The Gorilla

Before 1980, Veterans Memorial Coliseum had already established itself as a place to go “ape.”

Maybe that’s why he showed up that night. Or, perhaps it was because he heard how great the winters in Phoenix are.

Why the Phoenix Suns Gorilla arrived in the winter of 1980 isn’t nearly as intriguing as what he’s done since he arrived.

For the record, this mischievous mascot was born quite by accident. A messenger for Eastern Onion, a singing telegram service, came to the Coliseum during a home game dressed as a gorilla. As he left, Coliseum security suggested he do a few dances underneath the basket during a timeout and the fans loved it. So did the messenger, who kept coming to games until he was officially invited to be part of the team.

The messenger, a quiet young man named Henry Rojas, was anything but quiet in his costume. Given a Suns warm-up jacket, Rojas shed his shyness, and turned into an entertainment beast, dancing, joking with fans and, in general, enjoying himself to the fullest.

Actually, once on the court, The Gorilla was a bit of a ham.

His comedic routines during time-outs have become legendary. No opposing coach or player was safe. He donned colorful slacks and a loud sports jacket to imitate then-Portland coach Jack Ramsay. He slicked his hair back to mimic Pat Riley. One of his best, and longest-running routines was one of is simplest. To the theme music from “Rocky,” The Gorilla would do a few push-ups on the court, then head off in a quest to climb the stairs of both the lower and upper level of the Coliseum to get to the top. When he reached the base of the upper level, he’d stop for a second to soak up the applause, then head to the top of the building. When he got there, the crowd would explode. It never failed.

Early on, The Gorilla displayed a keen sense of topical humor. During a visit by the New York Knickerbockers, he came out to Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” wearing a hat, with several pieces of garbage stuck to his leg. Halfway through the song, a group of “muggers” attacked him, and he staggered off the court afterwards. Give him credit, The Gorilla has always been more then a slapstick comedian.

Just what is the deal here? What does an ape have to do with the sun, or basketball, for that matter?

To be honest, nothing. In a way, though, that’s what makes The Gorilla so much fun. He’s not really there just to cheer on the Suns - although he does so with great enthusiasm. The Gorilla just wants to have fun, and wants the rest of us to have fun with him.

There are, of course, questions that have arisen over the years. Where does he spend the offseason? He vacations in the Banana Republic. His favorite movie? Woody Allen’s Bananas. His favorite color? Of course, banana yellow. His favorite food? That’s easy - pizza (Aha! Bet you thought we were going to say bananas, right? Actually, he likes them on his pizza, but a lot of pizza restaurants don’t have that particular topping).

Though Rojas has gone on to a life without a costume, The Gorilla continues to entertain fans, not only at Suns games, but around the country as well. He has gotten involved over the years in numerous charity projects. Any time people see him, however, two things come to mind - Suns basketball and fun!

It’s hard to imagine a Suns game without The Gorilla, but for 11-plus seasons, the team had no official mascot. There was one attempt to create a Suns-related mascot, with a sunflower costume. The idea, however, never really caught on. It appears we’re stuck, happily, with this furry goodwill ambassador.

Since his arrival, The Gorilla has had numerous colleagues pop up throughout the NBA> Even to this day, however, The Gorilla remains, in the minds of many, the NBA’s top mascot, if not the top mascot in pro sports. But, please don’t tell him that. He’s hard enough to live with as it is!