Sadiki Fuller dressed as Thunder, left, with Jesus El, right. (Courtesy Jesus El)
The Warriors are everywhere these days: the top of Tribune Tower illuminated in blue and gold, AC Transit buses with “Go Warriors” in the front digital display. Even the man pushing a cart past me last week wore a long Warriors banner tied around his neck and draped down his back, as if it were a cape.
I walked past him and entered Halftime Sports Bar, where my best friend Jesus El sat. I knew he wasn’t doing well—the bar was nearly empty, and as I started to ask why he was watching the hockey game on the mounted TV, I realized he was staring blankly through the screen.
Jesus was mourning the death of a superhero.
Sadiki Fuller, the former Golden State Warriors mascot, had been found dead just a few days prior, leaving behind his mother, two biological sisters, and hundreds of fans who knew him as Thunder, the team's high-flying mascot in blue.
Sadiki also left behind a number of younger people he'd mentored. Jesus was one of them.
Sadiki had come into Jesus’ life with the same prescient timing that brought him into the Warriors’ organization—during a period when his talents, wisdom and uplifting spirit were most needed. During a time when the Warriors definitely were not everywhere.
Jesus and Sadiki’s relationship was the stuff of mythological folklore; a chance meeting leads to a call to action, resulting in life-changing circumstances in which both emerge better for having traveled the journey together. Especially Jesus.
Last week when I sat down with Jesus at the bar, he summed it up by saying to me, “No one prepares you for your hero to die.”
Jesus—or Zeus, as many people call him—was in elementary school when he first saw Thunder perform, watching in awe as the man in full-body spandex flew off a trampoline, hit flips and dunked basketballs with ease.
The next year, Zeus and Sadiki’s paths crossed again. Zeus, one of the millions of kids with an outlandish dream of becoming a superhero, asked the masked man how he could be like him. Sadiki, from behind the mesh face-wear, simply said, “Go to Head Over Heels.”
Zeus went home, found Head Over Heels under “Gyms” in the Yellow Pages, and called the number. The organization offered Zeus free gymnastics classes in exchange for working—cleaning everything from dishes to gym mats.
Zeus did that for a year, calling Thunder's office number everyday along the way, just to tell him about his progress. Until one day, Thunder invited Zeus down to the Warriors headquarters.
Zeus didn’t know it at the time, but Sadiki Fuller was giving him something more than access to a professional NBA facility. He was passing down the torch of mentorship; unveiling the real path to becoming a superhero.
A couple of days ago, I talked to Sadiki’s mother, Brenda Orr, who told me about his childhood in Houston, Texas. “His first love was gymnastics. He loved to flip, and do acrobatic things,” Orr told me. “He would teach all the kids in the neighborhood. He had his own gymnastics class on my front lawn; we could never grow grass because he was always flipping on it!"
On the conference call, including his two sisters, Aiisha and Jari, they told me story after story exemplifying Sadiki’s charisma and leadership.
“A couple of years ago, I had my 40th birthday. He showed up, and I was outside socializing,” said Aiisha. “By the time I realized he was there, all my friends were charmed by him. He told everyone he was hugger, and he went around and hugged each and every one of them.”
That charisma, charm and urge to uplift others is what made him standout, both socially and professionally. Jerry Burrell, former mascot for the Houston Rockets, says he first met Sadiki in 1994, when he was looking for guys to be a part of a dunk team—not just any dunk team, but a team of superheroes.
“He was tall and skinny, and didn't look like a superhero, so I blew him off,” Burrell told me. “But he kept calling me.”
Burrell kept Sadiki as a backup dunker, but Sadiki soon got his time to shine. One day, as the team packed their belongings after a show at a high school, a crowd of people gathered to compliment them on their performance. Next thing Burrell knew, “(Sadiki) was making little kids balloon animals, and at one point he did a flip. He was tying it all together with funny anecdotes and references. He had them eating out of his hand,” said Burrell.
“I realized that I had gotten him wrong,” said Burrell, who quickly brought Sadiki onto his High Impact Squad. “It didn’t matter that he didn’t have the 'superhero look.' He had a gift.”
The Warriors discovered Sadiki's gift two years later, after the team abandoned a failed experiment with a mascot by the name of Berserker. A Warriors rep had caught wind of Sadiki’s talents, and brought him on board to play a new, more acrobatic mascot, named Thunder.
Sadiki would go on to dunk, flip and fly through the air at Warriors games, in schools and at social events for the next five years—a particularly downtrodden era for Warriors fandom. (As a New York Times piece on Sadiki notes, the Warriors went 97-281 during his tenure.) But that didn’t matter to Sadiki. When he performed, he’d go all in. He'd breakdance at center court. He’d hit handstands, and while inverted, he’d kick his legs in rhythm to the music on the stadium’s PA system. Solely by using body language—his face shrouded by a mask—he’d convey excitement.
And of course, when it was time, he’d hit a trampoline that was held in place by his young assistant, Zeus, take to the sky like a rocket, and then come down while slamming the ball with the power of Shango—lighting up the Oracle with wild cheers.
In other words, Sadiki kept people smiling during the dark ages. He was the life of the party. And when he wasn’t on the court, hitting flips and uplifting spirits, he was busy forming his own dunk team—Team Thunder.
"He always told us his goal wasn't to make us better dunkers or performers, but to make us better men,” said Eddie Johnson, one of the original members of Team Thunder. Johnson, who Sadiki recruited after seeing his Taekwondo performance at a Warriors game, dunked for years with Team Thunder—which eventually morphed into the Flying Dubs after the Seattle Supersonics rebranded themselves as the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In fact, the Supersonics' name change had further impact: to avoid confusion, the Warriors decided to part ways with their mascot, Thunder. Sadiki took it as a sign to move to Los Angeles and pursue his dream of standup comedy, which he performed for the past 15 years with relative success (including one time he got to imitate Chris Rock—in front of Chris Rock).
But during his time flying through the air in Oakland for screaming fans, Sadiki quietly showed a handful of young men a better path in life.
Although he never became an official NBA mascot himself, Zeus worked as the Oakland A’s mascot, Stomper, for a year. He's also traveled the world by acro-dunking, performing at many NBA games as well as schools and youth centers. He’s earned a couple of plaques from the Guinness Book of World Records for acrobatic slam-dunking. And he even has a photo with Beyoncé from an NBA All-Star Game in Denver—his second-most major accomplishment, in my eyes.
His first, of course, is the long-running mentorship program he and other members of the Flying Dubs continue to run to this day, even after the Warriors discontinued their involvement with the dunk team a few seasons ago.
Johnson, now a father of four, focuses much of his time and energy on his family these days. But every once in a while, he makes the journey to Head Over Heels gymnasium in Emeryville, where his former dunk team teammate, Zeus, teaches young people the art of gymnastics, acrobatic slam dunking and life skills, for free. Giving them the same path he got from Sadiki years ago.
The path of a superhero.
Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland. Find him on Twitter here.