It feels like I'm climbing on a StairMaster wrapped in a wool carpet inside a sauna. My visibility is somewhere between driving in a blizzard and having sand in my eyes. The fingers of the furry gloves are soggier than just-used sink sponges. And that's when I'm standing still.
With nine minutes left in the Miami Heat game, and LeBron James having just hit a jumper to tie things up against the visiting Golden State Warriors, I'm sprinting through the bowels of American Airlines Arena in my 25-pound polyester sweat locker because we're late for our 300 level, House of Pain-themed group dance. My handler/mentor, Sheila, who has directed me throughout the night like I'm a perpetually blindfolded man swinging wildly at a piñata, is snapping one of my wrist clips into place as I jog because we had a chinstrap mishap that cost us valuable minutes to repair. My octuple-E clown feet brush dangerously close together as we run -- mere millimeters away from causing a catastrophic tumble that would surely lead to a decapitation of my costume, and therapy for any number of young children who might witness it. As the urgency of the scheduled dance session looms and I try to go faster, I keep in mind that I'm "in character" and have to sashay/run so as not to ruin the suspension of disbelief that I'm a female mascot.
Oh, I didn't mention that. The Miami Heat's mascot is named Burnie. On this night, I'm playing his faithful, yet rarely-seen wife, Burnice.
We blast through the doors of section 305 to an eruption of cheers -- Heat fans love Burnie and Burnice. Sheila parts the crowd so I can reach the glass partition overlooking the lower levels of the arena. Tsunamis of sweat pour down my forehead as the chinstrap holding Burnice's head in place digs into my Adam's apple. The signature horns of House of Pain's Jump Around pierce the air and our entire section starts to rumble.
"Jump around, Burnice!" Sheila yells into the neck of the costume (my face). "Dance with the fans!"
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch my mascot mate-for-life, Burnie, doing an awesome pop-locking break dance. I don't have time to be jealous because I'm being jumped into, moshed and jostled by celebrating Heat fans.
"C'mon!" Sheila yells, dancing with the crowd.
I give her a thumbs up (something I've been asked nicely not to do several times since it's a 'guy gesture'), realize my mistake, give a girly clap, and then start jumping up and down with my hands in the air. Sweat actually runs from my hands, down my arms back into my completely soaked T-shirt (my fifth of the night). The inside of my suit feels like the Everglades in mid-August, but the music is pumping and the crowd is jumping and as Everlast belts, "I'll serve you up like John McEnroe ..." I hear the crowd roar and can barely make out Sheila saying, "Look!" and pointing in front of me.
I tilt my head in the one direction that allows me to almost see out of half of one eye and then I catch what she's looking at: My bizarre, head-tilted, arms-lifted, two-inches-off-the-ground-jump dance is on the Heat Jumbotron and the crowd loves it. I feed off the energy, jump higher, wave my arms wider and do my best impression of Turbo from Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo.
The fans erupts (or they're just cheering because LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are back on the floor) and for a few minutes, I'm not thinking about the heat, the Heat or the costume. For a brief moment, I'm an entertainer killing a live performance -- giving the audience exactly what they want. I'm Springsteen singing Born to Run at the Meadowlands. I'm Jay-Z rapping Empire State of Mind at the Barclays Center. In my head, I'm that good. Then the song ends, and the attention goes back to the court.
"Hurry up," Sheila says. "We have to make the elevator. You're doing a skit under the basket with Burnie in six minutes."
We pause for a few rushed pictures with my (Burnice's) fans. It feels good. Kids run after us as we try to reach the elevator. I feel like Rocky running through Philadelphia. I'm in demand. I'm a rock star. I'm exhausted.
The elevator door closes and my first instinct is to bend over and clutch the bottom of my shorts to catch my breath, but my near 100-inch mascot waist makes this impossible. Also, the elevator is jam packed with other Heat employees, our photographer Robert, little kids and ticket holders. I can barely move. I'm not claustrophobic, but riding inside a loaded elevator inside a suffocating costume makes me think twice.
"Burnice! This cute little girl is trying to give you a high five!" Sheila says. "On your right."
Since I'm not allowed to talk while I'm in the suit and the padding muffles my hearing and the only place I can really see is about one square meter on the floor in front of my feet, Sheila's one-sided conversations with me (Burnice) have been a thinly veiled way for her to shout instructions to me all night. Without her, I'd be lost -- a giant cotton barge adrift in a sea of people. After nearly four hours in character, the one thing I have become slightly self-conscious about is whiffing on high-fives -- especially to children.
