Shielded by four concrete walls beneath the Philips Arena stands, only one of which deviates from the off-white color scheme of yesteryear, our protagonist lounges in a chair waiting for his moment.
The room could pass for a low-budget classroom without desks, dimly lit by two caged fluorescent lights nestled into the ceiling. Boxes are scattered about and in the right corner closest to an exterior hallway resides a bathroom, otherwise known as a dressing room in this scenario. No music plays. The pregame meal is an impromptu burrito buffet complete with steak, various salsas and plastic plates. Only iPhones and a flatscreen TV airing the upcoming Hawks-Thunder game separate the scene from that of decades past.
Our protagonist, dressed in all black, eats his meal and checks with his manager. There is a sense of heightened alertness. The agenda has changed. They are now scheduled to follow the first quarter instead of the third. All is set in motion.
Veering left into the hallway that links his headquarters to the home and away locker rooms, our protagonist passes Hawks star Josh Smith and security personnel. They lock fists and mumble inaudible words to one another. Nothing is forced, this comes from years of recognition. That is until our protagonist, striding cooly in his civilian garb, glances over his shoulder to answer a question.
“None of these people know who I am.”
In an NBA world flush with superheroes, the guarded responsibility of anonymity falls on few.
For our protagonist, SkyHawk, the Atlanta Hawks’ high-flying superhero mascot, making his way down arena corridors to gather his equipment, passing the likes of Smith and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is commonplace. He sees their face, they see his. Each will soon get his time in front of the crowd.
Smith and Durant are allowed 48 minutes to display their skills.
SkyHawk gets 120 seconds. Such is the life for some heroes.
But in the moment, extracting a heavy mat, trampoline, three basketballs and a box with the words, “SkySquad Uniforms” scribbled in overlapping permanent marker, he’s not SkyHawk. He’s just That Guy. Hawks band members warm up their snare drums in the storage room, but pay him little mind. This is ordinary.
Phillip Davis, civil engineer by day and SkySquad member — the running-and-dunking mates of SkyHawk — by night, is the only person around who knows the truth. And he can be trusted. He and SkyHawk grew up with one another and attended rival metro Atlanta high schools: Davis claims OutKast (Tri-Cities), S.H. claims Cam Newton (Westlake). Practically speaking, the entire SkySquad has known one another for years, growing as part of a select group of standout gymnasts.
“When we were playing sports, we went to the separate middle schools but we played soccer against each other, we played volleyball against each other,” Davis said. “We were always in competition with one another.”
Anonymity does not come cheap, either. Most of SkyHawk’s friends have no idea. His girlfriend — Lady SkyHawk? — knows his identity, but she is not even allowed to tell her parents. It’s not always easy keeping a secret, though, especially with the folks who have watched him tumble and perform in gymnastics for so long.
“I have a lot of godmothers, and one came to a game my first season. My very first season,” S.H. said. “She asked me, ‘You still work for the Hawks?’ And I told her I’m not with the Hawks anymore, I just had a connection where I can get into the game. Man, she saw the show and immediately after the game I had a voicemail. She ripped me another one. ‘You lying S.O.B. Yes, that was you out there. Why didn’t you tell me you were doing this?’
“And I said we only knew Bruce Wayne was Batman because we were watching the cartoons.”
SkyHawk and Davis wheel their cargo through a maze of hallways, down a ramp and out onto the Hawks’ practice court, wedged behind the team locker rooms and media personnel areas. The heavy mat is set out first, positioned underneath to a practice rim. Backup forward Anthony Tolliver works through a shooting drill with a Hawks assistant coach at the other end. The trampoline is pushed in front of the mat. The balls are somewhat flat, but they’ll manage.
This is about to become a world of acrodunking.
Jerry Burrell, a Guinness World Record-holder and Houston-based entrepreneur regarded by many as the godfather of acrodunking, introduced the dizzying sport to SkyHawk and the SkySquad (before they held such pseudonyms) when he was their gymnastics teacher. They have been performing halftime shows, festivals, conferences and parties ever since. They’ve performed for crowds of the Golden State Warriors, Charlotte Bobcats, Orlando Magic, Harlem Globetrotters, Gotham City Circus, the University of Minnesota and in China.
