Ethan Switch - Friday, 22 October 2004
Animals of Serengeti begin their profile on the lion with, "This is Africa's largest carnivore and the only known social cat. Of low build, but very large and powerful, with a short, tawny coat, white underparts and a black tail tuft; adult males have long manes. [...] Spending most of the day resting, they become active in the late afternoon, but can be seen hunting any time of day."
This isn't about the four-legged variety dodging game hunters and missiles launched by school children on an excursion led by a teacher who secretly hopes that one of them falls into the pit so as to stage a rescue for the ever present handy cam. Rather, this hind-legged cool cat wears a basketball singlet (and shorts), a mean grin and struts court-side at all Sydney Kings games at the Kingdome. Sporting "the cool and charm of The Fonz, the attitude and beef of Hollywood Hulk Hogan and Arnold Schwarzenegger and the cheek and comedy of Harpo Marx," this potent jungle mix of traits is what's known to the Sydney Kings fans simply as, The Lion.
At the end of the 1994 NBL season (in which the North Melbourne Giants are crowned champions having defeated the Adelaide 36ers) Kings management held a board meeting with talks concerning game night production and their proposed new mascot—a lion. Days earlier, they happened upon a cub lying motherless outside on the doorstep of their front office. The passion in his eyes caught their attention and the managers decided that after six years into the franchise, they had finally found their champion, their costumed ambassador—their mascot.
Instantly recognisable as the beefcake with flair known to many today it was not always the initial plan. Designs by the board suggested notions that, "He wore a smile, a cape, a crown and was not so beefy." Nothing is ever set in stone and after some words, The Lion sculpted his own glorious image. "I suggested they lose the cape, the crown, add fangs..." A take charge animal, The Lion carved his destiny, crafted his skill—early in his career he travelled to the States to learn all that he could from his idol, the San Antonio Spurs Coyote—and laid out a few ideas on what the Lion should and should not do. High amongst them is the one playbook move nearly all basketball mascots are expected to pull. "They asked me if I could dunk? I simply replied [The Lion] won't need to dunk... dunks are boring after... seen one seen them all. For the record I have dunked twice in 10 years."
Keeping abreast of the news and events, The Lion does more than just make the cheerleaders look great, he's also a consummate and well-read performer. "I am mindful of what is topical or in the news, so I am always trying to come up with new material... like Michael Jackson making his (basketball) court appearance. (Performed during the Kings vs Bullets game of 16/01/04.) Sorry about that... but it did get a laugh!"
Once in a while the head of the Lion manages to fall off. Hiding beneath can be anyone from Gene Simmons of KISS to the aforementioned Jackson. Often topical, the performances rarely feature intricate machinations, "I can't make things too complicated, the paws are too large to handle anything small and complex."
But they're fun and more often than not involve effigies of the visitor's mascots, "Once I think I have an idea that works, there is actually very little preparation." And away he goes. Pulling out a pig's head for Game 3 of the 2003/04 finals, pounding an inflatable croc back in Game 3 of the 2002/03 NBL finals and most recently, performing a physical check-up on an aging Tiger, just a few spotlights seen during timeouts and half-time entertainment periods provided by The Lion.
Pianists crack their knuckles, Jimmy Barnes hollers his lungs out and some people just throw up. The only pre-game/performance ritual The Lion goes through before hitting the boards, "HYDRATE!!! I drink lots... I need to! Devouring a zebra is optional!"
Water—and possibly sports drinks soaked in "electrolytes" with a different taste at different states of sweat crankductory—can't provide all the rush and energy needed to get through the two hours of a game. "For the first nine years it was winning a championship... remember I am a fan of the Kings first! But a close second is the response The Lion receives. I particular like it when a comedy skit works with lots of laughter... but even the intimate moments when I am asked to hold a baby for a family picture. It warms my heart to see a one year old laugh and giggle... and especially when I take photos with disabled kids and adults who often attend games. And of course being flirtatious with the ladies is kind of cool too!"
Before the arrival of Jack the Razorback (of West Sydney), the Lion was the only basketball mascot out there for the Sydney basketball fans. And now with a cross-town rival to fend off the affection will he share the love? Forget that. "Jack the Razorback suffers in much the same way as the team... living in the shadows of the Kings. Rich man poor man syndrome. It is a shame the NBL rule forbids rival mascots from appearing on the opposition home court... then I am sure we would have fur flying and have lots of fun... there is so much potential... some one needs to speak to the NBL."
Currently as it stands, there isn't any dire urge to find and locate that mysterious Lion. "I have been more interested in finding a Lioness... one dressed in leather! Grrrrr." Which nixes foreseeable plans to stage antics with a cub of his own much like the Harlequins who occasionally trot out the mini-Harlequins. "In this politically correct world let me find a Lioness first! But The Cub, as would The Lioness, provide so much more material for gags and comedy skits." Always about the performance.
"And why The Lion? There was talk earlier on to christen the Lion with a name. I was against it though. A name can define or prejudice a personality or character. The Lion is neutral and it is a statement! Nothing more needs to be said."
Ten years prowling the Kingdome, a decade lapping up the adoration and excitement from the crowd, eliciting cheer like a pusher on his favourite street corner... but nothing lasts forever. "All good things must come to an end. I thought I would have retired in 2000 but I also figured the Kings would have won a Championship by then. We have now won back-to-back and a 3-peat would be a great way to retire."
"It is official... this will be my last season. Over the course of this season I will be training an understudy or two so that the handover will be undetectable to Kings fans. I will still be around though, trying to help about and making a night out at the Kingdome just the best!"
"The Lion is King of the jungle... I rule!!! I reign!!!"
With thanks to the Sydney Kings Lion and especially to Noel Dona for providing translatory aid.
By Ethan Switch
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