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Original Issue

Monkeying Around

The most popular Phoenix Sun puts his reputation on the line every night. But it's dry now, so he takes the gorilla suit down and stuffs it in his bag with three others. In 17 years--through busted ankles, shoulders and wrists, and hernias--he's missed only three Suns home games. Fat chance his aching back is going to stop him from showing up at America West Arena tonight.

3:15 p.m. Bob Woolf, a 40-year-old, blue-eyed father of three, is the Gorilla, the King Kong of sports mascots. He was the first NBA mascot to dunk off a mini trampoline, first to dunk through a ring of fire, first to ride a Harley on the court, first to use videotaped skits, first to dunk off a crumbling model of the Empire State Building and first to dunk after being propelled from the three-point line by catapult.

Yet the 5'9", 170-pound former Arizona State gymnast will practice tonight's dunks, skits and gags for the next 90 minutes. He's got to stay sharp, just like a player. "Except," he says, "there's no injured reserve for gorillas."

6:15 p.m. Before the game between Phoenix and the New Orleans Hornets, an appearance in former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo's box bombs. The suite's full of suits, and they're not laughing at anything--not even the yank out some gorilla hair and sprinkle it on the bald guy's head gag. "It's at times like this you go, What in the world am I doing with my life?" Woolf says.

6:40 p.m. Our favorite primate evolved from Ray and Margaret Woolf, who are in the stands. When Bob beat out 500 others to become the Gorilla in 1988, they were mortified. "Four years of college for this?" his dad said. But now, when others brag on their doctor and lawyer sons, Margaret beams, "My boy grew up to be the Gorilla!"

7 p.m. Game time, and the Gorilla is on three-foot stilts, holding a sign: get on your feet! But the lights go out for player introductions, and he nearly trips over a cable he can't see in the tunnel. Over the next four quarters he'll change into eight different outfits and use dozens of props, most of which he's made at home, in his "gorilla room." He's selling the house, though. "So we lock that door for showings," he says. What? You never heard of: 4 bdr, 2 bth, 1 grla?

7:48 p.m. The Gorilla pulls a gag in the stands with a stooge pretending to be an obnoxious Hornets fan. The payoff is the Gorilla pouring a beer down the guy's pants. Gets a huge laugh. Just like the time he came out in Pampers to mock a whiny player. And the time he was delivering a free "TV" to a lucky fan and dropped it all the way down the stairs. And the time (on tape) he lured a blindfolded "Knicks fan" down the tunnel, out of the arena and into a dumpster, which was promptly hauled away.

8:11 p.m. Sweating like a used-car dealer on 60 Minutes, Woolf changes into a Rollerblading pizza-delivery gorilla and heads onto the court during a timeout. I'm crouched behind some seats under the basket. I feel something clunk my foot and see the Gorilla sprawled on the floor.

Oh ... my ... god! I've tripped the Gorilla in front of 17,616 people! Slowly he turns his head toward me, and his costume face is mashed in. A 10-year-old boy nearby is laughing hysterically. "Bob!" I say. "I'm so sorry."

He winks at me. It's a setup, a con, a pratfall. "Gotcha," he says later.

May his bananas get worms.

8:25 p.m. The Gorilla struts onto the floor in a bright purple zoot suit, carrying a smoking guitar case, to the theme music of The Godfather. What's in there? His T-shirt gun, of course, and he begins firing madly at the crowd.

Says Suns guard Joe Johnson, who's supposed to be paying attention in the huddle, "I'm always trying to see what the joke is, so I miss the play that's called and I've got to ask a teammate."

Good choice, Joe. The skit was better than the play.

9:03 p.m. The Suns are losing to the lowly Hornets, even though the Phoenix players are paid roughly the equivalent of the federal budget. Woolf pulls in between $150,000 and $200,000 a year, but monkey business ain't easy. On off days he makes as many as four appearances. And he doesn't get a dime extra for the playoffs, which could last six weeks for him this year. "I think it's a contract he, uh, regrets," says his assistant, Paul Smith. Uh, I'll bet.

9:20 p.m. The Suns win by 14, though, as usual, the Gorilla hardly saw any of it. He was too busy dancing, dunking, flipping and starting popcorn fights. Oh, and sweating off seven pounds.

10:30 p.m. Woolf makes his way home, ready for another night of laundry until 2 a.m., followed by an early wake-up call to work a Suns charity golf tournament. Maybe he's asking, What in the world am I doing with my life? a lot lately.

The answer? You're doing something wonderful, Bob. You're making people laugh. Who else is doing that?

Besides the Lakers, of course. ■

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Bob Woolf is the Gorilla, the King Kong of sports mascots--dunking, flipping and starting popcorn fights.