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Monte gets one of the Grizzly Marching Band drummers to smile before Montana's game against Saint Francis in September. Monte, or rather the man inside the suit, has been hired as Clutch, the mascot of the NBA's Houston Rockets.

KIRA VERCRUYSSEN, Missoulian

From one bear to another.

After 5 1/2 years as Montana's most beloved mascot, Monte has turned pro. The former University of Montana student who portrayed the Grizzlies' mascot is now in Houston performing as Clutch the Bear, the mascot of the NBA's Houston Rockets.

Monte, who per his agreement with UM athletics and the Rockets has asked to remain anonymous, was offered the position with the pro basketball franchise near the end of September. It was only a matter of days before Monte, a Missoula native who grew up in the Garden City, was off to Houston to begin a career.

"It was always a hypothetical goal," he explained. "Since I started being Monte, I would have loved to be a professional mascot. And I've always been a huge basketball fan and would love to work in the NBA, but with the small amount of teams there are I thought it was a such a long shot. I never really thought it was possible."

The past month has been a whirlwind of game preparation, choreography and -- of course -- new-hire paperwork. He has also performed at preseason games and traveled to Shanghai as part of the NBA's global games series.

He was well prepared, though. Almost since his first day on campus, the local with an extensive background in gymnastics has been performing as Monte.

"He was a wonderful ambassador for the University of Montana and Grizzly athletics," said Brynn Molloy, UM's assistant athletic director in charge of marketing and community relations. "We were so lucky to have him as long as we had him."

Because of the near daily obligations for the Griz mascot, Montana athletics has run a two-Monte show for years. A pair of students share the role, splitting appearances that extend well beyond just football and basketball games.

The Grizzlies have been back up to full Monte staff since early October.

The latest former Monte is actually the third to parlay his performance as the recognizable Griz into a professional mascot gig. After helping Monte earn a pair of National Mascot of the Year awards (2002-03 and 2004-05), Barry Anderson was hired by the Chicago Bulls as Benny the Bull. A few years later, another anonymous Monte made the jump to the San Antonio Spurs.

Anderson, a Miles City native, retired from the gig earlier this year after 12 seasons in Chicago. The latest Monte alumni credited Anderson with launching his own burgeoning career.

"What (the Rockets) really loved in the audition was just the Monte character," he said. "Everything I've been able to accomplish is because of Barry Anderson because he created that character that people really loved.

"... Coming to Houston, I've really tried to continue to be that character and persona that I've grown to love as Monte. I brought the versatility of the dance and the acrobatics and the gymnastics, along with making people laugh with the silly skits and everything."

The Rockets played their first regular-season game Wednesday night, but things really ramp up for the newly hired Clutch with Houston's home opener at the Toyota Center on Sunday.

From one highly decorated character to another, Houston's Clutch is a two-time NBA mascot of the year. Clutch was named the pro basketball league's top mascot in 2005 and 2013 and was inducted into the Mascot Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2006.

The Rockets debuted Clutch the Bear for the 1995 season.

Like Monte is in Missoula and greater Montana, Clutch is a highly sought-after entertainer. The mascot makes 250 Houston-area appearances each year, along with about 20 out-of-town and international trips.

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