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America's Next Top Mascot: Clutch grooms a new generation of furry-headed stars at mascot camp

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Mascot heads Photo by Jayme Lamm
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Show me your mascot! Photo by Jayme Lamm
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Clutch's Noise Meter Photo by Jayme Lamm
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Participants cheering for Clutch Photo by Jayme Lamm
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Cougars at camp Photo by Jayme Lamm
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Clutch in action Photo by Jayme Lamm
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Blake and Jake from Allen Photo by Jayme Lamm
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“NEVER BE A PERSON IN A COSTUME. EVER." — 20-year veteran mascot

Even from a Houston sports non-traditionalist like myself, I have to admit the Houston Rockets' Clutch is one of the best mascots in the NBA. Hands down. Possibly even in all of sports. Yes, I said it.

If there were such a thing as mascot camp, Clutch would surely be the leader, right? Right.

The Rockets are one of the only NBA teams to put on such a camp. This summer brought the team's second ever Mascot Camp. While other kids are frolicked at music camp or fat camp, 20 of the most energetic middle school and high school kids you'll ever see — and even a few college kids — hung out with Clutch to learn how to be the best. Without saying a word.

  I can personally vouch that Robert Boudwin sweats more than Kobe Bryant, Shaq and the head of Sam Cassell combined inside that Clutch costume. 

The improv sessions and tips shared at mascot camp are so invaluable that furry and scaly animals from all over Texas and beyond came out. Even Oklahoma native Sam “The Husky” Davis, who is only a junior high student at Sequoyah but is so good at mascotting, he’s already the Edmond North High School mascot. (Note — I’m not even sure if mascot can be turned into a verb, such as mascotting, but after witnessing this camp, I’m a proponent for it.)

At only 13, Sam has been a mascot for four years and is well on his way to anonymous stardom.

Robert Boudwin, or “Clutch the Bear” has been a mascot for more than two decades. He's going into his 17th season as Clutch (if there is an NBA season in 2011-12). Seventeen seasons in a sport is tough. For anyone.

Think about it. Not many athletes last that long. Definitely not that many front office staffers either. And if you don’t think Clutch is an athlete or part of the Houston Rockets front office, you surely are mistaken.

Having witnessed just a 15-minute performance for the campers in an air-conditioned conference room inside the Toyota Center, I can personally vouch that Boudwin sweats more than Kobe Bryant, Shaq and the head of Sam Cassell combined inside that Clutch costume.

If you think he’s not part of the front office, then you’re crazier than one of these animated mascots. At almost 7-feet tall, Clutch is a living, breathing billboard and an extension of the Rocketball brand. As Boudwin pointed out during camp, the ball is in play for 48 minutes in an NBA game, but fans are in their seats for more than two and a half hours.

That’s 150 minutes chockfull of Clutch antics: Dancing, cakes-in-face, stripping down to his skivvies and whatever else the loveable, huggable mammal conjures up.

Even schools like University of Houston-Downtown see the value in Clutch’s camp sending its Gator, Donte Lewis, to learn from the mascot master.

“They want me to learn to be more interactive, like Clutch,” Lewis said.

Blake Bjostad and Jake Hansen made the 500-mile round trip trek from Allen (a northern suburb of Dallas) with their teacher to learn from Clutch. Bjostad and Hansen were the only inflatable mascot (“Big Boy” the Eagle) at camp, wowing the group with their signature headstand.

Last year, one aspiring mascot named Ryan came out sans costume to learn the peculiarities of mascot life. After gaining skill and confidence from camp, Ryan happily returned this year as the Cy-Fair Bobcat with costume in hand.

Acting Out

My favorite part of mascot camp was watching the kids don their own costumes and take cues from Clutch on the sideline. He’d yell prompts like, “show me elated”, “you’re on fire”, “you’re super confident,” for the mascots to act out. There were several noteworthy performances:

Clutch’s cue: Show me dead.

Sarah Alcoser’s (aka “Kitty the Bulldog” from John H. Reagan High School) reaction: Turns mascot head around.

Clutch’s cue (to a female mascot): You’re the man!

Female mascot’s reaction: Grabs crotch area then frantically performs a Jersey Shore fist-pump

Clutch’s cue: Show me you have to go to the bathroom. No. 1. But don’t grab yourself!

Multiple mascot’s reactions: Not a thing. No movement.

Clutch’s cue: You just got a phone call. It’s your mother. 

Mascot: Hangs up phone.

Tips from the bear

I promised Clutch I wouldn’t reveal all his trade secrets, so here are just a few key components to being a successful, well-rounded mascot I learned:

  • Learn the difference between creepy and aggressive (I can imagine this is a key differentiator to being successful).
  • Find a good balance in your skits and innuendos as a mascot. It’s difficult to make the masses (adults and kids alike) laugh at the same skit, but think more along the lines of Homer Simpson, not Peter Griffin.
  • Don’t wave like a normal person, wave like a cartoon character with your entire body. The costumes absorb motion so every move you make should be exaggerated. If Clutch goes to shake his tail feather, you won’t see anything with that robust costume, so he grabs his 92-inch waist and starts gyrating for fans to really see the movement.
  • Like Big Brother, someone is always watching. With more than 18,000 seats in the Toyota Center, Clutch ensures even his break time is part of the game.
  • Never let the audience see you partially dressed in costume. “Think of yourself like Superman. You’re either all Clark Kent or all Superman. Never a partial variation of either,” Boudwin explains.
  • Don’t make refs the butt of your joke. Ever. (Especially not the overplayed Three Blind Mice piece.)
  • My personal favorite – “If your character has a tail, make sure that’s all it’s used for.”

That’s a wrap on mascot camp. As Clutch would say, “Good work. Everyone can take their heads off now.”

You can read more from Jayme Lamm on her blog The Blonde Side.

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