Land of the Rising Gorilla


The Phoenix Gorilla, pictured above, is probably the National Basketball Association’s most easily recognized mascot, and not just because he has a habit of slam dunking a basketball (with the aid of a trampoline) after passing through a flaming ring. He’s been around since 1980, and, because the costume so allows, he’s able to actually interact with fans and even take some shots while on the court entertaining those throughout the arena. He’s a show unto himself.
But there’s one thing not quite right about the Gorilla. The NBA team he represents is called the Phoenix Suns — there’s nothing whatsoever which connects the team nor its nickname to a six-foot tall primate. Where did the gorilla come from?

The Suns have been around since 1968, but for their first decade-plus, they went without a mascot. (Some say the team considered a sunflower for a time.) It probably would have continued on that way, but, in January of 1980, a die-hard fan decided to treat an unknown target with a singing telegram. He contacted the Eastern Onion singing telegram service which, in turn, hired a man named Harry Rojas to don a gorilla costume, go to the Suns game, and deliver the message. Rojas did his job the best he could, sitting through the first half of that night’s game in full costume. But no one helped him locate his target. Unsure what to do next, Rojas walked along the sidelines to exit the arena, when music started playing. Security stopped him — but didn’t escort the gorilla-suit clad man out of the building. Instead, they asked him to dance for the crowd, which at this point, thought that the gorilla man was part of the planned entertainment for the evening.

Rojas went to the free throw line and did what he was asked, dancing to the music. One of the referees decided to toss him a basketball, which Rojas dutifully shot into the hoop — to the delight of almost everyone in the building. The most notable exception: Tom Ambrose, the team’s public relations lead. He was sitting at the scorer’s table (which is typically positioned at center court, just a few feet out of bounds), and had no idea what was going on. He’d later tell the Arizona Republic that his first instinct was to have the unauthorized dancing gorilla ejected from the court, but he couldn’t find any security personnel quickly enough. So Rojas, the dancing gorilla, stayed on the court for a few moments longer, with the crowd laughing and cheering the whole time.

Over the next few weeks, Eastern Onion found itself with a new set of customers. Suns fans kept calling, asking if Rojas was available to appear at an upcoming basketball game. Shortly thereafter, the team cut out the middleman, hiring Rojas to work his monkey magic full-time.

Bonus Fact: In 1993, a man named Victor Bernal, the director of zoos and parks for the Mexican state of Mexico (yes, Mexico has a state named Mexico) tried to smuggle a gorilla from Miami to his home district. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service set up a sting operation to nab the crooked director — by having an agent dress up in a gorilla costume. Mr. Bernal took the bait, purchasing the “gorilla” for $92,500, and ending up on the wrong end of an arrest warrant.

From the ArchivesOnion Ring: If the bonus fact reminds you of the movie Trading Places, this story will too.

RelatedA gorilla costume, in case you aspire to be an NBA mascot (or an agent for the Fish and Wildlife Service).