Farewell to a Spurs legend (no, not that one)

Rob Wicall, the man behind the famous San Antonio Spurs Coyote costume, has stepped down after nearly two decades of comedy, gymnastics, injuries and various hijinks. He chatted with ESPN.com about his career and the nutty life of an NBA mascot.

You got into this by accident, right? You were one of those stunt water-skiers at SeaWorld in San Antonio in the 1990s, with no direction?

Yeah. I mean, who knew being a mascot was even a career? Even now, my friends are like, "Is what you do even a job?" But I had always been an athlete, and acted in plays. And one day at SeaWorld, a girl I knew -- a member of the Spurs dance team -- told me they were forming a new interactive squad if I wanted to try out.

Those are the people who shoot T-shirt cannons and stuff, right?

Exactly. So I joined. And I started hopping on trampolines, and dunking with the guy who played Coyote then. He asked me if I would ever do any appearances as the Coyote for him. I was like, "Sure. I have nothing going on."

One day, I asked someone how much he made. They told me. I was just standing there, like, "What? You can make that kind of money doing that?"

So I put together this horrific VCR tape of me skiing at SeaWorld and doing various skits and stunts. I had to borrow my sister's camera. I didn't really have any money. I sent that tape out to eight teams that were looking for mascots, and I heard from the Washington Capitals.

Wicall spent two years in D.C. before becoming disenchanted with mascot life there, then briefly caught on at SeaWorld in Ontario. He returned to San Antonio in 1999 after learning a tenant had trashed his house there.

I had no job, and no money. I called the Spurs and was like, "Hey, I'm back in case you need anyone to help out with the Coyote." Turns out, they were looking for someone to be his full-time backup and then take over.

So you became the Coyote-in-waiting.

Right. And I was that for three years, doing appearances off the court and going to every game.

How many appearances a year does Coyote do?

Around 450, in addition to the games. When I took over, I did about 200 and my backup did the other 250.

You've been asked to do funerals, right?

Oh, yeah. And I always said no. But I did do one wake, just to say I had done it all. I was just thankful it wasn't open casket.

What does Coyote do at a wake?

The guy was a huge Spurs fan, and his family had this big photo of him in Spurs gear. I just held up this big photo of the deceased, and people took photos of me holding that photo. It was so awkward.

And that was it for death-themed events.

Yes. Someone asked Coyote to be a pallbearer once. I said no. How do you win there? You can't be funny. You are just a human being, wearing a costume, carrying a dead body. There is nothing funny there, only sadness.

At some point, the league told you to stop messing with the referees, right?

There is so much you can't do anymore. I had a bit where I dressed as a mailman and would hand out packages to the public address announcer, people in the front row, and the last one would be for a referee. He'd open it, and there'd be an eye chart inside. You can't do that now.

Were any refs game to play along anyway?

There were some you'd talk to before games, and they'd say, "I don't give a [expletive], just don't make me look bad." Monty McCutchen was the best for me. This season, I did a bit where I came out as Santa giving away gifts, and I had Monty stand there looking sad that he didn't get one.

I pulled out a box for him; he opened it; and my little 4-year-old son was inside, dressed as an elf. He popped out, kicked Monty in the shin and ran off.

Did Monty know exactly what would go down?

Oh, he knew. He was like, "I don't care, I trust you." But I was freaking out because, when I was practicing with my son, he was kicking my shin really hard. I was worried he was going to hurt Monty during a game, so I ran up to him before and warned him my son was going to kick the hell out of him. And he was like, "Dude, I'll be fine!" And my son kicked the hell out of him.

Your fake green eyes fall off sometimes, or turn sideways -- like when that player ran into you and you fell over and popped up with your eyes straight up and down. I assume that's all planned?

Of course. Back when you could make fun of the refs, after a bad call, I'd just take them off, hold them out to the referee like "Do you need these?"

The clip of the player hitting you, and your eyes falling off, went viral.

