July 2, 2024 

Ellie the Elephant waves, stomps and puts on the most entertaining show in Brooklyn

New York's three-year old mascot is leading the Liberty's march to the top of cultural relevance

NEW YORK — When the New York Liberty’s three-year-old mascot Ellie the Elephant walks into a room, she makes an entrance. As she strutted into the Liberty’s press conference room of Barclays Center for a sit-down interview with me, she entered with an innate confidence.

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As the Elephant made her presence known, Liberty chief brand officer Shana Stephenson quipped: “The way she walks, we don’t teach that.”

Ellie wore a sparkly baby blue dress, a metallic silver cardigan jacket, a purse that had elements of both the dress and the jacket, silver stud earrings on her large oval shaped ears, and a ginger wig that cascaded down to around her hips. And don’t forget about her seafoam crown above her wide and fully lashed eyes. Ellie is always wearing her Liberty crown, a crown that she owns each time she makes a public appearance.

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She was about to begin what was going to be a jaw-dropping set of performances during the Liberty’s annual Pride game celebrating New York’s vibrant LGBTQ+ community. In addition to her typical mascot duties, which include greeting people, pumping up the crowd, dancing and leading a bunch of Liberty traditions, Ellie was about to cosplay and pay homage to Beyoncé for over 13,000 fans.

But before taking a seat, she addressed me with la bise, a traditional French greeting kiss. She placed her truck on both of my cheeks while making a smooching sound. Once the Liberty’s mascot sat down with one leg crossed over the other, I began stating the obvious. Her entrance was stunning and she’s a star anytime she walks into any room. 

“I know that’s the point right?” I asked. 

Ellie, who doesn’t speak, did answer. She pointed back at me and nodded her head up and down in affirmation. Making her presence known is one of Ellie’s main functions as the New York Liberty’s mascot. 

Ellie the Elephant’s journey since her introduction has been integral in the Liberty’s revival and standing in the world of popular culture. She exaggerates what the Liberty want to represent: having style, a high level of performance, spunk and a clear care for the community. In such a short period of time, this elephant, just like the team she supports, has quickly become a staple in Brooklyn and the WNBA.

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“She just gets the crowd going,” Sabrina Ionescu said. “The crowd is talking about Ellie. Even on away games I hear the crowd be like ‘I just want to meet Ellie,’ and that’s just crazy. It’s a mascot but it’s a part of our team. People are excited when they hear her song come on. She’s dancing. She’s singing, she’s twisting her tail, she’s doing all this stuff. But to be able to see her come down and do like tunnel fit walks and just do everything. I mean, she’s more than a mascot. She’s a part of this team.” 

Breanna Stewart concurred with her teammate Ionescu. She called Ellie the Liberty’s 12th woman and told reporters after New York’s June 9 home game against the Mystics that the team’s mascot ought to travel full time with the Liberty. She jokingly called on general manager Jonathan Kolb to find a way for Ellie to be added to the team’s travel party. 

But there was a time — if you can believe it — when Ellie wasn’t the talk of the town. There was a period in the Liberty’s history when this dancing, gyrating elephant wasn’t involved in every New York Liberty marketing campaign to exist.

Ellie’s origin story 

For 23 years of the Liberty’s history as an original WNBA franchise, New York’s sidelines were graced by Maddie, a tan colored dog affectionately named after Maddison Square Garden, one of the Liberty’s former homes and the namesake of the company that previously owned the team. Maddie was a staple of many rich Liberty traditions, including hopping from letter to letter across the word “Liberty” on whatever court she inhabited, and of course leading New York’s entertainment team in “Gotta Get Up,” one of the Liberty’s original theme songs.

Eventually, new ownership brought along a new building to play in, the Barclays Center, and a new court to play on. Stephenson and franchise CEO Keia Clarke knew that, along with a total rebrand, the Liberty also needed a new mascot. Instead of naming the new-suited character after the arena the team was going to play in, Clarke chose a name and an animal that was much more conceptual. And so, Ellie the Elephant was born.