When you're a little kid, getting a high-five from your favorite team's mascot is something you talk about all night, on the car ride home and even in school the next day. For adults, it's merely a sign of solidarity with the team, something you instinctively do as you pass your mascot in the hallway. Thus, giving pounds and high fives to fans is an essential element to being a mascot. Since I wasn't used to the costume, I was only aware that I had left someone hanging at right about the moment we passed them and there was nothing I could do about it; I couldn’t even apologize because of my vow of silence.
All these thoughts rush through my head as I tilt right and bend down to see the 6-year-old girl in a Dwyane Wade jersey holding her hand up in the elevator. On this girl, I choose to right all of my previous high-five wrongs, and I clap elaborately as if I had been waiting all day to see her. I then wind up and give her the most elaborate high five of my lifetime, which she devours with a wide smile and a priceless, thrilled look to her parents.
"Thank you, Burnice," her father says.
"You're -- ," I start to say, suddenly stopping myself, realizing I almost destroyed the very illusion I've spent all night trying to build.
Sheila covers for me and immediately says, "Burnice is happy to do it."
I look at the child, relieved that she didn't hear the voice of a man come through the costume of a female
mascot that actually doesn't have a mouth.
The elevator door opens and Sheila grabs my arm to rush me through the ground level of the arena to our next location. It's been like this all night. Each entertainment element of the game that requires Burnie and Burnice's presence has been mapped out on a rundown sheet that we have to strictly adhere to. Heat dancers, camera crews, the PA announcer, sponsors and about 57 other moving parts that make up the in-game performance aspect of the Heat organization all work off this one schedule, which means it's of paramount importance that we be where we're supposed to be.
The Heat can't have the PA announcer shout out, "Let's go Heat fans! Jump around with Burnie in section 305!", while the camera man pans there on cue, only to come up empty. It's an incredibly intricate system that requires lots of radio communication and cooperation from dozens of people in several different departments. The camaraderie is palpable throughout the evening and the Heat organization works together like a well-oiled machine, even building in a few extra minutes for a rookie (me) to catch his breath.
"We have about two minutes for you to drink something and cool off and then we have to meet Burnie under the basket," Sheila says, guiding me through the door of Burnie's locker room. Yes, Burnie has his own locker room. It's bigger than my first apartment, and since it has a flat screen television, a wall-length mirror and several plush couches, it's nicer as well.
I quickly shimmy my arms out of the costume and peel off sweat-soaked shirt number five, replace it with shirt number six and slug back my fourth or fifth bottle of water. Then Julian, another member of the entertainment team, comes in the room holding several tubs of popcorn. He puts two on the counter and hands me one that is filled with buttered popcorn and M&Ms.
"It's tradition in here towards the end of games," he says. "You'll love it."
The smell of the popcorn reminds me that I'm starving, and with the amount of fluid I've lost during the past few hours, my body is craving salt. I quickly shovel the mix into my mouth and chow down. It’s amazingly satisfying -- addicting even.
"Where's Burnie?" I ask, scarfing another handful.
"He's doing a quick appearance. He'll meet us in the tunnel," Sheila says.
I can't help but admire the stamina and commitment that the man playing Burnie has. I've taken at least two more breaks than he has and in between he's probably done four times the elements.
He refereed a pre-game men's basketball scrimmage (I waved from the sideline), ran on the floor with the players (I walked on after), performed several timeout dances (I was posing for pictures), played jokes on fans (water break), led some cheers (more waving) and acted out a skit with a young fan at center court (while I sat on a chair near one basket, holding the prize). Incredible.
"We gotta move," Sheila says. "Put the head back on and grab a bucket of popcorn. And let me fix your chest. The basketballs are crooked. And your sneaker is showing. Someone fix that too."
With one person working on my shoes and another positioning my fake breasts, I feel like Christina Aguilera prepping for an episode of The Voice. Once my girl parts are ready to go, we race back to the court.
As we jog back out under the lights, Sheila explains that other members of the staff have found two empty seats right under the home team basket for Burnie and Burnice to sit in. After the next stoppage of play, we're going to run to the seats, sit down and eat popcorn like we're a couple of big shots who don't care about our surroundings. We're supposed to throw popcorn on fans over our head, make a mess, and perform the usual hi-jinx with the crowd.
When we reach the tunnel, Burnie is ready and waiting. He leans in to give me some last-minute instructions.
