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Send In the Clowns 

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An elastic chin strap constricted the jowls of 275-pound Jason Yurechko. It held in place the plastic bull horns he was wearing on top of his frizzy red clown wig. A tight black Bulls jersey was stretched over his belly, and he wore red-and-black Zuba pants. Flushed, clammy, and breathing heavily, he yelled "Yeah!" to no one in particular. Then he farted.

His wife, Melissa, said flatly, "That's my man."

Yurechko, a graphic designer by day, had carefully cultivated his look and demeanor. It was mid-September, and he was auditioning for the Matadors, a group of unfit male cheerleaders (think Superfans from Saturday Night Live, but peppier) that will entertain crowds at an undetermined number of Chicago Bulls home games. Forty men of varying levels of ebullience had been herded into a suite at the United Center, assigned numbers, and arranged into rows of five. They were listening impatiently to Jeff Wohlschlaeger, the Bulls' director of game operations.

"The Dallas Mavericks had a group like this last year," said Wohlschlaeger. "And of course this is the NBA, where we steal great ideas." But the Bulls aren't exactly stealing the idea; they're bringing it back home where it belongs. Dancing fat guys might be a novelty in Dallas, but here they're an institution, a tradition that has passed from Belushi to Wendt to Farley, and now, perhaps, to Jason Yurechko.

"Gentlemen, this is an audition!" yelled Luvabull choreographer Kim Tyler. "This is serious." The room quieted down as Tyler taught the aspiring Matadors a short dance routine to the Village People stadium anthem "YMCA." Melissa Yurechko gripped her purse in a far corner of the room. "This is my role," she said. "I sit back. I watch him. I stay out of his way."

Her 25-year-old husband spun tight on his Chuck Taylors. He struck the "Y" and "M" like he was landing a plane. Tyler screamed "Pump it...and pump it!" above the music. Yurechko pumped it, left hand behind his head, right arm extended. He was a dervish.

So was 24-year-old Corie Paige, a six-foot-three, 260-pound security supervisor from Joliet. Paige had somehow coaxed an infant-size Jordan jersey over his torso. He wore a stringy wig of shoulder-length dark hair and tight cutoff shorts. His belly was painted red and black. He could also dance a little. "Lotta big guys here tonight," he observed. "Not many of 'em sexy."

After the group completed its first run-through of "YMCA," someone mentioned that the Matadors would perform during at least six games this season. "Six games?" asked a breathless Paige. "We're gonna look like the Luvabulls after six games."

With each subsequent rendition of the routine, a new line of contestants rotated to the front of the room, where Bulls personnel evaluated them. The judges had serious faces. Wohlschlaeger took notes on a clipboard; Luvabulls director Cathy Core eyed the room coldly. If the dancers felt they could simply show up, be fat, and join the team, her expression seemed to say, they'd come to the wrong tryout. The men high-fived as they rotated. An easy, fraternal camaraderie developed among them. During the final run-through, with the men bent over mid-thrust, asses toward the judges, Tyler declared, "You can't be afraid to show your butt!"

For their second routine the sound track was "Maniac," the Flashdance standard. The men ran in place, waved their arms, rolled their heads like skanky club dancers, and freestyled. Most were visibly tired after doing it once, hunched over with hands on knees, headbands dripping wet, a hazy mist of perspiration hanging in the air. Mercifully, a beverage break arrived.

The men guzzled fluids and discussed strategy in a room just off the audition suite. Small groups practiced the routines. Yurechko was amped, and the assembled media wanted him. He chatted with CBS, Fox, and ESPN. He crossed the room and sought out Melissa. "I got interviewed for The Sharon Osbourne Show," he said. "They told me, 'If you get picked, you're coming to LA.' I said, 'Whatever. They better have White Castle.'"

During the break the competitors were asked to appear before the judges in small groups. "They were askin' us crazy stuff in there, man," Paige explained. "The lady was like, 'Who was the Bulls coach before Doug Collins?' and everybody just fell asleep. We were like, 'We don't know. We're fat.'"

"They asked us to do impressions," said Yurechko. "I figured most guys would do Farley, so I did Brando. Actually, I did Belushi doing Brando."

When the complete group reassembled in the audition room to perform their routines in groups of ten, some of the men were lost, others lifeless. But the largest among them, 26-year-old Jim "Big Country" Bannon, a six-six, 380-pound building engineer, was nimble. At five-six and 220 pounds, Joe Delulio, a 28-year old trade checker at the Mercantile Exchange, was the smallest competitor. Though he compensated for his dimensional disadvantages with extraordinary zest, Delulio was worried. "Since I heard about these tryouts, man, I've been stuffin' my face with anything fat."

Delulio survived the initial round of cuts. Several humbled dancers gathered their belongings and headed home when their numbers were not called. The remaining men danced again, then were ushered out of the audition suite as Bulls staffers deliberated over the final decision. Outside, in the small break room, Yurechko continued his unending shtick while his wife sat stoic.

"Jason's done the Second City classes, the ImprovOlympic stuff," she said. "He's really into this." Delulio had taken improv classes as well, and 36-year-old Bill Beers was a stand-up comic. Everyone had practiced. This wasn't just a joke--this was an opportunity.

Talking while they awaited the announcement of the final Matador roster, Yurechko and Beers learned they shared a hometown, Hammond, Indiana. Instinctively, the two high-fived, then launched themselves, belly first, into each other. It was touching. It was also nearly cataclysmic for the beverage table and several bystanders. Yurechko initiated a furious discussion on why, exactly, Lake and Porter counties should secede from Indiana and together become the 51st state. Beers nodded.

Melissa said quietly, "Jason took second place in a brat-eating contest. Write that down. In Sheboygan. They have a festival. How many brats was it?"

"Twelve and a half in seven minutes!" Jason barked. "You shoulda seen the guy who won! He--" But Yurechko stopped as the judges exited the audition suite.

Core abruptly announced, "If I don't call your number, please leave." Polite, nervous laughter followed. "But please come back next year," she added. As numbers were called, the newly anointed Matadors entered the suite to enthusiastic applause. Bannon was in, as was Paige. So too were Delulio, Beers, Yurechko, and nine others.

They sat together in the center of the carpeted floor, sweaty, elated, and occasionally hugging. Core addressed them, providing practical details while attempting to extract required personal information. They posed for photos. "I need T-shirt sizes from all of you," Core said. Unrestrained laughter ensued.

Undeterred, Wohlschlaeger asked Bannon for his shirt size. Someone said, "Space shuttle." Bannon said, "Five XL. Maybe six."

Ten minutes later, as the Matadors left the building, most gripped cell phones and spoke excitedly with friends. Yurechko and Beers, in the spirit of the team, discussed their late-night buffet options.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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