Thursday, April 8, 2010

An Unforgettable Night for All the Wrong Reasons

Everything seemed to be business as usual inside the Palace of Auburn Hills last Wednesday night.

The Pistons were getting trounced by the visiting Heat, the stands were half-filled, and Chris Wilcox was taking his customary second quarter snooze over on the bench. My buddy BK and I slumped back in our seats, practically searching for ways to be entertained.

We stared at Charlie Villanueva for a while. It appeared as if CV was chomping on some kind of in-game snack. It was the most action he got all night.

Watching the huge Jonas Jerebko fan club to our right was mildly amusing until it became clear that JJ was having one of his patented "Look, I was at the club until like 5:00 this morning, so don't expect much from me" kind of games.

Pistons' rookie DaJuan Summers got significant minutes in the team's quest to see if they have a real ballplayer on their hands. On one hand, if the rules of the sport drastically change to the point where all you need to do is graze a piece of the rim or backboard in order for a basket to count, Summers would be on the fast track to Springfield. However, if the rules remain as they are now, requiring the ball to go all the way in the rim and down through the net, we are looking at quite possibly the worst NBA player of all time. It really could go either way.

Like I said, it was a very ordinary night at the Palace.

Then, things got weird. Really weird.

There was a timeout on the floor. Both teams went to their respective huddles. Music blared over the loud speakers. PA guy John Mason barked about some contest going on in the upper deck. And to the court came Hooper, the Pistons mascot.

Only, Hooper wasn't himself. He was moving at a snail's pace and it looked like he may have enjoyed about a half-dozen Heinekens before entering the building. But then I looked a little closer, and realized ol' Hoop had a reason for the restricted movement and abbreviated pace. Our mascot was on crutches.

I nudged BK and told him to check it out. He couldn't believe his eyes. An NBA mascot on crutches? Is that even legal?

We agreed maybe it was just part of a comedy bit. Maybe Hooper was going to feign injury, then a loud bang would go off, he'd fling the crutches aside, and the crowd would eat it up. But no such thing happened. He hobbled his way back to the tunnel and the night continued.

Midway through the 3rd, it was time for the "T-Shirt Toss," the most stale of all stadium gimmicks. The shirts are fired into the upper reaches of the crowd while throngs of screaming fans throw self-respect completely out the window and proceed to go absolutely berserk in trying to secure the cheap garment. Usually this event is right in Hooper's wheelhouse. He bounces around the court, determines which section is most passionate, and then directs his prizes accordingly. It's basically Mascot Heaven. But this was just...sad.

Hooper still had his crutches and clearly could not lead this event as is his custom. However, the Palace Patrol had come prepared. They wheeled this bizarre wagon-like contraption over to Hooper, and he struggled on board.

Just when you think you've seen all this world has to offer, here comes an old, beat up, NBA horse mascot forcing his way onto a makeshift T-shirt tossing machine. A more depressing sight I could not imagine.

The helpers pushed the ailing Hooper around the court, allowing him to work the cannon and blast the shirts. But the insanity that usually envelops the fans during this scene was absent. Instead, the crowd responded the same way they would if one of the favorites in the Kentucky Derby just collapsed on the home stretch with a shattered kneecap. Pure, unadulterated horror.

The thing that I haven't been able to wrap my head around is this.

I understand mascots get injured sometimes.

They are routinely flying off trampolines, roller skating across the floor, or somersaulting through a ring of fire. Accidents will occur.

, if these furry heroes do get hurt, why not get a healthy replacement? Finding an adequate stand-in for this chronically mediocre mascot over the final few weeks would not have been difficult. Hell, you give me a couple Red Bulls and a few high-quality hallucinogens, and I'd throw on the outfit for a few hours. It ain't rocket science.

Or how about just going without a freaking mascot for a few games? Would that really have been the worst thing in the world? Would anybody have gone to a game, watched a couple quarters, and then screamed, "Hey, where has Hooper been tonight? I don't think I've seen Hooper!"

But anything would have been better than the current model of just sending out the same crippled Hooper night after depressing night.

Recently, Hooper and his fellow Piston spirit crew members went out for a community appearance. Hooper, being the honorable mascot that he is, called the event planner Daryl Hawkins ahead of time to let him know about his broken ankle. I love picturing how that conversation transpired.

Hooper: "Hey, so I'm uhh, on crutches. I messed up my ankle bad, dude."

Hawkins: "You're on crutches?!? But you're supposed to be the life of the party! How are you going to rev up the crowd and do your job if you can't move??"

Hooper: "Yeah, I can't answer that, man. I really just called to tell you to make sure there's beer. And some hay. I'm gonna be pretty hungry."

This Pistons season has been a nightmare from beginning to end. They've gotten blown out more times than I can remember and are headed for their worst record since the apocalyptic Sean Elliott-Olden Polynice squad in 1993-94. The players have underachieved, the coaches have lost control, and the fans have become disinterested. Our last safe haven was our mascot, and now he has fallen, too.

It's been one low point after another this year for the Pistons, but nothing will ever be as downright saddening as the night we saw Hooper on crutches.

Get better soon, big fella. For everybody's sake.

Don't forget to check out John Kuester's Year-in-Review, or return to the HSL Main Page

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