Earlier this week, Thunder guard Russell Westbrook made the bold move of goaltending two half-court shots heaved backwards by Nuggets mascot Rocky during separate timeouts in a game between the two teams, robbing Denver fans of a shot at the free Qdoba queso they would have won if Rocky sunk either of the tosses. The move was a relatively unprecedented one in recent NBA history, with players and opposing mascots usually existing in totally separate realms, rarely intertwining despite technically sharing the same workspace. Making the crossover more notable was the player involved, since Westbrook is such a simultaneously aloof and blindingly intense player that it seemed equally likely that he was doing it just to have a laugh at the expense of hungry Nuggs fans, or because he was legitimately pissed at some perceived slight from Rocky earlier in the game.
Many words could be and have been used to describe Westbrook’s mascotus interruptus — funny, sophomoric, dickish, trolling — but I would go with another word: Inspirational. Mascots and opposing players have had a passingly antagonistic relationship for many years without a player daring to breach the threshold separating the two. Now that Westbrook has crossed that particular NBA Rubicon, it opens the doors for countless new and long-simmering player/mascot feuds to finally boil over, much to the delight of spectators of both squads, eager for subplots to add fuel to their already burning team rivalries. Here, I predict, will be the first ten to follow:
1. Kyrie Irving (Cavaliers) vs. Benny the Bull (Bulls)
How It Starts: Casually, with Kyrie sneaking up on Benny while he goofs around with some fans during a timeout, then poking his smiling head over Benny’s shoulder, as if to listen in on their conversation. Benny brushes him off, gives him a cartoonish “Get outta here!” motion, and Kyrie heads back to the bench laughing.
How It Escalates: During a timeout late in the game, Cavs coach Byron Scott is diagramming a play, while Benny sneaks up on the huddle like Rasheed Wallace in the 2008 playoffs, putting his arms around the team and attempting to join in. Kyrie thinks this is hilarious, but Scott is not amused, gesturing wildly at the mascot to leave, and forcibly pushing him towards the halfcourt sideline.
How It Ends: With Kyrie unable to keep a straight face when asked about Benny in a postgame interview, chuckling “Yeah, that’s my guy right there. He’s a good guy.”
2. Andrew Bynum (76ers) vs. Raptor (Raptors)
How It Starts: Bynum grabs onto Raptor’s tail as he traipses by the Sixers’ bench before the game, causing him to stumble and fall to the ground. At the other end of the bench, Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes guffaw like it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever seen, which it is.
How It Escalates: During a timeout in a later visit to Toronto, Raptor dons an exaggerated ‘fro wig, while oversized bowling pins are placed underneath the Sixers’ basket. The mascot grabs a basketball and rolls it towards the pins, but the motion causes him to again fall to the ground, where he writhes in pain, clutching his left knee. During the sequence, cameras capture Bynum on the bench chatting idly with Damien Wilkins, clearly not paying attention.
How It Ends: In a locker room interview, Bynum obliquely threatens to “send [Raptor] to Jurassic Park.” The feud fizzles from there.
3. Kevin Garnett (Celtics) vs. BrooklyKnight (Nets)
How It Starts: BK is a bit overzealous getting on the court during an in-game timeout, bumping into a muttering-to-himself-while-looking-down KG. Garnett reflexively gives the mascot a hard shove, stares him down and continues his way off the court, inspiring a huge gasp from the crowd, followed by an endless-seeming 90-second “BROOOOOOK-LYYYYYYYYN, BROOOOOOOK-LYYYYYYYN” chant.
How It Escalates: In his postgame comments, Garnett seethes about the Nets mascot. “I got no respect for that dude. That dude, he see me coming on the street, he cross to the other side and don’t even look in my direction, ‘coz that dude and I, we ain’t friends.”
How It Ends: In the two teams’ next matchup at Barclays, BrooklyKnight passes KG several times, but visors his eyes with his hands, shielding his gaze from meeting Garnett’s. After the game, KG refuses to answer any questions relating to the mascot.
4. Kobe Bryant (Lakers) vs. Clutch (Rockets)
How It Starts: Clutch lines up next to Kobe in the Lakers’ pregame shootaround, mirroring Kobe every time he takes a shot. Gradually, Kobe tries to catch him by pump-faking his shot a couple times, but Clutch stays with him, only releasing his shot when Bryant does. Kobe gives him a scoff and a “man, forget you” hand dismissal and heads back to the LA bench.
How It Escalates: After hitting an off-balance three-pointer late in the fourth, Kobe stays in an exaggerated jumper form before pointing at Clutch on the baseline, as if to say, “That one was for you.” A harried Mike D’Antoni waves furiously at Kobe to get back on defense.
