I think that I shall never see
A bigger fool be the Stanford Tree.
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- I apologize to Joyce Kilmer for rewriting his verse. And I apologize to all of Stanford-kind for my arrhythmic attempt at being the school's inimitable mascot for half a basketball game last week.
I skipped, sprinted and spun around Maples Pavilion during five timeouts in the first half of Stanford's 82-79 victory over Washington. Mostly I tried to avoid running into courtside fans, officials, players and the Dollies, the five-woman dance group that the tree accompanies onto the floor during every timeout. I strained an Achilles tendon, tweaked a hammy and kinked my neck on behalf of sylvan silliness.
I was a pretty wooden Tree. But after overcoming the initial performance anxiety, it sure was fun.
Pretending to be a foolhardy collegian when you're really a semi-serious, out-of-shape, 43-year-old father of three doesn't come easily. Especially when 7,000 people are watching.
Even while wearing a 25-pound, man-made tree suit with a burka-like green mesh veil covering your face, it's easy to suspect that everyone is looking at you with either disdain or disappointment. After years of Tree watching, you have to figure they know a fraud when they see one.
Why is the Tree off his game tonight? Where's the spunk and the funk?
But the folks in the know -- day-to-day Tree John Whipple and the wonderfully weird people who make up America's most unconventional college band -- showered me with kindness and encouragement. They were great before, during and after this stunt, which became my ultimate be-careful-what-you-wish-for moment.
It started in late January, when in my Forde Minutes column I concocted a basketball Bucket List -- 10 hoops-related things to do before kicking the bucket. No. 3 on the list was being the Stanford Tree. Seemed like it would be a blast to perform as the quirkiest member of the decidedly quirky college mascot species -- not that it would ever happen, of course.
I didn't think much about it until an e-mail arrived later that week. Subject line: "The Stanford band invites you to be Tree for a day."
Uh-oh. It was time to Tree up or shut up.
Lacking a decent excuse for bailing out, I accepted. We agreed on a date, and they sent me video of the Tree for instructional purposes. The only thing left to do was talking myself into showing up.
The closer it got, the more my anxiety escalated. I became acutely aware of the fact that I really don't have a mascot's personality -- no real zest for public zaniness. Didn't have it when I was younger, and sure don't have it now. Could I actually relax enough to be silly?
My family was amused at the idea of my being the Tree, but simultaneously dubious. The night before I flew to California, my 8-year-old daughter said, "You don't seem like the type of person they'd pick for this."
"I'm not," I said.
"Don't they usually pick students?"
"You're a lot older than them."
Thanks for reminding me, hon.
Fortunately, the members of the Leland Stanford Jr. University Marching Band (LSJUMB for, uh, short) do not take themselves or anyone else very seriously. They're not famous just for being run through and over by Cal on the five-lateral touchdown in 1982; they're also famous -- or notorious -- for their raging rebel streak.
The Stanford band has gotten in more trouble than the Deltas from Faber College. They are forever pushing the envelope in matters of taste and decorum, often past the ripping point. At a school with a heavyweight academic reputation, they are the sometimes-lovable, sometimes-irritating problem children.
"'Irreverent' is kind of the buzzword," said band publicist/trumpeter Scott Bland, a history major from Ithaca, N.Y., and the guy who got me into this thing. "It's kind of the whole ethos."
It starts with the uniforms. Most college bands take great pride in their old-school, matching, head-to-toe outfits. Stanford? White bucket hats and red vests (red suit coats for football games) are about as far as it goes. You can wear jeans, shorts, flip-flops or whatever you want to go along with it. Goofball accessories (like buttons on the hats) are strongly encouraged.
Then there's the song list. Any other university bands out there playing "White Punks on Dope"?
And, of course, there is the marching -- the pride and punctilious joy of most college bands. Calling Stanford's crew a marching band is actually a misnomer. They term themselves a "scatter band" -- no real formations at all. Just get out on the football field -- or wherever they play -- and run around pointlessly while playing.
The scatter strategy started in 1963, according to the band. In 1972, Stanford jumped well ahead of the curve and did away with its Indians nickname and Prince Lightfoot mascot. That cleared the path for the Tree.
In the three-plus decades of its existence, it has become the most famous sporting Tree this side of Wayne Rollins.
A few of them were stolen and/or assaulted by rivals, leading to the formation of a security group called Tree Protective Services. (Motto: Don't Touch Our Wood. Mostly it was an excuse to get Tree cronies onto the sidelines for big events.)
Some of them have misbehaved. (One Tree was arrested for public intoxication at a Cal-Stanford basketball game. The soused sapling was seen sipping from a flask during the game and subsequently blew a 0.15. Trees now get a pregame Breathalyzer at all football games.)
Most of them have been breathtakingly ugly. (Each Tree makes his/her own costume. There have been palm trees, conifers and bejeweled deciduous Trees, all with eyes and mouths. One guy even made a reversible Tree, with red leaves on one side for fall.)
All of them have been part of a campus culture that enjoys sports without taking them terribly seriously. Which doesn't mean they don't take the honor of being the Tree seriously. On the contrary, aspiring Trees have been known to do horrifying things to further their chances of one day taking root on the sidelines.