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The choice of an elephant pays homage to Brooklyn’s history, particularly when showman, politician and circus founder P.T. Barnum marched 21 elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. The cheeky stunt was meant to prove that the recently constructed bridge was sturdy enough to function. 

As for her name, Ellie takes after after Ellis Island, a permanent landmark that sits a boat ride away from the Statue of Liberty, the landmark New York’s WNBA team is named after. Ellis Island and its symbolism go hand in hand with that of the Statue of Liberty. Both are symbols of hope and reminders of what the city of New York prides itself on: diversity, inclusion, freedom and the spirit of the American Dream. 

When Ellie was first introduced, the Elephant operated almost like any other mascot would. In her introductory video, Ellie jogged over to Maddie in front of Barclays Center and was symbolically handed a WNBA ball. Maddie passed the torch to Ellie who, at the time, didn’t have her famous long lashes or long braid. Ellie accepted her duty as mascot of the New York Liberty with a motivated walk, but it wasn’t the same strut she has today. 

It’s important to remember that when Ellie was introduced, the world was still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in 2021, limited fans were allowed inside Barclays Center and social distancing was still the status quo. Ellie and the Liberty’s entire entertainment team, which included the Timeless Torches, Torch Patrol and the Lil Torches, were all limited. To protect the players, they couldn’t perform on the court and as a result, multiple stages were built within the arena for the Liberty’s in-house entertainment to be able to perform. To protect the fans, Ellie was much more subdued during her first season. 

“There really wasn’t an opportunity for Ellie to interact with fans to really explore and experiment and engage with the crowd in the way that we see today,” Stephenson told The Next. 

But as pandemic restrictions were lifted, so did the restraint around who and what the Liberty’s new mascot could be. In her first season, Ellie felt like Maddie in a newly made costume with a different color scheme. She walked around and hi-fived people and was simply interesting because she was new. It wasn’t clear how successful the Ellie project would be, although Clarke told The Next’s Howard Megdal back in 2021 that she knew what would determine if her bet on a walking elephant was the right one. 

“I think a measure of success for Ellie is just how well Ellie becomes a part of the DNA of the game,” Clarke said at the time. “What are those moments, what are those traditions, what are those reactions? How does Ellie engage and interact with kids?”

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As the Liberty’s crowds grew year over year, as did the characterization of Ellie the Elephant. With more people to entertain, the person in the Ellie costume and her main creative team (senior director of entertainment Criscia Long and senior entertainment manager Shenay Rivers) began to figure out Ellie’s traditions, her motifs and a much more defined personality. Their goal was to figure out how to incorporate Brooklyn’s culture into the daily being of a walking elephant.

Ellie the Elephant shows off her braid.
The New York Liberty mascot during the WNBA game between the Connecticut Sun and the New York Liberty at Barclays Center, Brooklyn, New York, USA on May 27, 2023. (Photo Credit: Chris Poss / The Next)

Behind the scenes of what makes Ellie a star

With every memorable mascot comes even more memorable in-game traditions and motifs. The Phillie Phanatic plays pranks on opponents, Gritty of the NHL’s Flyers blows smoke out of his ears, and Benny the Bull in Chicago is most known for acrobatic flips and crafty dunks on the Chicago Bulls home rims. For Ellie to stand out, traditions were critical.

For the Liberty’s home opener in early May 2022, Long and Rivers planned something special. Ellie was going to perform at halftime in a special tribute to New York R&B legend Mary J. Blige. The Elephant transformed from her black Liberty Explorer jersey into a cheetah print bodysuit and brown long curly wig for her multi-song medley as “Ellie J. Blige.” This was just the first of many tributes that Ellie would begin to pay to pop culture icons.

Last summer, Ellie dressed up as Barbie when the Liberty hosted a Barbie themed game in partnership with the record breaking film directed by Greta Gerwig.