“People need something else in their life that takes away from whatever their problems are. So, in a game presentation like this, that’s what I think we bring to the equation,” S.H. said. “We’re taking their mind off whatever their worries were before they got here.”
It’s a tight-knit fraternity, too, with the sport’s origins reaching back only into the early-1990s. There are just 35 to 40 high-caliber acrodunkers in the entire country, so when a group gets some publicity — for instance, Burrell’s group made it to the semifinals of NBC’s show America’s Got Talent — it’s highly probable they are friends of SkyHawk & Co. It’s an extremely small world.
But even as it approaches its official 20th birthday, acrodunking has not exploded in popularity. There are no college scholarships for halftime performers. It’s not seen as a career, simply put, because it is difficult to define it as one. SkyHawk himself is just a six-month contract employee of the Hawks, supporting himself during the offseason (and also during the NBA season) with a variety of jobs that can only be described as da Vincian.
When he’s blending into the Atlanta population, SkyHawk works as an aerobics instructor at a senior home. He DJs late nights around the city. When he blew out his knee while performing at a skating rink, sidelining him for the 2008 season, he picked up a security job. He’s taught tumbling, cheerleading and skydiving shows and was even a one-man swimming and diving team at Westlake High School.
“I did it (swimming) for a quick second with him,” Davis said. “I might have done it for, what, four months? But I hit the water wrong three or four times and I was like, ‘This sport is not for me.'”
SkyHawk’s performance resume has taken him around the world and back — and, still, it’s a constant grind to figure out what’s next.
There are no career rules set in stone; he has to go out and make something of his talents every day.
“What we do, you have to have a passion for it,” SkyHawk said. “A lot of times we do shows no matter what, whether it’s a birthday party or performance or whatever, we may cut our rate just because we know it’s going to enhance that kid’s experience.”
Hidden back inside Mascot Headquarters, two final Sky Squad members George Jones and Cameron Woods fill out the four-man roster.
Woods is the youngest of the group, far from veteran status. At 16, this is his first full-fledged performance with the squad and his first time performing in Philips Arena in two years. There’s a splint on his sprained right thumb. His mother sits by the door, chiming in good-natured words of defense when the older boys — namely Jones — begin to pick on him. This is a family environment.
Jones, the son of a preacher and the group’s de facto comic relief, begins to rehash his confrontation with a Philips parking attendant. It is, apparently, a recurring theme. Parking can be a struggle for Atlanta’s lesser-known celebrities.
“He doesn’t come into the games,” Jones said of the attendant. “This guy has no clue what I do here.”
Anonymity does not necessarily end with SkyHawk.
Emerging from his dressing room, the bottom half of our protagonist is now red and blue and muscled in a comic-book type of way. He’s wearing a pair of large basketball shorts and what the SkySquad calls sabotage boots — “No other mascot in the league wears boots that heavy,” Davis says. — After donning his upper half of bulging pectoral and bicep muscles, the transformation is nearly complete.
A quick fact on the man behind SkyHawk: Nobody else can be SkyHawk, at least not this season, not without substantial practice. Though it would appear a nameless substitute (say, veterans Davis or Jones) could stand in whenever needed, that’s not the case. It’s always him. Always. It has to be.
For one, the uniform is fitted to his body type. Also, the breathing. It’s tough enough to pull off acrobatics with a person’s normal body weight under normal circumstances and a normal breathing routine. Add in the extras, and it can become dangerous without acclimation.
“You never get used to it,” S.H. said. “I mean, breathing can be terrible. I’ve had some helmets and masks before other than this character that had bigger ranges of breathing, but with this one it’s like this … ” He smothers his face with his hand.
And don’t get him started on the vision.
“If you can imagine: I don’t want to say a blindfold that you can see through, but it’s almost like that. If you take mesh and say you stack it three times, that’s basically what I’m looking out of,” SkyHawk said. “So when I’m looking I can see figures, but I don’t see details. I’ll be honest, because I can’t see details, I’m looking for the smallest thing. What that is is a child. I try to focus on the kids.”