No one knows this, but I wear an earpiece so my assistant can talk to me. I was around the baseline anyway, and all of a sudden, he told me a ball and a player were coming my way. And that's the bit: I fall, take off the eyes, put them back on all sideways and stumble around.

And then they fell completely to the floor, I think?

I didn't even know that because you can't really feel them. Thank god I had my assistant in my ear saying, "You lost your eyes! Eyes on the floor! Eyes on the floor!"

Any bigwigs ever get mad at your high jinks?

During a Spurs-Dallas game, when I was brand-new, Mark Cuban came out on the court during a timeout to yell at the referees. I gave my assistant a signal to throw me this oversized baby rattle, so I could reach it toward him: "You're a baby."

And, oh my god, he looked at me with crazy eyes and mouthed, "NO! No, Coyote!" He was pissed. I was like, "OK, I'm backing off."

But as I go to toss the rattle back to my assistant, he's already tossing me the oversized baby bottle we have -- like, it's in midair, so I have to catch it. I turned around, and honestly, I thought there might be steam coming out of Mark's ears. I just ran off the court.

Did you ever see him, to hash it out?

We never did. I know after that game he was looking for me, but he didn't know what I looked like. I ducked into my car and left.

[Cuban recalled the incident a little differently, telling ESPN.com: "I'm always game to mess with mascots if we are winning, and will tell them it's not a good time if we are losing . I'm pretty sure that was one of the games where the crowd was chanting, 'Cuban sucks,' which I love.

"I never get mad at the mascots. And as far as looking for him, that never would have happened after a game. If we lose, I don't talk to anyone."]

You didn't really mess around with opposing players, but did any ever get in your way -- and not in a joking way?

Not really. Well, one time -- I did this thing when we had the word "Spurs" spelled out at midcourt, I'd jump from letter to letter, and the crowd would chant "S-P-U-R-S" along with me. During the playoffs in 2013 against Golden State, Jarrett Jack was standing on either the "P" or the "U." Just standing there. I think he knew what he was doing.

I tried to kind of jump around him, and he bumped just a little. The crowd booed him like crazy.

But you're not supposed to really taunt opposing players anymore, right? I remember Oliver Miller was really traumatized -- and rightfully, I think, on a lot of levels -- when the Phoenix Gorilla wore a fat suit to make fun of him.

Yeah, that went into the rules after that. You can't harass players. But the Spurs, to their credit, went even further than that.

What do you mean?

I have pennants for every team, and I used to hold two of them up -- a Spurs one, to get all the fans to cheer, and then a pennant from the opposing team, so everyone would boo. And remember in 2007, when Robert Horry kind of hip checked Steve Nash?

Kind of? Umm, yes.

Well, for the first time, people started to see the Spurs as villains. We had always been the good guys, but now we were the dirty players -- with Horry's hipcheck, and Bruce Bowen stepping on people's feet. And obviously, [Spurs owner] Peter Holt didn't want that.

I talked to Peter Holt maybe five times my whole career, but one of them was around that time. He mentioned my little "hooray-boo" pennant game and said, "I'd rather it just be 'Yay, us!' Let's not boo the other team. Let's just cheer the Spurs, and not instigate negativity."

So that was the end of like 75 percent of the bits I did using opposing teams and fans.

Any San Antonio player become a regular foil for you? Or are the Spurs too serious for that?

Brent Barry. He had done stuff with the mascot in Seattle. When he came here, the Sonics mascot called me and was like, "Dude, you are going to love Brent." But I have to be little careful with that kind of stuff here.

Matt Bonner, too. He's funny.

Everyone says Tim Duncan is secretly hilarious.

I filmed one skit with Tim. I had to make it really fast and easy for him. It was me climbing into a washer to clean myself, and Tim walked by, tossed his jersey on top of me and just deadpanned, "Hey, Coyote!"

And then we turned on the machine.

Wait, you were in the washing machine, for real, when it was on?

Well, no. I climbed out and just left the costume in.

How many wedding requests does the Coyote get a year?

At least 25. The weirdest one I ever got was from a mom of the bride who booked me specifically to cut in during the first dance. And I was like, "Oh, god, this is so bad. This is a sacred moment." But you want to accommodate the mom.

