The Phoenix Suns’ Gorilla is arguably the NBA’s most iconic mascot, but his story of origin is so serendipitous it borders on unbelievable.
Back in January 1980, Henry Rojas, 23, was sitting courtside at a Suns game waiting to deliver a singing telegram during an in-game break. He soon realized, though, that the usher who was supposed to accompany him onto the court had forgotten and wasn’t going to show up.
Rojas, who grew up a Suns fan and was apprehensive to sing at one of their games in the first place, decided he wanted to escape and save face. Except when he tried leaving and stepped onto the hardwood, his life — and the Suns’ history and in-game entertainment — changed forever, according to The Arizona Republic:
“I remember sitting in a seat, watching the game in a gorilla suit, trying to figure out how I’m going to get out of there,” Rojas said. “I was trying to be inconspicuous.”
During a timeout, Rojas figured he could sneak along the sidelines and make his way out. But when he stepped onto the court, music started blaring through the speakers. That’s when Rojas became the Phoenix Suns Gorilla.
Rojas’ gorilla danced on the free-throw line. Later, a referee tossed him a basketball. Rojas sank the shot. The crowd roared.
This, of course, never could happen today. If anyone, even an in-game performer, wandered onto the court without permission, he or she would quickly be escorted off the hardwood and probably out of the arena.
But Rojas was lucky, as even though the Suns PR staff didn’t approve of his stunt, they weren’t able to stop it in time.
Two Suns executives sat behind the scorer’s table. Tom Ambrose, the team’s public-relations director, remembered thinking, “What the heck is going on? Get that guy out of here.”
Luckily, Ambrose couldn’t get to anyone during the timeout.
“Sometimes the best decisions are the ones you don’t make,” he said.
Fortunately for Rojas, the Suns, Suns fans and NBA fans at large, this incident led to one of the greatest mascots ever. Fans began calling and asking for the gorilla mascot the next day, and soon after, Rojas and his gorilla suit became a staple at Suns games.
Rojas eventually hung up the ensemble in 1988, and two others have donned the gorilla suit since then, keeping his spirit alive. If not for a lucky encounter, however, we would’ve never been exposed to memorable moments like this: