The official mascot of NCAA basketball has the restless soul of a nomad, the charitable heart of a missionary, and the fat green face of a frog. Since 1999, J.J. Jumper has evangelized for college hoops from St. Bonaventure to Sul Ross State. This year, the tireless basketball zealot shook his oversized rear at more than 100 men's and women's games. But when you watch the Final Four this weekend, you won't see J.J. Jumper on CBS cavorting with Michigan State's Sparty and North Carolina's Rameses. He'll be toiling anonymously outside the arena, greeting kids at the NCAA's fan festival.
J.J. Jumper is the hardest-working, least-appreciated mascot in all of sports. The typical mascot is free of existential doubt: He showers his team with unconditional love and the team's fans love him right back. J.J. Jumper is nobody's mascot: He has no team, only a governing body.
When the NCAA brass conjured J.J., they stripped him of the cliquish attitude of the typical Anteater and Saluki. The college sports muckety-mucks wanted something more ecumenical—a mascot who could rise above petty loyalties and root for basketball in the abstract. The result: a speciesless, gender-neutral, froglike being with a shock of orange hair and big blue eyes. An ambiguous creature for an ambiguous job.
J.J. Jumper is the only organism to emerge from the NCAA's nascent mascot factory. When asked why the green-skinned omnibeast doesn't have a football or volleyball counterpart, an NCAA spokeswoman cryptically answered via e-mail that, "[J.J. Jumper was] part of an NCAA basketball promotional initiative that was requested and funded by the NCAA Basketball Marketing Subcommittee." If Frankenstein had been built in subcommittee, maybe he'd have orange hair, too.
According to the NCAA's marketing site, J.J.'s mission is to "increase enthusiasm for and awareness of NCAA basketball" and "engage and educate youth on healthy physical, emotional and educational values." Perhaps the most striking lesson J.J. Jumper can teach America's youth is the importance of gang membership. In five seasons of service, J.J. has never had a home game. Ever the road warrior, J.J. Jumper has been jeered and belittled by sarcastic college kids from sea to shining sea. He's even been beaten up.
Performers who have worn the J.J. Jumper suit talk of the perils of invading another mascot's turf. "When people see two mascots together, the first thing they want them to do is fight," says one performer who dons the J.J. suit. "Immediately, they're like, 'Hey, you! Go kick his butt!' "
The teamless mascot's best strategy is submissiveness. J.J. Jumper never wanders into a potentially hostile arena without a boatload of peace offerings: T-shirts, backpacks, Mardi Gras beads, bobble-head dolls. And before every tipoff, J.J. tries to reach detente with his mascot counterparts. The pregame agreement will often include an offer to make the home mascot look like the top dog. One typical ploy is a dance-off in which J.J. Jumper loses intentionally. When the music ends, J.J. bows down and kisses his colleague's feet.
Most mascots are showboats. They strut for the cheerleaders, perform one-arm push-ups for the crowd, and preen for the cameras. J.J. Jumper, though, is the Emily Post of large-headed, sports-loving creatures. J.J.'s manager, Dave Raymond, the original Phillie Phanatic and now the head of a mascot talent agency, insists that J.J. get by with little more than modesty, civility, and a boombox. He keeps his acrobatics to a minimum (no trampolines, no dunks) and his antics clean (no mooning, no nose-picking). His flashiest maneuver is a funny soft-shoe routine set to Lil Bow Wow's "Basketball," Lipps Inc.'s "Funkytown," and Nelly's "Air Force Ones." Raymond describes the J.J. Jumper experience as "low-impact, value-added entertainment."
Despite all the genuflecting and good behavior, J.J. still occasionally runs into trouble. During an America East tournament game in early March, the Stony Brook Seawolf decked J.J. with a crushing clothesline. As J.J. struggled to his feet, "Wolfie" struck again, this time knocking off the orange-haired omnicreature's noggin. When Wolfie raised his furry arms in triumph and took a victory lap, the crowd cheered. J.J. Jumper got off the mat and packed up his boombox. He lived to ham it up another day.
One recently retired J.J. told me she preferred performing at obscure Division III games. The crowds are less jaded. Sometimes, there's not even a competing mascot. Earlier this year, J.J. had the stage to himself during a game between Vassar and Union. According to one Vassar official, a group of students was so overjoyed by J.J.'s performance that they decided the school needed a dancing, prancing mascot of its own. Alas, the next time J.J. Jumper visits Poughkeepsie, he'll probably find himself in a familiar position—on his knees, kissing a pair of jumbo feet.