His manager then sprays him thoroughly with cologne — S.H. uses Axe; Harry the Hawk, the team’s other mascot, elects lavender-scented Febreeze — so as not to repel any fans in attendance. The suit is a sauna. The Axe shower is a thrice nightly necessity.
Lastly comes the head, a cartoonish yellow beak on an oval-shaped red dome, accented by what looks to be a navy bandit’s mask. His movements immediately become more exaggerated; the superhero has arrived. He starts using slang-esque sign language to communicate with the SkySquad, leading the group out into the hallway toward the practice floor.
There’s no talking in character.
In the practice gym, another in-game performance routine — a group of senior dancers clad in red and black with silver-sequined fedoras — tries desperately to mimic their instructor’s rhythmic wishes at halfcourt. The game is about to begin, and the end-of-quarter and halftime entertainment each need to work out the kinks.
SkyHawk animatedly prances out to the dance team and politely motions that he needs the floor to warm up.
After a 15-minute, physically-taxing span, all four acrodunkers are out of breath. Woods examines his sprained thumb. Davis begins to explain how, once someone invents a new dunk, they have the right to name it. Davis did not invent it, but his toughest move is the Peanut Butter & Jelly. SkyHawk has copyrighted moves like Voltron, Scantron and Megatron.
With seven minutes remaining in the Hawks-Thunder first quarter, practice ends in anticlimactic fashion.
Missed dunks litter the record.
Jones, Woods, Davis and Skyhawk are huddled together, arms crisscrossing in the dim light, saying a prayer aloud in the tunnel adjoining the Philips Arena court.
They are not alone.
Unlike the old days of complete autonomy, the SkySquad now share a tunnel with the night’s various performers: Cheerleaders pace back and forth from the tunnel’s mouth to their equipment bags; a folded-up basketball goal obstructs half the walking area; an EMT stretcher sits idly for emergency purposes; a BP-sponsored prop waits readily for a contestant to toss a basketball in its open mouth. The heavy mat, trampoline and basketballs are present. There 93 seconds on the game clock when Davis begins to shake out the jitters. SkyHawk stares on, expressionless. Woods continues to fiddle with his now splint-less thumb.
“This is when the nerves start coming out,” Davis says. “This is when I start to get nervous. Once I’m out there, it all goes away and I’m fine. But right now …”
The buzzer sounds and Oklahoma City leads 23-20 after the first 12 minutes. SkyHawk and the SkySquad have not glanced at the scoreboard once, only the game clock above the nearest basket. Woods knocks aside a couple cheerleaders to grab the basketballs; the equipment is rushed onto the floor. Everything speeds up. Time is of the essence.
Arena-friendly anthem “Party Rock” blares.
SkyHawk starts to flap his metaphorical wings.
Your pass was so high …”
“Did you see how far back …?”
“Whose pass was high …?”
In the aftermath of the acrodunk-athon, the extroverted, performer-esque personalities shine brightest in the open-mouthed tunnels leading back to headquarters. Each SkySquad member talks over the other about the routine, which literally and figuratively flew by in a matter of seconds while the crowd roared its approval. SkyHawk struts with his beak held high, breathing heavily.
“My Peanut Butter and Jelly is off today …”
“Maybe they have a parental guidance for too much awesomeness …”
Davis, while laughing along with one of Jones’ sarcastic jokes about the performance, calls the entire process an adrenaline rush. The team works for hours on the spins, flips and passes that create the aesthetically-coordinated show, then it all gets crammed into an extended timeout from NBA game action. It is their brand of Olympics, of X-Games. Jones continues his animated rambling. Woods, since coming off the court on the verge of tears after hitting his thumb on a reverse dunk, has taken a couple painkillers out of his mother’s purse and is just one of the older guys, chatting away about the good and the bad.
No one missed a dunk: One hundred percent success rate.
When asked if this feeling — this overwhelming aura of perfection — is what makes it all worthwhile, our protagonist ever-so-briefly breaks character without breaking stride.