Every spring they conduct Tree Week, which basically consists of contestants' staging bizarre stunts and/or bribing the selection committee, which consists of the incumbent Tree and band leaders. The Stanford Daily student newspaper provides front-page coverage of the week (which actually lasts longer than a week).
There are three basic rules for Tree Week:
Don't light yourself on fire. (There is folklore about one aspiring Tree who -- this being Stanford -- wrote a five-page paper detailing how he could light himself on fire without actually being injured. He didn't win.)
Don't go to jail.
Don't go to the hospital.
Pretty much anything else goes. This year's Tree, Whipple, helped secure the job last spring by affixing leeches in the shape of the Tree on his back. He still has a scar on his lower back from one particularly tenacious leech.
Among this year's aspirants, one actually bit the head off a live, two-foot snake and then swallowed the still-writhing critter. He didn't win, perhaps in part because the tree selectors saw what the wrath of animal-rights activists did to Michael Vick. There are limits, even for Trees.
When I arrived on campus last Thursday, the new Tree had just been picked: Patrick "Patchez" Fortune, a junior from Fresno, Calif. Fortune had staged a public boxing match to further his cause, and he also came through with a big-time bribe by setting up a beer pong game between Whipple and one of the Stanford basketball players.
After the momentous announcement was made, the Daily carried a front-page color photo of Fortune wearing a flaming horned helmet. His facial expression was dead serious.
I didn't come to Stanford to eat snakes or wear a flaming horned helmet. I just wanted to do my Tree thing and escape without injury or indignity.
So I met up with Whipple, band PR man Bland, band manager Liz Schackman and next year's manager, David Borowski, at the Band Shak. They showed me the costume, let me try it on, and then gave me a tour of the band's digs. Some of the band members had fliers on their lockers that read: "There are starving children in Africa. ROCK THE F--- OUT. (For the children.)"
The LSJUMB will congregate about anywhere. They play all over campus at the start of school. They'll play at all manner of nonrevenue sporting events, from water polo to rugby to gymnastics. They've played the Gay Pride march in San Francisco.
"Anybody who asks us, really," said Schackman.
The Tree will usually be there, too. He definitely hits all the home basketball games. And after a pregame meal and a beer at Whipple's Theta Delta Chi fraternity last Thursday before the Washington game, it was time to get on my game leaves.
Whipple's version of the Tree is basically a backpack supporting a series of PVC rings, covered by cloth leaves that were sewn by his grandmother. The fit was tight -- I'm 6-foot-2 and about 200 pounds; he's 5-10 and 165 -- and it's an unwieldy thing to carry around on your shoulders, but it could work for an hour.
It's a short walk from the Band Shak to Maples Pavilion, which is a good thing. We were running late. By the time we wedged my fake fir into the doors and down to floor level, it was just minutes to tip-off.
Stretching? Forget it. Warm-up? Please. Butterflies? Plenty.
The instructions were brute simple: When Schackman -- a biology major outfitted in a red-and-black cocktail dress, rainbow knee socks and furry red high-tops -- starts the band, I run out. The Dollies dance at mid-court, and I dance around them.
First thought: When was the last time I danced?
Second thought: In front of thousands of strangers?
Third thought: If I take this thing off right now, sprint to my rental car and drive to San Francisco, I can get a flight out of here tonight.
Too late. The game had begun. Come the first dead ball after the 16-minute mark, I was on.
At 15:50, Stanford's Fred Washington committed a foul. Schackman blew her whistle and the band cranked up -- I have no idea what it played. I was out there before I knew it, trying to lift my leaden legs off the floor and move around in something that reasonably resembled a skip.
To my immense relief, most of the fans I saw from under the green veil appeared utterly neutral toward my Treeness. No scowls. No guffawing at my clumsiness. No outraged gestures at the impostor.
If they were smart -- and this is Stanford, so they are -- most of them were watching the Dollies. In their cardinal-red dresses and white gloves, they exude all the class that the Tree willfully lacks.
After two circumnavigations of the floor, I heard the Maples homing device calling me back off the court -- the second blast of the horn, signaling that the timeout was ending. It was among the greatest sounds I've ever heard.
I bounced back into the corner area next to the band. Noticed I was out of breath. Noticed that this thing didn't fit well at all around the neck. And noticed that I was relieved as hell.
This wasn't so bad. In fact, it was fun. I might have the dexterity of an Ent, but what the heck. Nobody really cared.
So I toured the floor four more times, loosening up a little more every time. By the time I unclipped at halftime, I had thoroughly enjoyed myself. I was sweaty but happy.
Then it was time for a pro to take over. Whipple, wearing green high-tops with white stars on them, was a whirling, leaping dervish. He was all verve and nerve. He was definitely first-team All-Forest.
When the game was over and Stanford had won, the cheerleaders and the Dollies and the Tree did the darnedest thing. They linked arms on the court as the LSJUMB dutifully played the Stanford alma mater. Everyone swayed and sang along.
Just like a traditional band. At a traditional school. With a traditional mascot.
It was a cute bow toward conformity -- and then it was over. When the alma mater was done, Schackman handed me her conducting stick. (A bear soaked with faux blood is impaled on it, a threatening gesture at archrival Cal.) They let me lead the band in "White Punks On Dope."
I can tell you definitively, they rocked the f--- out.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.