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Michael Zerillo Unmasked as the Hornet's Mascot
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A legendary mascot performer hung up his tights and wings last spring after 17 seasons with the Hornet's organization. His career included three cities and even more surgeries. Michael Zerrillo gives us the buzz on his career as an NBA mascot in this month's Gameops.com Interview.
Gameops.com: How'd you get started as a mascot?
Michael Zerrillo: I was the roommate with the Phoenix Suns Gorilla, after he got the job as the Gorilla in 1988. I helped him out and saw what he was doing as a performer and I started looking for opportunities. I saw an opening in Charlotte in 1990 and I auditioned that summer.
There were 60 people who submitted resumes and videos and the team auditioned 15 people in Charlotte.
Gameops.com: How did they run that audition?
Michael Zerrillo: The final audition was made up of the top 10. It was a live audition in costume. If you were a dunker they had you perform out of costume as well. This was held at the 1990 draft party.
The team told the fans they were seeing an audition for the mascot, so they were very open about it. They played it up that they were holding a big search.
With the change they were also making some changes to the costume, so they created a story that Hugo was bug-napped and super heroes were searching for him. They explained that a doctor had helped to change his appearance slightly and this story also helped create the backstory for Super Hugo (the dunking character).
Gameops.com: Do you have any advice to younger mascots who are looking to audition with professional teams?
Zerrillo: Don't do it. (laughs)
Contact teams, get a resume and video. Like any job it's a numbers game, there are a lot of performers and only a few jobs. Connect with someone in the organization and let them know you are interested. Ask him or her to hold on to your info and to connect with you if the position opens up in the future. (For more tips for younger mascots see our Mascot Tips from NBA performers.)
Gameops.com: In that first year you created a new style of the dual mascot with two persona's. One, the larger traditional costume (Hugo), and the other a "super hero" alter ego (Super Hugo). Talk about how that came about.
Zerrillo: Super Hugo came about because I was a gymnast and I could dunk pretty well. The bigger costume inhibited what I could do.
The major focus was always on Hugo, but the secondary character for dunks was created. We built a phone booth and Hugo would run in and change live into Super Hugo. We later filmed that transition so I didn't have to spend all the time and effort in the change and could go right to the action. I also had the ability to change in a large parachute bag.
We felt it was important that people knew it was the same character, not two different characters or performers. Despite our efforts some people think its two people after all these years.
I dunked every other game, depending on the schedule. Big nights, I tried to make it more special. Creating that character made the overall character more unique and it was a way to make the dunking more special.
It caused some problems of having to change, since we had to block out chunks of game schedule to make the costume change and change back afterwards.
Gameops.com: Super Hugo became the NBA Mascot 3-time dunk champion
Sheer number of performers is also very different. This also helps develop more ideas at the NBA conference (where most NBA mascots gather yearly to share ideas.)
As far as in-game entertainment, things seem about the same. For our team Hugo has always been a large part of the show, so that has remained the same.
Also the addition of On-Court MC's. Now most teams have a voice on the floor, which can be very advantageous with the right person.
Gameops.com: Talk about the process of finding a replacement performer for Hugo.
Zerrillo: I was trying to retire for awhile, but the owner asked me to stay and extended it a couple years. The owner wanted some continuity with all the other issues. When we moved to a new city, he wanted to keep things the same when possible, so that kept me around longer.
Last year when it was time to hang it up, we looked for new talent during the year. We wanted them in during a season to shadow and see how we do things. In the end we got a late start on it.
We had two rounds of tryouts. Some performers referred or had sent information to the team. That group was reviewed by ownership who took an active role. We had a collective discussion and decided who was right for the role. I was asked to help mentor the new performer for 6 months and to advise where asked. I help however I can.
I also helped with the move back from Oklahoma to New Orleans. Last night was the first performance I evaluated during a pre-season game.
Gameops.com: What was that like to see someone else in the suit after 17 years?
Zerrillo: It was different. I wasn't sad, since I was really ready to be done. I had never really seen it from this angle, so it was interesting.
I realized you can see a whole lot better without that costume on. If I wasn't ready for the chance I would have been more regretful, but I was ready.
As I reviewed the performance I really looked at things not like, "Is that what I would do, but is that working."
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