I didn't want to do it. But I tapped her on shoulder, and cut in, and the guy looked at me like he wanted to stab me in the eye. I backpedaled out of there.

How much does Coyote charge for a wedding? $1000?

Oh, no. Only $275.


With the Spurs, the whole thing is, we are not here to make money from the character. We are here to build a brand. Some mascots bring in six figures in appearance fees for their teams just from events. We didn't come close to that.

You also get roped into those horrible marriage proposals at games, right? No one should do that.

I'll tell you an even worse one. A woman asked me to visit her seats, and Coyote's job was to give her boyfriend the keys to their apartment -- like, "Will you move in with me?" This had horrible written all over it.

Kind of like a junior varsity proposal.

But it's backwards -- the girl asking the guy! He just looked at her, stunned, like "What the hell?" He was not happy. I don't think he said anything. I thought it was going to be the end of their relationship. I moonwalked the hell out of there.

So, these are the goofy stories, but you love your job. What parts of it made you happiest? Is there a specific interaction you remember as, like, the reason you do this?

There are different versions of happy. There's Game 7 against the Pistons in the [2005] Finals happy. That was amazing. But probably my favorite moment of my career -- I would go see terminally ill kids at The Children's Hospital of San Antonio. There was a girl in the ICU there, and I visit with her, and I'm blowing her kisses as I walk out of her room. She's 2 or 3 years old. I hear her say "Bye-bye" as I'm leaving.

As I go down the hall, suddenly this little old lady is running toward me -- it's her grandma, and she gives me this big hug. I had no idea why. She told me the girl had not said a word to anyone in weeks and how much it meant to hear her voice.

And I just start bawling inside my costume. Bawling.

Wow. That is heavy. Let's get back to the light stuff. There are some tricks you can't do anymore, right? Like no more jumping through flaming hoops since Hugo the Hornet's ring wouldn't go out? And didn't the league ban zip-lining after Benny the Bull crashed into a ref?

I was there. It was Benny's birthday party, so a lot of us were there. I had just zip-lined right before him, and someone was taking the carabiner off me when I saw Benny coming. It was like in slow motion: "Noooo!"

And then, what -- you get a memo from the league?

No. They issue a new rulebook every season, and it's in there. No zip-lining.

Did you ever jump through a flaming ring before they banned that?

No! I had jumped through a ring but never one that was on fire. I had actually just bought one designed to catch fire when that happened to Hugo, and I was excited to use it.

Why does the Coyote not wear pants?

The guy before me didn't wear pants. Most of the original mascots, like the Gorilla, didn't wear pants. I didn't even think about it until some people were like, "You're not wearing pants. That's weird."

So I took a poll.

Wait, like an official poll?

Nothing official. I just asked employees and friends, and I would keep track in my notebook. And you know what? Way more people were fine with no pants. Here's the thing: The more clothes you wear, the more you just look like a dude wearing a costume. The more fur you show, the more you look like a coyote.

So, you have this form of arthritis now, called ankylosing spondylitis, that puts you at risk for some of your vertebrae fusing, right? How are you? Are you in pain?

I've always had pain. I've probably had this since I was in college, but I didn't know it until I was diagnosed three years ago. My back was always in pain. I'd pull my hamstrings a lot. My hips are tight. I'm not as flexible as I was. I have a herniated disk now.


But I'm not doing bad. I live with pain, but I have my life. I beat my body up for 25 years water-skiing and being a mascot. I just have to stay active. The doctors believe as long as I keep moving and active, my back won't fuse. But you really can't injure it. They told me, "You really shouldn't be doing what you're doing."

So you're retiring at 45. That puts you as one of the oldest mascots anyway!

I kept doing it through the pain. I love it. But I never wanted to get to the point where the character suffers just because I wanted to stay in that costume. It was getting to that point. I can barely tie my shoes. There are lots of tricks I can't do. I can't walk on my hands anymore at games.

This character shouldn't suffer on my account. It's time.