Then came Ellie’s Lil Kim Tribute during another halftime performance, and later a performance alongside the rapper herself during the 2023 playoffs. According to Long and Ellie, the duo had to scramble to whip out a Lil Kim costume after they were notified 30 minutes before show time that Lil Kim herself wanted an Ellie cameo during her halftime performance. Alongside a four person style team, Ellie was somehow ready for her first performance alongside hip-hop royalty. 

Ellie also of course executed The Water Challenge, a viral TikTok trend that featured South African singer Tyla’s breakout hit “Water,” to a tee. Every time the Elephant does a dance or a tribute performance, Long and the Liberty’s entertainment team find a way to capitalize on what the internet is currently vibing with.  

The Ellie the Elephant operation is a professional one. To pull off these medley tribute performances, including the Ellie-Yoncé Pride tribute on June 22, Ellie, her dancers, her Stompahz (which we’ll get to soon), Long and Rivers engage in rehearsals that run anywhere from 8 to 12 hours.

“That’s one thing about Ellie,” Long said. “She is a professional, and this is why rehearsals are so important and like rehearsing in costume. She does not play. When she wants to feel exactly how the performance is going to be with lighting with everyone. And again, so we make sure that we rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. So when it’s time for showtime, there are no limitations. Ellie is ready to go.”

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While Ellie is known for her pop cultural tributes and countless references to Black and queer culture, fans also have ways they can be involved in the fun. “Gotta Get Up” was a song that all Liberty fans could get up and dance to. Now, Ellie has two distinct fan (and sometimes player) participation moments, the Ellie Stomp and Ellie Wave that allow all of Barclays Center to illuminate and emote in-synch.

During the Ellie Stomp, Ellie’s Stompahz, the specific dancers that help Ellie during her Stomp, circle around the elephant and then fall to the ground like bowling pins when Ellie stomps on the ground. But the production value doesn’t stop there; if you look at the jumbotron during the Ellie Stomp, the camera shakes, also affected by the power of the Stomp.

As Ellie stomps, the first seconds of LL Cool J’s “Headsprung” ring out — “They call me Big Elly, a bit silly.” I mean, that’s Ellie in a nutshell, no?

And then there’s the Ellie Wave, which samples the song “Ride that Wave” by DJ Frosty. But this isn’t your typical wave during a sporting event; Ellie and those around her wave their rally towels in a rhythm similar to how an elephant moves its trunk. The tradition creates momentum in the arena and gets fans engaged and out of their seats.

“When you have the rally towel and to see the whole entire arena ignite with the Ellie Wave is incredible,” Long said. “But for me, I think it took it to the next level when they were in a different arena and the [Liberty] fans overrode whatever the traditional shout out was in that arena. And then they just all started doing the Ellie Wave. And I think that’s what makes it so powerful that it transcends outside of our building.”

Long is referencing New York’s June 1 game at Connecticut, when two buses of Liberty fans packed Mohegan Sun Arena to watch the Liberty clinch a berth in the Commissioner’s Cup Championship game.

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It became clear that the foundation of Ellie’s interests and personality revolved around fashion, music, dance and, of course, anything that her Liberty players were doing. When Ellie traveled to her first WNBA All-Star in Chicago two years ago, that’s when Long knew everything she and her entertainment team were doing was clicking. People were responding to this elephant. 

Ellie performed with other WNBA mascots that had been around for much longer, like Buckets from Las Vegas and Sky Guy from Chicago. But when Long noticed how all the fans gravitated toward Ellie, the new kid on the block, she knew she and her team were doing this the right way. 

Long, Rivers and the person behind Ellie have continued to plug away at new ideas for how this Elephant could reach even more people and make them smile. At the dawn of the Liberty’s first season as a super team in 2023, Ellie traded in her bulky seafoam and white mascot shoes for more human looking sneakers and debuted a new hair accessory, the braid, which replaced the bleach blonde fluff that had sat on top of her crown. The braid is seafoam and gray and Ellie is often seen whipping it around to help her dance and communicate her brand of moxie and sass.

The braid is now featured in the team store, and it makes Long cry every single time she sees it. During one of the many game breaks during the Liberty’s Pride game on June 22, Ellie judged a dance contest between three Liberty fans. One of the fans wore an Ellie braid in his hat and swung it around just like the Elephant sitting before him. 

“I remember the first time we went together, me and Ellie in the hair store,” Long said while reminiscing about the braid. “We were like ‘we like that color. Let’s do it.’ and now it’s in the store, it’s crazy.” Ellie, being as emotionally sound as she is, could tell that her creative partner was getting emotional. She gave Long a squeeze as our interview continued. 

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What remains stunning about Ellie the Elephant is how much she has to do in the span of a two-hour game. While moving around the arena dancing and interacting with fans, she also finds time to stop and watch the game unfolding before her. During the Liberty’s May 29 game against the Mercury, Ellie got fired up when Kayla Thornton was called for a foul she believed to be questionable. She fought with her Stompahz to allow her to go out on the court and personally argue that call. They didn’t allow her to.

I asked Ellie how she was able to focus on that foul call. Ellie replied by pointing to the back of her head and her ears, a gesture communicating that she has eyes everywhere.

“She’s an elephant,” Long said. “Her senses are heightened.” (It turns out that elephants have a superior sense of smell, are incredibly empathetic and self-aware. But they do not have above average vision.)

Superior vision or not, Ellie has put herself in conversations to be the best and most versatile mascot across the sports world. “She’s excellent at what mascots are supposed to do plus more,” Ana Apostoleris Rivera, a Liberty season ticket holder who invited Ellie to her wedding, told The Next. “She is such a great representative for the community. And she does all the fan engagement and she comes through the seats and hugs people and takes pictures with people and all of that. But then there’s also the performance quality aspect that Ellie brings. That is like unlike any mascot I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Ellie’s impact on the people around her

Courtney Vandersloot and Ellie of the New York Liberty visits HSS Children’s Hospital for Special Surgery. (Photo Credit: Brandon Todd / New York Liberty)

Ellie has officially become a “part of game’s DNA,” passing Clarke’s bar for success with flying colors. But Ellie has also become part of the Liberty’s DNA; as both Stewart and Ionescu uttered, she’s part of the team. She even participates in each home game photo shoot, which shows off player outfits prior to warm up. 

Ellie has worn gowns, jeans, sunglasses and has even pierced her trunk for some of these pre-game appearances. But when Ellie marched in with her posse prior to taking her place as Ellie-Yoncé, it was a sight to be seen. As her posse, dressed in all black, left the tunnel, Ellie whipped out a fan and began fanning herself as the cameras continued to snap pictures. Meanwhile, Ionescu was waiting to get her pictures taken. The Liberty’s star guard laughed as the Elephant continued fanning herself. But after enough fanning and posing, Ionescu had to get to warmups. “It’s my time now,” Ionescu said with a smile.

Ellie doesn’t just cause mischief between herself and the players, she dances and poses with them too. She danced alongside Kennedy Burke after getting both of their pictures taken and then posed with Breanna Stewart before the reigning MVP had to get into the locker room to get changed. 

Ellie also brings people together. She danced with people young and old at Apostoleris Rivera’s wedding and brought down the house at the Liberty’s Pride party which, according to season ticket holder Deidree Golbourne, appeared a little bit awkward before the mascot arrived. 

“Ellie came in the room and shut the whole thing down,” Golbourne said. “Especially when it came to certain songs like ‘Get Me Bodied’ by Beyoncé. People just felt that they could dance and be themselves.”

In a new era for the WNBA where authenticity sells, Ellie the Elephant is right at home. Wherever she goes, she’s the most popular. I followed the Elephant for an entire quarter of play as she made her rounds and took over 30 pictures with fans. When Ellie left the arena and entered the concourse, 10 children and five parents ran after her like she was the biggest pop star on the planet. 

When Ellie the Elephant presumably travels to another All-Star game in a couple of weeks, two years after she first burst onto the national scene in Chicago, she’s going to need her own security.

“Imagine what’s going to happen to her at an All-Star Weekend,” Golbourne said. “She’s going to be just as popular as any player.”

Written by Jackie Powell

Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.

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