot, summer day via the aromas emanating from said costume post-game.

Jon ‘Jersey’ Goldman says “I’ve been 42 mascots in 11 years and ‘Hey Reb!,’ when I instantly got here in 2007, was probably one of the smelliest mascots I have ever [put on].”

Goldman is the man behind Hey Reb!, UNLV’s famous mascot. He is a sixth year senior and is very involved in the athletics program at the school, not to mention a radio DJ. Playing Hey Reb!, however, is his ultimate passion. Taking care of the costume is one vital piece of the puzzle.

“Every appearance there was a different person in the suit.  The whole suit can be washed; the head is cleaned with usually a full bottle of Febreze per washing; an oscillating fan at the top of the neck to dry out the helmet. Now it smells mountain fresh or indigo purple,” says Goldman.

But with the thousands of mascots nation-wide, what do the successful performers have that propels them to a full-time career of entertaining millions? Vanderkolk says it’s passion mixed with originality.

“Every character is different. Every person brings something different to their character. I don’t know if there is a specific thing other than passion. I think if you find a person that’s passionate about performing and being in that environment in sports and passionate for being a mascot, that’s probably the biggest quality that’s going to come out,” says Vanderkolk.

Goldman said, “When it comes to success it’s really just about interacting with fans of all ages from 2 years old to 102 years old.”