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What it's like to be a college basketball mascot during March Madness

For the students playing Otto the Syracuse Orange and Rameses the UNC ram, it’s not about individual glory.

South Carolina State v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

BROOKLYN, NY — Otto wasn’t having a good game. Maybe that’s because Otto is an orange, and oranges aren’t typically great at basketball. But the other plush, anthropomorphized animals and oversized, plastic humans weren’t faring any better. Gripping a ball is hard when your hands are covered in furry gloves and you can’t see well.

Hardly any of the shots the mascots attempted went in. They looked like little kids trying to trick-or-treat in Halloween masks that severely limit peripheral vision. Rameses, a big-horned sheep in a jersey that serves as UNC’s mascot, was probably the best one on the court. And even he couldn’t reach his arms high enough above his head to achieve the proper form for a layup. His horns got in the way.

Eventually Otto gave up and just hung around near halfcourt. It pulled its arms into its suit and did its signature spin, whirling the fuzzy orb in frenzied circles around its torso. It jumped up and down, moving definitively so that even fans in the nosebleeds could see its large gestures, and ran in circles as Ramses and the other players kept trying to make baskets.

Wednesday’s mascot basketball game at the Barclays Center was limited to the length of the Duke-Clemson halftime, so it soon came to an end, as did Otto’s time at the ACC Tournament. Syracuse had lost earlier that day in the second round, which meant the mascot basketball game was the gender-neutral blob’s final appearance that week.

Otto and Ramses will be back next season. But Isaac Clark and Stephen Jones, the students inside the suits this year, won’t be. They’re both seniors, and when they graduate from Syracuse and UNC in a few months, they’ll graduate from being Otto and Rameses, too. The suits transform them into these characters and turn them into the very spirit of their schools. They make them at once selfless and bigger than themselves.

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Athletes rely on their individuality; if all goes exceptionally well, some of the basketball players who Otto and Rameses cheered on will someday be in the NBA and have sneakers named after them. While the players represent the part, Isaac and Stephen represent the whole. They and the athletes will age out, but the mascots they play — recognizable entities that generations of fans know and love — won’t. For the students who play Otto and Rameses, the characters are as much inside them as they are inside the physical costumes.

“It’s about putting the suit on,” Isaac said in the media dining room on Wednesday before the mascot halftime show after his team’s loss to Miami. He was sweaty and hungry, scarfing down a hot dog as he told me how seriously he takes his role.

“That’s the click,” he continued. “As soon as it hits your head, you’re Otto. I’m not Isaac anymore. I don’t talk when I’m in-suit. I don’t do anything Otto wouldn’t do. I didn’t become Otto to become a mascot. I became Otto to become Otto.”

Isaac is relentlessly positive. His earnestness is almost suspect; how can someone care so much about something that he doesn’t get credit for? But Isaac loved the secrecy. He spent years making up excuses for early morning workouts and coming up with elaborate stories about how he knew the cheerleaders (“we’d say we had some classes together”) and why he happened to be in the tunnel before games. (“I’d tell people I was helping out with the athletics department marketing.”)

He only agreed to use his name for this article because his identity had been revealed at Syracuse’s last home game of the season, the Saturday before the ACC Tournament. After it was announced, his phone blew up. Friends couldn’t believe he’d been Otto all that time.

But Isaac didn’t revel in his big moment; instead, he misses the anonymity. During his whole career, only three people, besides the rest of the spirit team and his parents, knew he was inside the plush orange costume with the foam hat.

Isaac Clark with his family on senior night after his identity was revealed.
Courtesy Isaac Clark

“The reason I did the reveal was for my family, for my parents,” he said. “The recognition perspective was for them and my grandparents, who didn’t know I was Otto. But if I could go back, I honestly don’t know if I’d do it. It’s not important for me to be recognized as Otto. It’s all about S.U.”

Stephen, the UNC student who gives life to Rameses, was recently unmasked at senior night, too. But he said no one really paid attention — it wasn’t as produced as Syracuse’s reveal. In fact, the student inside the Rameses suit isn’t actually named Stephen Jones. He was still clinging to the shreds of anonymity he had left, and he didn’t want me using his real name.

Stephen and Isaac are soft-spoken and businesslike. Both wore their requisite spirit team jumpsuits and were clean shaven with neatly cut hair. Isaac already has a job lined up at Ernst & Young when he graduates. Stephen is hoping to enter the professional mascot world, and if that doesn’t work, will try to get a job in a sports organization's front office. Given that he interned with the Padres last summer, it doesn’t really seem like a pipe dream anymore.

Both students used words like “unique,” “creative,” “community,” and “positive experiences.” They referred to wearing the mascot costume as being “in-suit,” and came across as far more mature than 21 or 22-years-old. They are serious and focused young men.

Being Otto and Rameses is, therefore, a respite, allowing them to let loose in ways they can’t as Isaac and Stephen. The suits release them from the confines of being themselves. They grant a glorious freedom to be silly and are the reason Isaac and Stephen can dance in front of thousands of fans and millions of people on national television as though they were alone in their bedrooms.

“You get to put yourself out there without people actually knowing it’s you. It’s very rewarding,” Stephen said, checking his phone to be sure he’d have enough time to suit up before the game.

Isaac had said something similar the day before.

“When I put the suit on, I’m doing things I would never normally do,” he told me. “I’m standing in front of 35,000 people at a basketball game in ‘Cuse and waving my arms and dancing on the court. I would never do anything like that. I honestly consider myself a bit of an introvert. When I was first recruiting for the team I was like, ‘I’m a pretty quiet person, I keep to myself.’ But this has pushed me so far and challenged me. I think I’ve grown a lot from the experience.”

You probably have a lot of questions about the logistics of being a mascot. Yes, it’s hot in there, and yes, everybody asks that. A lot of people do try to grab their butts. No, Isaac and Stephen can’t talk when they’re in the suit. Yes, they bring their own flair to their dancing, but each mascot has some signature moves so that when one of the other students occupies the suit, the character stays consistent. But no, they won’t tell you who those other people are or how many of them exist.

And yes, of course it’s exhausting. They have to be in incredible shape. No, they’re not close with the athletes they cheer on because the players don’t know their identities, either. But yes, Brice Johnson did pat Rameses’ chest before every ACC tournament game last year, and yes, Stephen did feel like he was a good luck charm.

The Rameses suit is heavy. It starts out at 20 pounds but can reach 40 depending on how sweat-soaked it gets. Otto is lighter. Isaac and Stephen know each other — being a mascot in the ACC is a “strange brotherhood.” The students playing Otto run his social media accounts — he can’t talk, so Twitter gives him a voice. (“Imagine someone talking in all-caps all the time.”)

Davidson v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Stephen got up from the table. He had to suit up for the game against Miami. (He was nervous — he always gets nervous before games.) He told me to email him if I had any more questions and then shook my hand. It felt like the end of a business meeting. He disappeared into the hallways of Barclays to change.

I wandered out and made my way through the tunnel to the court. The glorious pomp and circumstance of college basketball was in full swing: The pep bands honked away, the fans yelled absurd things at 19-year-old athletes, and the dance teams fidgeted on the sidelines and adjusted their outfits.

The UNC mascot stood just outside the tunnel facing the court. He turned around, flung both of his arms out in greeting, and did a little dance. He hugged me. Then he mimed kissing me on the cheek with his sheep nose, behaving nothing like the shy college student I’d been talking to minutes earlier.

That’s because he was no longer Stephen. He was Rameses.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - East Regional - Notre Dame v North Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images