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“I was so humiliated. It was the biggest mistake of my career.”

Robert Boudwin, formerly Clutch the Bear for the Houston Rockets, was a newbie in the mascot world back in 2001, when Michael Jordan was playing for the Washington Wizards. Like anybody, he admired the athlete’s untouchable allure. And as Boudwin worked to advance his comedic career as a fluffy, gallant bear, it was only a matter of time before he’d poke a little fun at Mike. But as it turns out, jokes about Michael Jordan don’t land well.

At the time, Boudwin admired Rocky, the Denver Nuggets mascot, and his skit with Charles Barkley. “Rocky had this relationship with Charles,” Boudwin explains. “He would get up on stilts in the first period, carrying butcher paper with a chicken drawn on it. He’d point back and forth to Barkley’s number and the chicken. It worked so well. They even talked about the bit in advance. Charles came over and head butted him, and he fell off the stilts. The crowd loved it.”

Luckily, Boudwin also had a pair of stilts. And he knew how to use them. “I wanted to do this bit with Jordan,” he notes. “I hadn’t talked to him beforehand, but I did it anyway. I came out on stilts carrying butcher paper with an old man drawn on it. A giant arrow pointed to the number 23. I thought, It worked for Rocky — it will work for me!”

When the Rockets played the Wizards at home, Boudwin was ready. During a first period time-out, Clutch came out on a pair of stilts while Bruce Springstein’s “Glory Days” played. He flashed the butcher paper to the crowd, insinuating that Jordan’s best days were behind him. But despite Boudwin’s thought-out plan, the crowd hollered and booed. People did not want to hear that Jordan’s days were done. “I wanted to disappear,” Boudwin says.

He was lucky to have his assistant to save him. Planted in the crowd dressed as a Wizards fan just for moments like this, the assistant recognized that things were going south quickly. So he jumped up from his seat and pushed Clutch right off the stilts. Everyone cheered. “Take that, Clutch, you dumb teddy bear!” yelled spectators. Even the home team fans were siding with a rival team fan.

Photography by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Jordan, on the other hand, was above it all. “He didn’t even look over,” Boudwin explains. “I tried to make some gestures toward him during the skit, but I don’t think he realized it happened.”

The team didn’t slap Clutch on the paw for the faux pas, but Boudwin never tried anything on Jordan again. “There was no defense to make,” he says. “There was just no debate. Wow, did I eff up. I laughed about it.”

But stories of epic failure aren’t the only ones Boudwin recalls. “One of the coolest moments with Michael was actually during a Nuggets versus Wizards game,” he recalls. “He was sitting on the ground during a time-out. Rocky, the Nuggets’ mascot, sat next to him with a basketball and a Sharpie. Michael never did autographs during games. But Rocky tiptoed his fingers toward him, and they popped up on the Jumbotron. Michael smirked and signed the ball, and the crowd went wild. ‘Who wants it?’ Rocky yelled, bouncing back and forth to each side of the crowd. The place went nuts.”

In the end, the crowd was right: Jordan didn’t have glory days. His entire career was full of grandeur. “I don’t think our job as mascots or any of the entertainment stuff meant anything to him,” Boudwin concludes. “And if he were playing today during the coronavirus outbreak, empty stands wouldn’t mean anything to him either. It was never elitist. It’s just how he played.”

Get more of the behind-the-scenes scoop inside the secret world of professional sports mascots.

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