CHICAGO - It is one of the most popular parts of a Chicago Bulls' game.
Three fans are selected to leave the court and climb into costumes that inflate to such heights the humans inside them see by looking out the belly button. Once back in the arena, on the public address announcer's cue, the contestants lumber around orange cones placed on the United Center court in a hilarious race that looks like it's being run in quicksand.
The InflataBulls, as they are known, lurch up and down the court, and Bulls fans never tire of it.
But on this January night, during a second-half timeout in a game against Golden State, things go terribly wrong. The third InflataBull introduced, a Tony Rokita of Chicago, seems to be having trouble just maneuvering onto the baseline before the race begins.
Then, when the announcer says "On your mark," Rokita takes off down the court. By the time "Get set" and "Go!" are heard, he has a good 10-foot lead on the other two contestants.
Understand, a 10-foot lead in an InflataBulls race is tantamount to a mile.
The 17,000-plus fans don't like it. And when Rokita trips over his own feet and takes a tumble, the crowd roars. There is justice, after all.
But he has trouble getting up. One leg has come out of that part of the costume. When Rokita tries to stand inside the huge suit, his foot is now on the interior of the belly instead of inside the leg. Outside the costume, the roar turns to laughter at the site of the giant, lopsided bull.
Rokita tries to take off, falls again, gets up, falls again. By now, no one is watching the other two InflataBulls in the race. All eyes are on poor Rokita, who can't for the life of him get his leg back where it belongs.
Then, in his effort to do so, he knocks off the hose connected to the battery operated pump that keeps the costume inflated.
"He's melting!" cries the announcer as the costume collapses around the confused Rokita, who's still trying to run. But the belly button he's been looking out is now about knee-high. Blinded, he trips over one of the cones and goes down for good. Bulls personnel rush onto the court to help the poor man out of the suit.
Except when they do, there's no one named Tony Rokita inside.
From the deflated suit emerges Benny the Bull, Chicago's furry and mischievous red mascot. The crowd loves it.
And Tony Rokita? Was that a made-up name? "No, he's just a guy who sits next to me at work," Benny the Bull explains later.
You all know Benny. A year ago, he was hurling himself into goalposts and basket stanchions in a bear suit in Missoula.
Benny was Monte, the University of Montana's two-time national champion mascot.
And this Monte's turned pro.
Barry Anderson, the man in the not-so-gray, not-so-flannel suit, has stumbled into the oddest of jobs: professional mascot.
In the NBA, it can be lucrative. Six-figure salaries are not unheard of, and while Anderson doesn't say what he's making in his rookie season in the league, he allows that "I'm very happy. Very content. They've taken good care of me."
He turned down an offer of more money, from the Detroit Pistons, to work for the Bulls, who are considered one of the best when it comes to keeping fans entertained no matter what's going on in the game itself. Benny the Bull and the InflataBulls are just part of the show. There are also the Luvabulls dance team, Lil' Benny, the Bucket Boys, the BreakaBulls, the acrobat team, the Dunkin' Donuts Race, the Pepsi Parachute Prize Plunge, the Hinckley Springs Grand Prix, the Bullimp, the Matadors, the GerBulls, the Bulls Brothers … .
Keeping fan interest up while the team has struggled in the post-Michael Jordan era has been vital, and the Bulls get it done. Last year, while winning just 23 of their 82 games and finishing with the second-worst record in the 29-team NBA, they still drew nearly 20,000 fans a game and were third in attendance.
"We actually got into a bit of a bidding war," says Jeff Wohlschlaeger, the Bulls' director of game operations who hired Anderson. "Which was good for Barry. But from what I see around the league, and from what I've seen already, I think he'll become known as one of the top NBA mascots within the next couple of years."
For all its goofiness - the man's career, after all, involves shooting silly string out of a can - Anderson takes his job extremely seriously. It still irks him that a newspaper once quoted Monte - whose true identity was kept secret during his time in the suit - as using the word "hell."
Monte never said it, he says, and never would: A mascot's image with children is more important than anything.
That attitude is one of the reasons the Bulls wanted him.
"That, and his dancing, his energy, his comedy, his athleticism," Wohlschlaeger says.
