Talk of the Town - Harry the Hawk relishes anonymity of costume while entertaining fans March 28 2001

At over 6 feet tall, he's the biggest bird in town. Harry the Hawk keeps a busy schedule entertaining Atlanta basketball fans at home games, attending school assemblies to encourage children to read and making numerous other public appearances.

Harry came on to the scene in 1986, when few professional sports teams had mascots. The same man has filled Harry's claw-shaped shoes for the last 15 years, perfecting his half-court shooting and stair-sledding skills.

On a recent Saturday, Harry strutted his stuff in a St. Patrick's Day parade before heading to Philips Arena for a home game. The next day, Harry "flew" to an Atlanta Hawks Fan Jam at a local mall, where, without so much as a word, he brought cheers from basketball fans.

Whether he's playing musical chairs with kids mid-court or pulling a prank on a referee, Harry's human alter ego guards his privacy. Although he's the most popular bird in town, few people recognize him without his red tights, big beak and tail feathers.

What skills do you need to be a professional mascot?

It's very physically demanding. I ride a unicycle, I juggle basketballs, I spin basketballs and shoot half-court shots. I made about 50 percent of my half-court shots this year.

What about dancing?

I don't really even have to be able to dance. I just have to be able to convince people I can dance.

How did you come up with stair sledding?

I took a snow sled and just started going down the concrete steps in the arena. It's just sort of a real stupid act, but sort of fun.

How do people react to Harry?

I'm very recognizable here in Atlanta. One of the most wonderful things about my job is the looks that people give you. When people look at a costume, they don't have any inhibitions. I see just huge smiles and great reactions, and I very seldom get any negative feedback at all.

How do you communicate with fans without talking?

Harry is very slapstick. It's very physical comedy. There's no vocal comedy at all. I communicate very well with people without having to speak. I've had people I've developed friendships [with] from 10, 11 years who have no clue when I walk up who I am. It's amazing what you can learn from somebody, just sitting down next to them and shaking their hand. They'll tell me their life story.

What's it like to be such a recognizable figure?

It's wonderful that I can put on the costume and be instantly recognized, yet I can take it off and people have no idea who I am. I have always tried to hide myself in the character because I want them to view Harry as a character and a personality. When you see Mickey Mouse, you don't think of the guy wearing the costume.

How many appearances do you make outside of games?

I probably do 200 to 300 outside of games a year, including appearances at carnivals, at parades, at schools. I do a program in kindergarten through fifth grade called 'Fast Break for Reading.' I've done over 2,000 school assemblies. We promote how important reading is. If they will read 14 books, then the Atlanta Hawks will give them two free tickets to a Hawks game.

So this is a full-time gig?

I'm putting in quite a few hours, 40 to 50 hours a week. If I'm not actually doing appearances, I'm en route to an appearance. I may have game operations meetings with the Hawks, or I'm talking to other mascots around the league about ideas and skits. I talk to several guys every day.

I'm buddies with every mascot in the NBA. We meet two or three times a year and talk about different things that just are relevant to us. We help each other with ideas.

How does this job pay?

I'm under a contract that doesn't allow me to discuss it. I will say that I have four kids and I'm able to support my family. There are a lot of mascots in the NBA that make six figures. It's a lot of birdseed.

What advice would you give aspiring mascots?

If it's not something you have a passion for, don't do it.

What goals do you have for your career?

I don't have a lot of goals. My goal is just to have fun right now.??

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