Even mascots need a coach Meet the man behind the man behind Benny the Bull
by Todd Natenberg Special to the Daily Herald
Posted on Sunday, May 06, 2001

Kidwatcher. Autograph coordinator. Family photographer. Camp counselor. People have chosen to describe my work for the Chicago Bulls various ways.

My official title is mascot coordinator, but I like my own term best: "Benny the Bull's bodyguard."

See, I'm the individual fans don't know about but in their heart of hearts appreciate more than just about anybody when it comes to putting a smile on their or their children's faces.

In a 2000-2001 season where the Bulls struggles were incomprehensible, my position suddenly took on that of a celebrity, since sometimes the most exciting aspects of our games are the mascots.

When Chicago's beloved "Benny The Bull" wanders over to you or your 5-year-old child standing in the aisles clutching his "Benny" doll but is too scared to ask for an autograph, it is I who approach you first.

"You want to meet Benny? You want his autograph?" I ask, stooping down, extending my hand to take the youngster's doll to give to Benny, smiling the entire time. "Benny's nice. He won't hurt you."

With the child's nod, I shout the magical words to my cohort in crime some 10 feet away, "Benny! You're wanted over here."

Benny might be looking the other way - his side-vision impaired due to the head the size of two watermelons and his hearing impaired amid the din of fans shouting his name - but he does not hesitate.

He knows my voice and that is the voice he responds to above all else. Within moments, he comes over, using my pen to make a young boy's dreams come true. The parents are ecstatic and want to take a photograph of their child hugging Benny.

I volunteer to take the photo so they too can have their adulthood fantasy come true: Their child and themselves posing with Benny. Their excitement grows. "1, 2, 3 ... smile," I say. Click!

The parents say thank you with a smile.

When I first was offered the position of "mascot coordinator" for the Chicago Bulls this year, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew is I originally had tried out for the "IncrediBulls," the mostly male cheerleaders who slingshot shirts into the crowd. Although I did not make the IncrediBulls, the same people who played a role in picking this squad asked if I wanted the mascot squad instead.

While the duties were different, the benefits seemed similar: A token game stipend, free parking, a dinner and most of all a chance to see the games and be part of the action. I am the owner of a sales training company and a recent entrepreneur, so I work my own hours. All the games were at night, so I thought, "Let's go for it."

I thought in a crazy way working with the Bulls might not be a bad way to fine tune my teaching skills. At the minimum, I thought I could make some great contacts. I originally joked to my friends and family that I would sweep the floors at The United Center.

Nothing against those folks because we all have important jobs, but this was what I thought would be my duties.

I was mistaken. Actually, my "coordinatorship" was much more than that. My official duties included helping Benny - and the other mascot Da Bull, who dunks the basketball during timeouts - prepare for the games and help them with their routines.

I was responsible for seeing he got where they needed to be on the basketball court at the appropriate time, any costumes they needed for routines and appropriate props they might have used. The props include a "louder" sign and our highlight, a monster 6-foot- long and 4-foot high Bulls flag attached to a 10-foot pole. If it was a close game, Benny and DaBull ran around the court during a timeout with the flag, but were it not for their mascot coordinators the flag would never be in their hands.

My duties also included protecting Benny, both from himself and the occasional drunken fan who wants to mess with the mascot. A cumbersome costume, Benny does at times have difficulty moving around or getting to tough places.

His vision is partially impaired as well, so in this way I serve as a type of escort. He also is not allowed to talk, so I become his voice. But the real important (and yes, "power") role in my job is I was the one who often picked and coached fans for the mascot routines when we had audience participation. I am the one who single-handedly (although sometimes with my fellow mascot coordinators) decides who will have their five minutes of fame in front of 15,000 screaming fans.

Benny's routines include such skits as "Little Bennys" and "Little DaBulls" where we dress up children and then they play a version of follow the leader, teasing the opponents, applauding the Bulls and mocking the refs. In another bit, we pick adults to play musical chairs with Benny as the referee.

One of our favorites is the "InflataBulls" where fans race around cones while enclosed in an 8-foot tall balloon contraption designed like Benny. In this routine, my job is to see Benny gets the checkered flag and starting flag as the bit starts. In addition, I help set up the course on the court for one of the participants.

On one cold winter night in Chicago, I was charged with coaching and selecting duties for the "Little Bennys" routine. I chose the fans to participate. After they assembled backstage I instructed the children on how to be most excited about this incredible opportunity to help Benny, and to do it at the Bulls game on court in front of 15,000 screaming fans.

Animated and enthusiastic myself, it was as if I would be on the court.

"I swear," Benny told me before the routine itself. "The practices with you are more entertaining than the routines."

Go Bulls.

- Todd Natenberg is president of TBN Sales Solutions, which provides customized sales training to small and mid-sized businesses. He can be reached in Chicago at (773) 975-0324 or via e-mail at todd@@tbnsalessolutions.com. TBN also is available on the web atwww.tbnsalessolutions.com.