Editor's Note: In the Feb. 12 Daily Nebraskan, a story with the headline “One of a Kind” on Page 10 incorrectly identified the school Anthony Ainslie attends. Ainslie attends Lincoln Northeast High School.
Behind the basket at the Bob Devaney Sports Center, just right of the band and just left of the students, stands something the Big Ten has never seen.
“Fans dress up the same way each game, but it’s nothing more than that,” Penn State Associate Athletic Director Greg Myford said of his students.
“Bucky Badger is the only mascot we need,” Wisconsin Associate Athletic Director Marija Pientaka said of hers.
And, according to all the other Big Ten associate athletic directors, no one has ever heard of a self-appointed mascot.
Which leaves Lincoln-resident Anthony Ainslie, 18, alone at the top.
Ainslie, or “Basketball Head,” as he is known around Lincoln, has been the Nebraska women’s basketball team’s unofficial mascot for eight years. The Lincoln Southeast senior stands in the same spot for each game in a designated area on the floor, sporting striped overalls, large Mickey Mouse gloves and clown shoes. A large “N” is pinned over his heart, a Nebraska towel is worn as cape and his signature half-basketball hat covers his red curly hair.
He claps and shouts with the band during “Dear Old Nebraska U” and knows every dance step to any given cheerleader’s call. He’s constantly on the big screen yelling “Go Big Red” or shoving his face into his hands after a referee’s verdict.
And it all started so Ainslie wouldn’t fall asleep.
Ainslie’s parents have been taking him to women’s game since he was 4 years old. He couldn’t grasp the rules or the concepts of basketball at that young of an age, so he decided to come up with an idea to keep him awake. He’d create an alternate persona for the games. He’d be a mascot.
“I just thought it would be a fun thing to do to be more involved in the game,” Ainslie said.
Ainslie constructed Basketball Head when he was 10, using the creative skills he uses now in speech, marching band and theater in high school. He decided Basketball Head would be a lively mascot devoted to fan participation in games, something he said, is important for the players.
He started at the far ends of the Devaney Center, where the seats become bleachers. After the board of directors for women’s basketball noticed him after a few games, they invited him down to the court, where he could look, and feel, more like a mascot.
Since then, he’s been a regular at the Devaney Center.
Before games, he’ll walk up and down the stands, shaking the hands of Husker fans who recognize him or just want to share a few words about the coming game.
“I think fans love it,” Ainslie said. “Especially the elderly fans. I think they like seeing young people being as enthusiastic about Husker sports as they are.”
But it’s not just fans that notice Ainslie. Coach Connie Yori has noticed him too.
“I don’t watch him a lot during the games, obviously, but you know, you see a highlight, and he always seems to be on our highlights cheering, so that’s pretty neat,” Yori said. “He’s been one of our best fans for most of the years that I’ve been here.”
Yori remembers seeing Ainslie years ago in the bleachers. She’ll say hello to him every now and then before or after games.
“Anytime you’re passionate about something, I’m all about it,” Yori said. “And that’s what he seems to be passionate about, women’s basketball and Husker Athletics, and that’s pretty cool.”
Nebraska Assistant Athletic Director Michael Stephens knows about Basketball Head and thinks Ainslie reflects well on Nebraska’s fan base.
“We certainly love to see the enthusiasm that someone brings to the court and to the game,” Stephens said. “We endorse that, and hopefully that makes our fans experience even better. I believe there is a certain affinity that comes with having a mascot and how much power they have to move the spirit of your fan base. I’m not sure how you would quantify that, but it certainly is sure that it can be a rallying point that fans can get behind.”
According to Cameron Schuh, the associate director for public and media relations at the NCAA, the appointing and oversight of mascots are handled at the institutional level and not by the NCAA. So the only way Ainslie could be sanctioned as a mascot would be through the university.
But Ainslie isn’t worried about that. He’s worried about fan participation, instead.
“I only come to women’s games because, on average, the attendance here is down, and I don’t think that’s right,” Ainslie said. “And even if there is less people, it should still be as loud as men’s games. And I feel like I bring a little more energy with me being here all the time and (fans) recognizing my face.”
Ainslie would love to keep Basketball Head alive, but isn’t sure he’ll be able to after this season. He was just accepted to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and plans on being a broadcast journalism major starting next semester. He dreams of being in the pep band and plans on trying out. With all of the excitement of his new school and new opportunities, Ainslie isn’t sure he’ll have time for Basketball Head for much longer.
“I’d love to keep it up, but I’ll just be so busy I’m not sure I’ll be able to,” he said. “I’ve become attached to the Husker pride and fans, and I’m going to do what I can to keep it up, because if I can’t, I’ll really miss it.”