But then something weird happened: Scalabrine won over the crowd. The chants grew fonder — and louder. He didn’t play a minute during the Celtics’ championship run in 2008, but he embodied the never-die attitude of that squad, cheering enthusiastically and revving up the crowds. He was still on the bench, but he was the Boston faithful’s guy on the bench. And during practice, his smarts and drive made the Big Three better. Kevin Garnett once called him the best teammate he ever had.
Scalabrine signed with Chicago after the 2009-2010 season and instantly became a fan favorite again. It was there he dubbed himself the “White Mamba,” a play on Kobe Bryant’s nickname, “Black Mamba.” The black mamba is the world’s deadliest snake, Scalabrine offered by way of explanation recently. “The white mamba is the world’s most dormant snake. It just chills. Watches and chills.”
Yet Scalabrine isn’t one to sit idly for long. Immediately after the Bulls lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the 2011-2012 playoffs, he sent Comcast SportsNet a message offering his services. The 76ers were playing the Celtics in the next round, he wrote, and he knew that team better than anyone.
When the following pre-season came around, Scalabrine didn’t get called back by the Bulls, or by anyone else in the NBA. (He did get an offer in Europe but didn’t want to leave his family.) He was a little surprised, maybe a little hurt, but also ready. “Part of what made me good as an athlete was the idea that this could be my last day as an athlete,” he says. “Having that in the back of your mind means there are always different things you can do to set yourself up.” Turning down an assistant coaching job with the Bulls — he wanted a stable schedule — he instead took the job with Comcast. “I was literally unemployed for one day,” he says proudly.
Back at the Barclays Center, a couple of buddies in the seventh row — both in their 20s, both redheaded — spot Scalabrine. “Scal,” yells one, “can we get a photo?” Scalabrine looks up and nods. The guys walk down, but a security guard stops them. Negotiations ensue about whether the guard should let them on the floor. “If you’re going to get fired, don’t do it,” Scalabrine tells him with genuine concern. The fans, turned away, ask Scalabrine to come up to them. “I got to work,” he says before turning back to the broadcast table. But a minute later, unwilling to disappoint, Scal’s back: “I’ll get you guys before the national anthem,” he calls out.
People loved Big Scal for the joy he brought to pro basketball, and they love him now for the same reason. But the happy-go-lucky exterior belies both how seriously he takes the sport and how good he is at it. “I always have fun, but I’m also very serious and extremely focused,” says Scalabrine, who has a tendency to talk as if he were still playing pro. “I live and die with the NBA. When you win, it feels so good, and when you lose, it feels so bad.”
Scalabrine’s USC coach saw this passion firsthand. “He was one of the worst guys to have around, because he just wanted to talk basketball all the time,” says Henry Bibby, now an assistant coach with the Grizzlies. “That would drive you crazy. Sometimes you just don’t want to talk about basketball, but he wanted to talk about basketball.”
Scalabrine never goofed around on the court, but he was happy to ham it up during TV and radio interviews. A kind of unintended corollary of that, though, made him seem like the one pro player every rec-league amateur was sure he could beat. Scalabrine says he doesn’t think people really know how good he is.
In mid-January, as a kind of reminder, Scalabrine competed in the “Scallenge” — one-on-one games against four talented Boston-area amateurs — an event organized by 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Toucher and Rich show. Scalabrine crushed each of his opponents. He scored a combined 44 points; they got only 6 (and a recently graduated member of the Syracuse men’s team put up half of them). Scalabrine played in 520 pro games, after all, shot millions of practice shots, and spent his afternoons going one-on-one with Paul Pierce.
Now Scalabrine brings his experience and work ethic to bear explaining basketball games to his television audience. Sitting courtside, he is talking about getting better as a commentator. Nearby, Rajon Rondo — Scalabrine’s immediate answer to the question, “Who would be the best squash player in the NBA?” — warms up, hoisting that ugly but increasingly effective one-handed jumper over and over again. “In broadcasting, it’s little things, tidbits, that paint a good story,’’ Scalabrine says. “I had to learn that. You have to realize what people want to hear.” Continued...