We rode to the game with Mikey Flynn, a member of the TPS (Tree Protection Services), a group of six bodyguards (and friends of Whipple) who make sure no harm is done to the mascot, who as you can see by the picture to the left, can't exactly defend himself. Though the parking lot was full as we approached the arena in Flynn's station wagon, he only had to tell the attendant "I'm here to drop off the Tree," and we were able to pull up to the main loading dock. With the car parked, we proceeded through a series of doorways (Whipple has to be extra careful to duck) and suddenly found ourselves courtside, next to the band and 20 feet away from the players' pregame warm-ups.
During the first TV timeout, Whipple rushed onto the court, dancing in front of the student section while weaving his way in and out of the Dollies, Stanford's dance team. He says he generally freestyles and his moves are a combination of skipping and "skanking," the wild, violent dancing one might find at a ska club. As Whipple twirled, his large pillow eyes flapped up and down and his heavy, pointed head titled precariously, as if he could fall over at any point. Though he claims it's never happened, he admits to taking some nasty spills while attempting to jump off the football bleachers and other high areas.
After a long dance at halftime, Whipple stumbled over to a drinking fountain adjacent to the court for a rest. He usually wears a Camelbak to keep hydrated (and swears he never puts anything in it but water), but didn't had time to fill it up on this night. After another timeout dance a few minutes later, he nearly crashed into a referee who appeared to have words for him. When I asked what he'd said, Whipple replied, "I don't know, I couldn't hear him, but he probably didn't appreciate it too much."
It wouldn't be the first time he ticked off the authorities. Last fall, when Stanford improbably upset Cal in football at the Big Game, he rushed onto the field in the final seconds, even though both schools' mascots were expressly forbidden from doing so in fear of inciting a riot (or a mass beatdown). Whipple earned a suspension from the administration, but says the incident "was definitely worth it."
Despite their big rivalry, Cal is no match for No. 9 Stanford. Whipple sways and tilts in place as he takes in the action, but even when the game ends with an anti-climactic 79-69 score, there is still work to be done. Though most of the student section has filed out, some stick around for the singing of Stanford's alma mater. Whipple links arms with the Dollies, the band's drum major, and some TPS members to sing at center court.
Afterwards, both Stanford's and Cal's band meet outside the arena and play songs for fans. Though the night is briskly chilly, the boisterous sounds of horns and deep drums have a warming effect. As Stanford plays the Golden Earring classic Radar Love ("I hate this song!" says Whipple, who prefers something called Yellow River), the Tree twirls his way around the crowd's perimeter and into the stand-still line of cars waiting to exit the parking lot. At one point he does a leap that looks something like a triple axle in figure skating. He sticks a nice landing.
It's now about 9 p.m. and Whipple still has homework to do. This is Stanford, after all, and he's double majoring in english and economics. However, you get the distinct impression that academics take a back seat to his tree duties, and why not? Plenty of people have an econ major on their resumes, but fewer than 30 can claim to be the Stanford Tree. For Whipple, who earned a rare election as a freshman, he'll get to spend the next two and a half years as a wise and vaunted celebrity with access to major athletic events and other campus happenings. "The best part of being a Tree is being an ex-Tree on campus," the saying goes.
As a Cornell alum (the Big Red faces off against Stanford on Thursday) and current Cal graduate student, I would like to wish Whipple a happy retirement. Here's hoping he becomes an ex-Tree sooner rather than later.