How It Ends: It turns out the “feud” was all just a setup for the debut of the “Who’s Clutch?” commercial series for Kobe’s Nike XXIXV SuperWeatherSystem sneakers, featuring both Clutch and Bryant, and the NBA collectively sighs at what a total ham Kobe has become.
5. Gerald Wallace (Nets) vs. Spike Lee (Knicks)
How It Starts: Inbounding the ball for the Nets in the halfcourt, Wallace gets fed up with Lee’s pitiless yammering and walks over to Lee and starts yelling and gesturing animatedly at Spike, not noticing or caring as he is whistled for two technicals and a turnover in the process. As he exits the floor, Wallace gets a fist-bump in solidarity from teammate Jerry Stackhouse.
How It Escalates: Spike tweets afterwards: “Even Reggie Managed To Keep Himself In The Damn Game.Sorry Your Team Lost Without You #Punk”
How It Ends: The next game between the teams at MSG, Gerald bowls into Spike diving for a loose ball, giving him a huge gash on the chin. But his body language is apologetic as he helps Spike back to his seat, before rejoining the play and scoring on a backdoor layup.
6. Byron Mullens (Bobcats) vs. Hugo (Hornets)
How It Starts: After the Bobcats pull off a surprise win in New Orleans, with Mullens struggling for much of the game before getting a couple big putback buckets late, a feeling-it Mullens smugly comforts Hugo: “Hey man, don’t sweat it. You’ll be cheering for us soon enough.”
How It Escalates: During a future meetup, Hugo dons a Bobcats jersey, eliciting boos from the crowd. He sets up with a rack of balls behind the arc, but does not come close on a single one of his shots, scratching his head in confusion before shrugging and revealing the name on the back of his jersey to be “Mullens.” The crowd cheers wildly as the joke dawns on them.
How It Ends: With Hugo unenthusiastically cheering on Mullens the next season in a Charlotte Hornets uniform, bitter that New Orleans brass insisted his physique wasn’t “naturally Pelican-y enough.”
7. Ivan Johnson (Hawks) vs. Skyhawk (Hawks)
How It Begins: Ivan Johnson notices Skyhawk taking a danish from the locker room postgame spread, put out primarily for players and coaches.
How It Escalates: Ivan Johnson passes Skyhawk in the hallway later, as he heads for the team bus. Skyhawk flashes him an enthusiastic thumbs up to say “Good win, Ivan!” Johnson does not respond.
How It Ends: The Atlanta Hawks PR department issues a press release saying that Skyhawk’s attendance “will no longer be required at Philips Arena home games.” No specific reason is given.
8. Mark Cuban (Mavs) vs. Coyote (Spurs)
How It Begins: During a first round playoff series, Coyote slips in next to Mark Cuban in the stands just in time for the “Kiss Cam” segment, giving Cubes a shrug as if to say “Hey, why not?” Cuban looks at the mascot sideyed before burying his head in his hands, causing all of the AT&T Center to “AWWWW!” and then boo.
How It Escalates: Cuban posts a 5,000 word essay on his website entitled “Why We Need to Rid the NBA of These Retarded Stuffed Animals,” in which he claims he’s been begging David Stern to eliminate the mascot from the league since 1999. Champ and Mavs Man can not be reached for comment.
How It Ends: A hefty amount of fan-razzing and a $100,000 fine from the league later, Cuban finally decides he’s been hands-on with his ownership for long enough, and watches the rest of the series from home in his 3D personal theater.
9. Jameer Nelson (Magic) vs. Burnie (Heat)
How It Begins, Escalates and Ends: Jameer tweets out a link to Burnie’s exceedingly ridiculous Wikipedia page, and everybody has a good laugh.
10. DeMarcus Cousins (Rockets) vs. Slamson the Lion (Sonics)
How It Begins: After the Kings’ offseason roster and front office purge before their move to Seattle, the only vestige of the Kings franchise is their proud mascot Slamson. He attempts to greet Cousins, now on the Rockets, before their first game, but Cousins gives him the cold shoulder. “I can’t even look at him,” explains Cousins after the game. “Too many bad memories.”
How It Escalates: Slamson takes DeMarcus’ snub to heart and acknowledges that he never should have come to Seattle, should’ve stayed behind with the Sacramento faithful, leading to a surreal halftime show in which he ceremonially chops off his artificial mane and walks off the court and out of the building, never to be seen again.
How It Ends: The Sonics decide they’d be better off with a spiky-haired, species-ambiguous creature named JAVA as their mascot anyway.