"We're going to be sitting right next to fans," he says. "Remember your sight lines. Fans are going to be looking at Burnice's eyes, not yours. When you interact with me or them, make sure you move the head so that everything is in line with her eyes. Otherwise, it won't look right."
All night I've been struggling with the difference between my eye line versus Burnice's eye line, which is about two feet above my head. I realize you don't have to be the guy who acts out Gollum in Lord of the Rings to pull this off, but becoming one with your character is a skill that takes lots of time to master even though the inner workings of Burnice's head aren't complicated. There are no levers or gears or pulleys. She's nothing more than a giant face sitting atop a modified lacrosse helmet with an adjustable chinstrap. The chin, as I was told and quickly learned, controls all head movement.
"And play off of me. You're my wife," he says. "If I flirt with a girl from the stands, pretend to get mad and hit me. The crowd eats it up. Let's go!"
He then hooks my arm and escorts me through the tunnel and onto the court, just as a TV timeout is whistled. Like the perfect mascot gentleman, he leads me down the aisle to my seat in row 3. The moment I sit down, Burnie starts hitting on every single girl in our section -- sitting on their laps, asking for phone numbers, offering popcorn. I watch for a beat and then remember that to the people looking at me (Burnice), I'm his wife, just sitting there, having no reaction to my husband trying to pick up chicks in my presence. I stand up, wag my finger at him Dikembe Mutombo-style and start belting him. The crowd loves it. Then the timeout buzzer buzzes and Burnie rushes us off the court so we don't block anybody's view. People cheer us as we exit. It's kind of awesome.
The game is tied with about 30 seconds left, and we both catch our breath in the tunnel. We've been running to every corner of the arena and back since before tip-off and I realize that while I've spent part of the night on the court and most of the night within 50 yards of the defending NBA champions, I've only watched about 25 seconds of the game and I have no idea how each team is playing. Then one of the Heat assistants brings me a gigantic sign that says, 'Heat Win!'
Burnie tells me that if the Heat pull this game out, I have to lug the 30-pound sign onto the floor and run circles around him while he celebrates.
I look up at the Jumbotron as the clock winds down. Jarret Jack has the ball for the Warriors and he's dribbling out the clock at the top of the key. With about two seconds left he whips a pass to Draymond Green who scores the go-ahead bucket on a lay up. The Heat call a time out with 0.9 seconds left in regulation. They're down two.
"C'mon, guys," says the voice inside Burnie's costume. "You got this. Get the W."
As I wonder if I have enough energy left to actually haul the big wooden sign around the court three or four times, LeBron James makes my concern moot by missing a jumper with no time left. The Heat lose: 97-95. Evidently David Lee had a big night for the Warriors and LeBron scored 31. I saw almost none of it.
Burnie's official biography on the Miami Heat website has him listed at 7-6 and 480 pounds, or roughly the same size as Shaq during his last year with the Boston Celtics. In real life, the man playing Burnie is about 5-10 and 150 pounds.
He's wiry and athletic and I'm certain would weigh about 20 pounds more if he didn't spend a majority of his days and nights performing in a tailor-made steam room. He has spent many seasons honing the mannerisms and personality traits of his alter ego, devoting more time to character development than your average sitcom star. He has the walk, the hand motions, the sense of humor, the gestures and the patented Burnie dance down pat.
As we both sit in silence in the locker room, free of our mascot suits, recovering from the night, I recall something he said to me as we brushed our costumes about two hours before game time.
"When I prep the costume I use it as a way to flip the switch between being myself and becoming Burnie," he says. "It's my way of letting go of my own identity and becoming the mascot the fans expect to see."
Now, as he watches the highlights of the game on the flat screen TV, I realize that the reverse is also true. Without the costume, the scene-stealing, attention-hogging, camera-mugging mascot is gone, leaving a mild-mannered guy who is processing a tough loss by the basketball team he loves.
As for me, I'm dying to wash the layers of crusted sweat off my body and there's a shower 15 feet away with a fresh towel waiting -- but there's a new bowl of popcorn and M&M's on the table in front of me and I decide to treat myself first. After all, even though we're a month past Halloween, I spent the entire night in a costume -- I might as well enjoy my candy.
(I'd like to thank the Heat organization for agreeing to let me be its mascot for a night. From the moment I pitched the idea, everyone I worked with was accommodating, supportive and extremely helpful. Special thanks to Lorrie-Ann, Sheila, Julian, and the man behind the Burnie mascot. Keep up the phenomenal work.)
-- Jon Finkel is the author of The Dadvantage: Stay In Shape On No Sleep With No Time And No Equipment. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Finkel.