Charlotte Hornets

A bug’s life: A second act for the guy inside the Hugo costume

You don’t go to school to become a professional sports mascot. So there was no one around to teach Michael Zerrillo that every mascot has an expiration date.

He figured that out on his own in the spring of 1995 when an accident on an air-pressure catapult tore his Achilles tendon and several ankle ligaments.

If you lived in Charlotte in the ’90s, you undoubtedly saw Zerrillo perform without ever knowing his name or seeing his face. A former Arizona State gymnast, Zerrillo was the second Hugo, beloved mascot of the Charlotte Hornets. He played the fuzzy teal-and-purple bug from 1990 through 2007, moving with the team from Charlotte to New Orleans and briefly to Oklahoma City when Hurricane Katrina forced a temporary relocation of the NBA franchise.

Now 48, Zerrillo is back in Charlotte in an entirely different profession: He’s building services coordinator for the office tower that is part of the NASCAR Hall of Fame complex. Instead of doing back-flips and high-fiving little kids, he makes sure tenants get moved in and out of office space or that inventory at NASCAR Digital’s production studios arrive on time. Zerrillo sees both tasks this way:

Make people happy every day.

“He’s got a gentle heart. As soft a heart as anyone I’ve ever known,” said Marilynn Bowler, formerly the Hornets’ vice president of public affairs. “He identifies with people. I’ve never heard him say a bad thing about anyone.”

Bowler became Zerrillo’s surrogate mother in Charlotte after the Hornets hired him in his 20s over dozens of applicants. The original Hugo was a dancer, but the team wanted a more acrobatic performer. So they consulted with Bob Woolf, the Phoenix Suns “Gorilla” – essentially the mascot of all mascots in the NBA.

Bowler hinted around with Woolf that they’d be interested in hiring him if he was of a mind to move. Woolf said he had a friend, a fellow Arizona State gymnast, and “anything I can do, he can do.”

So the Hornets brought in Zerrillo for a tryout. He flew from Phoenix to Charlotte on a red-eye, and with no sleep, as Bowler recalled, “he knocked the socks off that audition.”

A Southern encounter

There’s no template for being a mascot. You make it up as you go along, whether it’s riding a unicycle or roller skating or – this was Zerrillo’s first challenge on the job – testing if you can do a standing back-flip while wearing that bulky costume and heavy clown-like shoes.

Zerrillo drove to Wilmington, where a cousin was playing Leonardo in one of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movies. He needed his cousin to spot him as he attempted stunts in the Hugo costume. On the way there, Zerrillo spotted something in a small town he still remembers vividly 23 years later: two men dressed in Ku Klux Klan garb, carrying a large wooden cross.

“That was eye-opening,” Zerrillo recalled. “That’s when I knew this wasn’t (hometown) Syracuse or Phoenix.’’

It was Bowler’s job to make him feel welcome as he fast-tracked through two months of training before the 1990 season-opener. Bowler called Zerrillo’s mother to find out his preferences, stocking an apartment near the Charlotte Coliseum with soda, candy bars and snacks. Meanwhile the Hornets were figuring out the holes in their new mascot’s game.

“Dancing was a challenge,” Bowler recalled. “You assume that anyone as coordinated as Michael could just step out on the floor and dance. No. It takes years of practice to do that, and he had two months. But he pulled it off.”

Zerrillo quickly became a daredevil, coming up with the “Super Hugo” alter ego, so he could perform the more risky stunts in teal tights. Team owner George Shinn loved the increasingly spectacular feats, whether it was rappelling from the Coliseum’s ceiling or finding ever more dangerous ways to launch his body at the rim for a dunk.

Over time, Woolf helped place three more of his former gymnastics teammates in the mascot business, and they brain-stormed constantly. Their coach, Don Robinson, sometimes teased Arizona State’s basketball coaches, “I’m putting more guys in the NBA than you are.”

The bug in the mirror

But being a mascot wasn’t just stunts, it was about making a connection with people without speaking.

“It’s hard to convey what you’re thinking,” Zerrillo said. “You spend a lot of time in front of the mirror (in costume) thinking, ‘Oh, that’s what it should look like.’ ”

He had a special knack for making kids – even the very young – comfortable with Hugo.

“Gymnasts are always teaching young kids, so I knew how to come up to them without seeming scary,” said Zerrillo, who has a daughter, Bella, and son, Oliver. “It’s really about getting what (reaction) people give back to you.”

By the spring of 1995, Zerrillo was experimenting with a catapult that could thrust him from outside the NBA 3-point line to the rim – about 25 feet. It required him to plant one foot on the catapult’s spring board to trigger the device.

In preparation for a playoff series between the Hornets and the Chicago Bulls, Zerrillo attempted the stunt, and the worst happened. Maybe he planted his foot wrong or maybe the air-pressure was miscalibrated. But he ended up on the floor with the torn Achilles and numerous other injuries.

The surgeries it took to repair those injuries were so extensive that Zerrillo recalls his case was brought up in a medical school discussion. A doctor described the damage as “like stepping on a land mine,” to which a medical student replied, “Why would somebody do that?”

That question – why keep doing Hugo’s crazy stunts? – became a recurring theme. Over time, Zerrillo suffered a ruptured disc and had multiple neck surgeries. He tore tissue in one of his shoulders. He had surgery on both knees to remove torn cartilage.

Time to move on

Through it all he took a “show must go on” attitude. One time, when a doctor diagnosed appendicitis, Zerrillo asked if he could still perform that night. The doctor asked him to consider what it would be like vomiting inside Hugo’s head. Zerrillo relented and had the appendectomy.

So he and wife, Andrea, came to the realization this Hugo gig was coming to an end. He was living part of each year in New Orleans or Oklahoma City so that Andrea and the kids weren’t constantly uprooted. With kids to raise, it was time to come home to Charlotte.

Zerrillo had his real estate license and figured a booming city like Charlotte offered plenty of opportunity. That was 2008 – the outset of the great recession – so plans changed. A friend was helping to coordinate construction on the NASCAR Hall of Fame and needed help. Zerrillo didn’t know construction, but his people skills fit well with the job. Eventually it led to his current position.

He likes this job because every day is different. But it’s not the same as living a bug’s life.

“There’s a definite high in hearing 24,000 people cheering for you,” Zerrillo said. “But any job where you constantly help people is rewarding.”

As you might expect, Zerrillo is all for the Charlotte Bobcats’ planned name change to the Hornets. He’d also favor a shift back to the teal-and-purple bug rousing Charlotte crowds.

“I’m behind it, I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “Whatever happens with the Bobcats, I hope people embrace (the new nickname) and they go all out.”

Today, it’s difficult to distinguish where Zerrillo ends and Hugo begins. How does Zerrillo describe his alter ego?

“He’s approachable. Lovable,” Zerrillo said “A person you’d always want to hang out with.”