He Is the Ape Man

I arrive early at America West Arena and feel especially imbecilic telling the parking attendant that I'm there "to see the gorilla." But I'm apparently the only one who finds this foolish. "He's expecting you," she tells me without a hint of irony. "Please tell him hello for me."

Inside, I find the Gorilla posing coyly for a photographer, hanging from a basketball hoop, his chin on his paw. The Gorilla's assistant, a smallish, neatly dressed fellow named Paul, is following him around, guessing what the ape needs and, without a word or signal from the Gorilla, appearing with it: a bottled water; a ladder; a giant Styrofoam ear (one of the many props the Gorilla uses during a Phoenix Suns halftime show).

A private room has been prepared for us, and after the photo shoot we wander through the bowels of America West Arena, my polysynthetic pal and me, leaving in our wake a long line of people who behave as if they've just spotted Christ shopping at Thom McAn.

The Gorilla is a major star, even if the man deep down inside of him is an unknown. But Bob Woolf, a former gymnastics coach and father of three, still gives a slam-dunk interview. An affable, humble man (although at one point he refers to himself as "a great tool," and he means it in a good way), Woolf is pleased, even proud, to be the most famous ape since King Kong.

Tucked away in our secluded spot, Woolf quickly removes the top half of his costume, and there we are, at last: a pretend journalist and a pretend monkey; a man with a tape recorder and a list of questions and a man with fur-covered legs and eyes ringed in kohl. Beneath the eye makeup and the pounds of plastic fur, Woolf is an unassuming fellow -- no one you'd mistake for a movie star, but better-looking than your average primate.

New Times: I don't get it. Why do we need NBA mascots?

Bob Woolf: I'm a great tool, a communication device between the team and the public. It's a good way to market the team and a good way to teach kids to say no to drugs and alcohol or to read or write.

NT: Wait. The Gorilla is also a morals lesson and an English teacher?

Woolf: The Gorilla goes out to schools, and does a reading program for kids that we formulated about 10 years ago called Book the Gorilla. We have a contest throughout the Valley, and the kids write the Gorilla a book, and we pick out the best one and then my assistant reads the book while I act it out. This year we actually wrote a book ourselves for the anti-tobacco people, where I go outside and smell something terrible. It's about why the Gorilla doesn't smoke.

NT: But why a gorilla? I mean, what's the connection between basketball and an ape?

Woolf: None whatsoever. But in the late '70s, there was a singing gorillagram at one of the Suns games. Someone paid him to sing "Happy Birthday" to somebody's wife or something. But then he stuck around in his gorilla suit afterward because he loved basketball. He showed up a couple more times, and one time he got out on the court and danced with a lady, and another time he ran out onto the court and shot a basket. He was entertaining to the public. The following year the Suns and the Gorilla got together.

NT: And that was you?

Woolf: No. I'm the second Gorilla. I came in 1988. The first guy did the first eight years or so. You couldn't design a better mascot for a basketball team than a gorilla, because he can wear clothes -- I go to Goodwill and get oversized jackets and stuff -- while other [mascots] have a hard time finding things to fit over their costumes.

NT: Is it a secret who's inside the suit?

Woolf: Yes. It always has been. My name has only recently come out, in Sports Illustrated. There was a reporter at the Arizona Republic who outed me a few years back, but for the most part it's been a secret. If people ask, I'll tell them, but I don't start a conversation with, "Hey, I'm the Gorilla." I avoid it. If someone comes up and asks me what I do for a living, I usually say, "Game Operations for the Phoenix Suns."

NT: But your kids must think it's cool that their dad is the Gorilla.

Woolf: They know I'm the Gorilla, but they don't think it's that big a deal. My kid came home the other day and a police officer had come to his school, and he was all excited about this -- someone's dad was a police officer. Whereas my kids' dad is a gorilla.

NT: What's the Gorilla's back story?

Woolf: He's from the Banana Republic. His height is five foot ape. He attended Furman University. All his stats are kind of goofy.

NT: I guess so. The Gorilla is famous, but you're not.

Woolf: The character is one of the most recognized in the city, if not the country. And we do a lot of international stuff, too. When Charles [Barkley] came on the scene, we really went international. Everyone wanted a piece of us. But yeah, no one knows who I am. [The Gorilla] can walk into a bank and jump over the teller's cage and goof around with people, but if I went in there as Bob Woolf and did that, I'd be in jail right now. The Gorilla is very popular. The ballplayers would like that -- to be able to take their celebrity off like I can. I love being Bob Woolf.

NT: Despite the occasional injuries.

Woolf: I've been doing this for 17 years, and I've done a great job. I've been lucky not to have too many injuries. I've had both shoulders operated on, three hernias, and the worst one was my ankle. I [broke it] doing a dunk, and that set me back about six months. That's it besides the numerous stitches and sprained wrists.

NT: How do you gorilla with an injury?

Woolf: Usually I try to do my surgeries and rehab during the summer if it's not an instant break like my ankle. But all of my injuries have made the news, so the public knows that the shoulder is broken or whatever, and I just work the game in a sling. There's no backup gorilla. With my ankle, I tried to work, but [Suns management] threw me out. One of the execs came over and said, "Take the gorilla off. You're going home."

NT: I'm a fine one to ask about professional indignity, but how about the indignity of being a guy in an ape suit?

Woolf: I am so proud of what I do, and I really have found dignity in what I do. There's only one Gorilla in town. There are numerous writers and attorneys and publicists, but just one Gorilla.

NT: I don't know. I saw a gorilla on a street corner, waving people into Le Peep the other day. Was it an impostor?

Woolf: We see people on the corner all the time in gorilla suits with an old Kevin Johnson jersey on, trying to get people into restaurants or car lots. There's not too much we can do about it, but fans know. If you're a real fan, you can tell the real Gorilla. The fake ones have bad hands and they're probably wearing gym shoes.

NT: Gym shoes! How cheap. So, what do you have on under there?

Woolf: Tee shirt. Shorts. It's really, really hot inside this costume. I wear knee and elbow pads, and rubber gloves and wrist bands to keep my paws fairly dry for shaking hands or high-fiving. Tricks of the trade!

NT: Which I'll try to remember for the next time I'm asked to wear a monkey suit. You know there's this entire subset of people who are sexually attracted to people in animal costumes, right? I'm not making this up.

Woolf: Yes. I know about them. I saw a program on TV about this thing -- they call it a "con-fur-ence" -- where they dress up and all that. Honestly, though, I've never been approached. I haven't dealt with that problem -- I mean that incident. I can't really hook you up with any of those people.

NT: Dang. Okay, who's funnier, you or the Lakers?

Woolf: Last year I was funnier. This year the Lakers are.