Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Raptor switches his shtick

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BEIJING -- Remember Kaboom? That Winnipeg Thunder mascot who, back in the early 1990s, worked the sidelines at the Winnipeg Arena for a doomed minor-league basketball team partly owned by some guy named Sam Katz?

No? How about Wild, Wild Wes, the University of Winnipeg mascot/cowboy who sported a glued-on moustache and pistol holster?

Or how about the trained lion at Celebrations dinner theatre who was billed in the unforgettable stage play Of Course Elvis Will Be Here.

But Elvis never did come. How do we know? Because the trained lion told us so.

Meet Ryan Bonne, born at the end of a gravel road in south Winnipeg, who during the 2008 Beijing Summer Games is none other than Huan Huan, one of five Olympic mascots, who represents the fire of the Olympic flame.

From his humble beginnings as Kaboom, he's on a career trajectory in which he's been named the best mascot in all of North American professional sports -- as Raptor with Toronto's NBA outfit -- and no one might be more surprised than the former Winnipegger himself.

From the Wesmen and Winnipeg Blue Bombers sidelines to the NBA to the Roman Colosseum to London's revered Wembley Stadium, Bonne has played them all.

How's that for a celebration?

"No pun intended, but it's been wild," the old U of W gunslinger told the Free Press in Beijing. "Every parent thinks doctor, lawyer... but mine got a big puppet."

True story: Back in 1995, Bonne's grandparents, Irene and Ed, were sitting back home in Winnipeg watching the news. Actually, they were watching Wheel of Fortune, which they had recorded, but the tape spilled over into the then-local Prairie Pulse news hour.

One item caught their eye -- a report that the Toronto Raptors were looking for a mascot. After all, their 22-year-old grandson, Ryan, was in the business. Sort of.

Right out of Vincent Massey High School, where Ryan had excelled at gymnastics and power tumbling, young Bonne caught on with the fledgling Thunder, an ill-fated minor basketball team in the early 1990s. Then, after being recruited by former Wesmen head basketball coach Bill Wedlake, came his stint as Wild, Wild Wes.

Having taken courses in drama makeup, Bonne fashioned his own look, down to the stubble on his otherwise baby-faced cheeks.

"I was able to do my makeup," he recalled, "to look like an old cowboy."

Well, not quite.

"I would be in the stands and people would yell, 'Hey, Ryan!'," he reported. "And I'd say, 'No, it's Wes!!' "

Soon Bonne was moving up in the ranks, earning a gig as the backup Buzz for the Bombers. And, yes, he did tackle the Green Drop.

Said Bonne: "It's the only character I've ever done who could speak."

But back to the Raptors. After seeing the taped news item, Bonne immediately set off to make a recording of his own. "I went straight to a gym and made a tape and sent it off that night," he said.

The Raptors received more than 200 tapes in all. The kid from Winnipeg got the job.

"That was 13 years ago," Bonne said the other day in China, "and I am now entering my 14th season (with the Raptors)."

He moved to Mississauga after getting his big break. His parents, Ron and Louise, moved from their modest home just off Waverley Street to be with their son and his young family in southern Ontario, where they all now reside.

Clearly, Kaboom and the World Basketball League are no more.

"This is the big time, The Show," Bonne said of his NBA gig. "So the expectations, they want the best.

"I'm expected to go out there and even if the team is losing -- and I know I'm not part of the action on the court -- I'm going to try to give the fans their money's worth."

Some things never change, however, whether it's on the Wesmen basketball court or the basketball court at Air Canada Centre.

"It can be funny, whatever level it's at, if you do a pratfall and I end up getting kicked in the groin," Bonne said.

But he isn't just slapstick. In 2006, he was recognized in a trade magazine as the mascot of the year in North America. Take that, Phillie Phanatic.

His role as Raptor has been Bonne's ticket for seeing the world, taking part in NBA promotional tours that have spanned the globe. There are a lot of highlight reels for the old VCR, and that includes his first-ever front-flip dunk in front of 30,000 fans at SkyDome at Michael Jordan's last game in Toronto.

As Bonnie bounced off the court, his eyes crossed paths with the great MJ, who nodded. "He might have been looking at someone else," Bonne said, "but I'll say it was towards me."

More than a year ago, Bonne's phone rang again.

The NBA had been asked about providing seasoned mascots for the Olympic basketball tournament, one of the glamour events in Beijing, and the Raptor was at the top of the list. Again.

"I've done a lot of things travelling that I never thought I'd be able to do," he said. "This is kind of like my chance to say I'm in the Olympic Games. Yeah, I'm wearing a puppet costume, but I've done a lot of hard work. I take it seriously.

"In my little world, it's pretty remarkable," said the boy who came from the house just off Waverley, at the end of a gravel road. "I'm not competing in the Olympic Games, but I'll be honoured for the rest of my life to say I was here."

And to think all this was born from a serendipitous taping of Wheel of Fortune all those years ago.

Vanna, can I buy a dream?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 19, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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