“I really feel like I’m in the best shape of my life,” Brian Scalabrine was saying on the phone the other day, as he drove to the airport in Seattle.
It’s hard to tell sometimes when he is being ironic. After all, so much of his public identity is as the NBA’s redheaded hapless hero — an ironic job. This was particularly true for his final two seasons, as a member of the Chicago Bulls, where his end-of-the-game cameos, “scrub minutes” in basketball parlance, would bring the United Center to its feet. And if, by chance, Scalabrine scored a basket during this blip of mop-up time… well, bedlam ensued.
But unlike the model benchwarmer– the fictional Notre Dame nitwit Rudy, for example — Scal always seemed to be in on the joke. He embraced his parodying nickname, the “White Mamba,” betrothed to him by Bulls TV color commentator Stacey King. And when he took to the court, he wasn’t blasé, by any means, but neither did he seem dumb to the realities of the world around him.
There was a time he recalls sitting in a bar in Chicago, when a stranger sidled up and asked if he was Brian Scalabrine. Scalabrine said no, that he was from Australia – this being his go-to cover. So the stranger proceeded to tell Brian Scalabrine about Brian Scalabrine, that he played for the Bulls and was the worst goddamn basketball player in the NBA. Scalabrine just sat there and took it, a 45-minute ass handing, uninterrupted. Finally, he revealed himself, smiling: “I’m Brian Scalabrine.”
“I love when people who don’t know it’s me talk about me,” he says.
Anyway, I stipulate all that as a way of saying, in this case, I don’t think Scalabrine is kidding: at 34, ostensibly retired from basketball and working half-time as an NBA color commentator, he thinks he’s in the best shape of his life.
“I feel like if I had to transition into basketball, it would only take me minimal time,” he says. He credits the work of Chicago Bulls strength and conditioning coach Erik Helland, who used to give him physiology books to read when he was on the team, and taught him the merits of a holistic workout.
“I believe if I had been drafted by Chicago and worked with Erik at a younger age, I… could be a much better NBA player,” he says. “I can’t tell you how much a difference having a better foundation and core strength (makes). I would have been better.”
Even for a man well-practiced sitting on the bench, Scalabrine was mindful about the perils a former basketball player may face after leaving the game. After turning down an assistant coaching position with the Bulls, he moved with his family back to his home state of Washington and signed on to serve as a part-time color analyst of Boston Celtics games with Comcast SportsNet New England.
“The key, more than anything, is not to be bored in your first year of retirement,” he says. “When you get bored, you maybe spend too much money or go to the casino. My whole goal was to not be bored and there are things I have been doing not to be bored. I am a busybody and I want to stay busy.”
At the end of last season, Scalabrine phoned Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau to ask about his status for the 2012-13 campaign. He knew he wouldn’t receive a guaranteed contract, but figured he might still have a shot to try out for the team.
Thibodeau candidly told him that wasn’t an option.
But with former assistant coach Rick Brunson leaving to take a job with the Charlotte Bobcats, Thibodeau had a slot open on his coaching staff and wanted Scalabrine to fill it. The job would have essentially found him working with the Bulls’ big men, much as he had done as a practice player. Initially, he thought he would take the gig.
“The [first] thing at Comcast was not that great of an offer — not financially, but also the time I had to spend was not that much,” he says. “So, I figured I would rather be coaching. But then Comcast called me back and really crunched the numbers and the days I would be working and how they would fit me into their schedule and it all worked out to where now, I was busy this year.”
The call to Thibodeau, to decline the assistant’s job, was the “hardest phone call I ever made in my entire life,” he says.
At the urging of Celtics coach Doc Rivers, Thibodeau had personally vouched for Scalabrine’s addition to the Bulls when he was hired away from Boston. There were no other NBA takers at the time, but in Scalabrine, Thibodeau had essentially another coach on the roster, someone who could help tutor other players on the defensive system Thibodeau would soon implement. Still, Scalabrine wasn’t expecting to be at the very end of the lineup.
“I sort of figured it out early,” Scalabrine says. “You have [Carlos] Boozer and [Taj] Gibson. Boozer was starting and was awesome, and Joakim [Noah] was better than I thought going in. So I thought there would be a place to carve out minutes with Taj. But he’s better than I thought. And what I didn’t factor in was how good Omer Asik was.”
Notwithstanding his duty as latter-game intrigue, Scalabrine’s true value to the team would come in practice, as an earnest sparring partner, always looking to challenge someone.
“I was sitting there waiting and chomping at the bit,” he says.
“I am extremely confident in what I do as a basketball player,” he continues, in the notable present tense, “and it is also a reason I feel I am good. I have an extremely high winning percentage as a starter. If you are out there and are playing these minutes and succeeding, as far as winning and losing, you can’t be bad. You can’t not have talent. You have to be intelligent, adaptable.”
Of course, Scalabrine is aware fans didn’t gravitate to him because of his basketball acumen: “I never have said, ‘Why do you guys cheer for me at end of bench?’ Do I believe all these 20,000 people, most of them, have an idea about the amount of work I do just to be on that roster?”
“I played it up a little bit too: Give the people what they want. I understand when you are up by 20 and go into a game, and at end of the game, I am trying to give the fans what they want. My teammates are also trying to do that. But that is not a true reflection of what my personality is as a rotational player.”
With the NBA season at its midpoint, Scalabrine is still trying to get the hang of things on air. Because he lives on the opposite coast from the team he covers, he usually does Celtics away games. He’ll link up with the team this week for its west coast road swing, starting tomorrow in Denver.
“Doing what I do now is doing nothing like doing an interview,” he says. “Now, you have to formulate your opinions, formulate ideas about other people. In the NBA, as much as we talk, we aren’t talking about other people. You are talking about yourself and your perspective. Now no one cares about what it’s like for me to play; it is my perspective of other players.”
To that end, I ask him to assess Derrick Rose’s return.
“I’m two-fold on this,” he says. “First, you have to understand that Derrick Rose is a Formula One race car — it has to work at an optimal level at all times. He is such an amazing athlete that my expectations are for him to go out there and learn this year to be more of a facilitator for his team…. For as great as he is — he’s an MVP — if he can dominate the game with his mind for 44 minutes, and pick and choose his spots, the last four minutes of the game he can dominate athletically.”
After his departure from the Bulls, Scalabrine still held out the possibility that he, too, would play ball again, perhaps in Europe. He did a stint in Italy in 2011, during the NBA lockout, but his wife and two kids were not happy overseas. A return to action is “not zero percent,” he says, but he seems resigned to the fact that it’s unlikely.
He expects Comcast to offer him a more permanent gig next year. It’s not exactly ESPN, but he says he likes the network, and there’s been a lot of constructive mentoring he’s received.
“Believe me, I am not good at doing this, but my ability to adapt and learn I believe is very strong,” he says. “So when they coach, I can implement it.”