Anderson stays up late dreaming up new ways to keep fans entertained, sometimes scribbling notes to himself as he drifts off to sleep.
"I'll get up the next day and there'll be this note that says 'wheelbarrows - chickens,' " he says, "and I'll have no idea what I was thinking."
Someone's been in a Benny the Bull costume since 1969 (referees ejected the mascot from a game that first season) and the last fellow in the suit, Dan LeMonnier, wore it for 18 years, including Chicago's six NBA championship seasons in the 1990s.
The fans grew fond of Benny, a 6-foot-6, 375-pound blimp-like creature the kids loved to hug.
But such a costume would handcuff Anderson, whose talents - trampoline-fed dunks, back-to-the-basket half-court shots, chair-back seat climbing and dancing - would be wasted in the roly-poly suit.
Benny the Bull was going on a crash diet. And he was not just going to watch his weight - he was going to watch his height too.
Anderson turned to the same Salt Lake City company that constructed the Monte suit for UM to make, at a cost of about $5,000 apiece, two new Benny the Bull costumes.
When the new Benny debuted this season, he had dropped more than 200 pounds, and 10 inches, from his frame.
Some fans didn't like it.
It's a Saturday night in Chicago. The Bulls have just beaten the Boston Celtics, and Anderson climbs out of his slimmed-down Benny costume in his dressing room, located between the Boston and Chicago locker rooms.
It's been a good night. A Billings man in town for an adventure travel show, Dan Austin, arranged for his son to serve as honorary ball boy, and Benny made sure Andy Austin's fun didn't end when the pre-game shootaround did. Benny grabbed Andy and hauled him on the court during warmups to stretch alongside Celtic and Bulls players.
"That's cool, that I could give a Montana kid that experience," Anderson says. It's not often he runs into people from back home, although there was one game where a woman in the crowd kept hollering "Monte!"
"Monte? I'm Benny. I thought she must be yelling for some guy named Monte," he says.
But when the yelling continued, he looked around and discovered a woman in a Grizzly sweatshirt. Like Monte, Benny doesn't ever speak, so he never found out who she was or where she was from. But he happily posed for a photo with her.
Taking kids out on the floor to stretch alongside the stars of the NBA is one of Anderson's favorite things.
"I always go out and see if I can interact with any of the players," he says. "Some are good about it, some aren't. I got LeBron James into a game of rock-paper-scissors while he was on the floor stretching. I did paper, he did rock. It's the only time I'll beat LeBron James on a basketball court."
When Shaquille O'Neal and the Miami Heat visited, Anderson got one of his assistants, a toy designer by day, to build what looked like a giant book, and paraded behind the basket with it every time O'Neal - one of the league's worst free-throw shooters - stepped to the foul line.
"Free Throw Shooting 101," read the title.
Out of the Benny costume and once again himself, Anderson flips open a cell phone and calls his girlfriend, Sarah Wagner, in Missoula.
They chat several times a day. Wagner, who had to stay behind for family reasons, teases him when Anderson says he's going out with a reporter and photographer from Missoula.
"She thinks 'reporter and photographer' might be code for two of the dancers," he explains.
A quick stop upstairs in the Bulls offices - Anderson's mother, Jeanette Larsen of Miles City, e-mails him after every home game - and we're set to head uptown.
Except Anderson, who moved here in September, has no idea where to go.
"This is the first time I've really gone out," he says. "I've held off doing a lot of stuff until Sarah can move here. We really want to discover Chicago together."
Trips to museums and Cubs games have been put on hold, he hasn't been to Chicago's Navy Pier yet, and Anderson usually skips any postgame socializing with co-workers too.
"It just doesn't feel right without her," he says.
They picked out an apartment on Chicago's northwest side together. The hall entryway is decorated with Monte memorabilia, and everywhere else are pictures of Emma, Anderson's 5-year-old daughter who lives in Missoula.
Barry Anderson met his own father just once.
"I'd have given anything for my dad to come visit me when I was a kid," Anderson says. "That's not going to happen to Emma."
It's a Sunday. The Bulls don't have a game, and since it's the weekend Anderson doesn't have to go into the office.
He relaxes on his couch. Recuperates, really. Twenty-five years old, the two hours he spends in the sweat-drenched costume dashing madly around the United Center, dancing, dunking and walking on stilts, take their toll. His joints and muscles are stiff.
"I feel like an old man. In Montana, you had two games a week and five days to recoup," he says. "Here you can have six games in nine days, and you go to the office Monday through Friday too. I love weekends when I can just lay out on the couch."
In his third-story apartment with views of the Chicago skyline, Anderson has set up a craft area in front of one of the picture windows in anticipation of hoped-for visits by his daughter.
"It's not the situation you dream of," he says. "I love that she's being brought up in Montana. I'll never be able to be the main male influence in her life. I won't be the one who takes her to school every morning or is there to help her when boys tease her. She has a wonderful mother, and a new stepdad who's a good guy. But I'm still her daddy, and I never want that to go away."
Emma - who once blurted out at a Missoula restaurant, "My dad's Monte, but it's a secret" - was a regular at Grizzly games when her father wore the bear costume.
"She probably got hauled onto the court to dance more than any other kid in Missoula," Anderson admits. "Without Sarah, I wouldn't have been able to get through this separation from Emma. All the hurdles you face in moving to a new place, a big city, where you're almost inventing a new job … some days are hard. Some days are lonely."
There was a series of events that led Barry Anderson down this unusual career path.
The first: his decision to attend the University of Montana after graduating from Custer County High School in Miles City in 1997.
"I wanted to get a certain ways away from Miles City," he says. "Miles City is a big MSU (Montana State University) town and a lot of kids go to Bozeman, so I decided to go to Missoula. I knew there was more out there for me, and a me out there I didn't know."
The second: to major in theater. That required Anderson, who'd never been much for dancing, to take a couple of dance classes.
"I didn't really want to," he says. "I mean, the first class I showed up in jeans and Velcro high-tops while everybody else came in dance clothes. I didn't know. And it was modern dance, a lot of touching, rolling around, the teacher saying 'Now you're the wind,' 'Now you're the earth.' I'm the earth? What's that mean?"
But he grew to appreciate modern dance, then found his calling in a jazz dance class.
Meantime Anderson, who never participated in sports in high school but was a sports fan, regularly attended Grizzly games with a buddy.
"Maybe because I was a theater major, I tended to watch Monte more than the game," Anderson says. "And I started thinking things like, 'You know what would be really funny is if he ran into the goalpost,' or 'He ought to dance with that person' or 'He ought to act like he's pinching the referee's butt right now.' I thought it'd be so fun to do it one time."
And then, one day, there it was: an ad in the student newspaper, the Kaimin, announcing auditions for a new Monte.
"My friend told me, 'We should go see who's going to be the next mascot,' " says Anderson.
When they got there, his friend urged Anderson to join the tryout.
"I figured, all right, why not," Anderson says. "I put on the suit for the first time that day, and man - I couldn't see out of it, they'd been using the same head for eight or nine years and it smelled horrible, the inside looked like it was made out of asbestos. They had me dance, but I couldn't see so I wasn't sure what I was doing."
He got the job.
"I figured I'd do it for one football season," Anderson says.
His first game in the bear suit came just after the 9-11 terrorist attacks on America. Monte hoisted an American flag and tore out of the tunnel at a sold-out Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
"It was so emotional," he says. "And I was hooked."
In a Friday night game against the Utah Jazz, Jeff Wohlschlaeger - who coordinates all the sideshow glitz from courtside - orders the Bulls' Kiss Cam into action.
Similar to what the Grizzlies do on the giant screen in Washington-Grizzly Stadium, cameras search out couples in the crowd, who are urged to kiss each other - even when the camera settles on two women.
They oblige, to the fans' delight. While all eyes are glued to the TV screen hanging beneath the scoreboard at center court, Benny the Bull sneaks up next to Violet Palmer, one of the few women who work as NBA refs.
The camera cuts to Benny, who wraps his arms around the startled Palmer and plants a big kiss on her lips.
And a long one.
And then the bull and the ref topple onto the court, the kiss continuing as the crowd cheers.
"Most NBA refs understand it's a show, it's entertainment," says Anderson. "There are some who don't want to be messed with. I'm learning who's who."
He stops in the officials' locker room before games to drop off peace offerings - Bulls jerseys or T-shirts - and sound them out about how far they'll let him go.
Before the game with the Celtics, NBA ref Dick Bavetta tells Anderson that he's fine with it, but warns him:
"The San Antonio mascot told me once that he was going to come up and pretend to argue with me, and that I should hit him," Bavetta says. "He said to make it look good, that he was well-protected in his costume, so I did and he went down, and they came on the court and hauled him off."
Bavetta never saw the mascot the rest of the game. They took him to the hospital.
"OK, I won't have you hit me," Anderson says.
He asks if there's someplace he can check to know what refs will be working games, but Bavetta clues him in: It's top secret. Not even the teams know who'll be officiating until the refs step on the court.
"Oh, they usually send somebody around before the game to say hi, make sure we've got towels, but it's just so they can go back and go, 'Oh no, we've got Bavetta tonight,' " he tells Anderson.
"It's a real learning experience for me," Anderson says later. "You've got fans who pay $500 a seat to sit courtside, so I have to be careful - you don't want to mess with someone who's paying that kind of money and doesn't want it."
"He's got a good grasp of what's appropriate and what's not," Wohlschlaeger says. "He's had to learn what Chicago fans are about. I'm certain it's different for him than it was at Montana. But as he learns the crowd and the fans, we're going to expand his role. We'd like to center our game entertainment around the mascot, and make him more of a focal point."
Meantime, Anderson is still defining Benny the Bull's character.
"I tried being Monte at first, but I'm not Monte any more," he says.
On a Monday afternoon before the Golden State game, Anderson has the United Center to himself.
A cavernous building, the basketball arena holds three times as many people as did the Adams Center in Missoula - darned near as many as the football stadium in Missoula holds.
Anderson practices the back-to-the-basket half-court shots he routinely made as Monte.
"It's hard," he says. "This place is so much bigger, I have the urge to throw the ball harder. I have to keep reminding myself that while the building's bigger, the court's the same size."
After each half-court shot, he retrieves the ball, then races to the other end to leap off a trampoline and soar through the air to dunk. Soon, cuts and welts appear on his right hand and wrist where he hits the rim. After awhile, he puts on Benny's head, which greatly limits his vision and makes the half-court shots and soaring dunks that much harder.
Although he's dunked once or twice before during games, tonight is the night he'll spend a timeout doing nothing but.
"I'm not looking forward to tonight," he says. "I'm very nervous. There's a lot of pressure to be great every game."
He misses a dunk and sits dejectedly on the mats placed to break his falls, staring at the basketball, gripping it, slapping it in his palm.
He looks miserable.
In seven hours, he will be higher than a kite.
The game will go perfectly. Benny the Bull sneaks into Golden State's layup line during warmups, where the Warriors' Mike Dunleavy will take mock offense, lower a shoulder and send Benny crashing to the floor.
Later, Benny will climb into the InflataBull costume and wreak havoc with the race to the crowd's delight.
His two dunks go wham and bam, right through the hoop, and as he sets up for his third, his assistants bring a man out of the crowd to stand blindfolded between the trampoline and the basket, holding the basketball high in the air for Benny to grab mid-flight.
Benny the Bull checks it over - and marches off the floor. He's no fool. The assistants remove the trampoline and mats.
They leave the blindfolded man standing on the court, ball held high in the air. Some 17,000 people giggle at the sight.
"Change is not always received well," says Wohlschlaeger, "and some people will never take to the new mascot. We have some diehard fans who will never accept the new Benny. But for every negative comment we've heard, we've gotten five that are favorable."
"I can't believe how much I wasn't looking forward to tonight, and how well it went," Anderson says. "I was so down, but then I put on that head, and I don't know what it is - I was just excited again. When I put it on, I become another personality. And I know there are other mascots who'd give their left hoof to be in Chicago."
One by one, Barry Anderson is winning over Chicago's fans. Your Monte is becoming their Benny.
Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at (406) 523-5260 or at email@example.com. Reach photographer Kurt Wilson at (406) 523-5244 or at kwilson@