One last chance for Scalabrine to persevere

The most extraordinary NBA career may be coming to an end.

Forget Michael and Magic and Wilt and Oscar and Kobe and LeBron. Sure, they have been some of the greatest players in the history of professional basketball. But they had incredible physical skills, amazing quickness and jumping ability, lithe and sinewy physiques capable of amazing movements. Though few truly heard the acclaim of fans during games quite like Brian Scalabrine.

And if Scal’s going out, it’s with a chant and not a murmur.

“I’d be discouraged if I just quit,” said Scalabrine, who remains without an NBA team after being told by the Bulls he will not be invited to return. “Everyone keeps telling me it’s not quitting (taking an already offered TV job). But I want someone to tell me, ‘We don’t want you.’ I’ve always been a tough cut to make. I want someone to tell me I’m not good enough. I just want to see what happens.”

And so Scal—the White Mamba of the Bulls, Veal Scalabrine with the New Jersey Nets in two NBA Finals, the fan favorite of the Boston Celtics’ 2008 championship team—contemplates one of the most remarkable runs in pro sports history, 11 years in the NBA despite every guy in the park thinking they could take him.

They couldn’t, really, because Scal was there because he deserved to be there. He just never looked like he should or would or could. And maybe that’s why they chanted for him, “Scal-uh-Bree-Nee, Scal-uh-Bree-Nee.” Maybe because he was there it was like they could be also. They knew they couldn’t be Michael or Magic or LeBron. But, Scal, yeah, maybe. Sort of like the NBA version of Sandra Bullock. Yeah, I could date her…

I caught up with Scal the other day as he was doing an appearance at the Chicago Bulls/Sox Academy in suburban Lisle. He’s got an offer in Europe, but now has a family with two kids. He doesn’t want to leave them. He’s got a nice TV offer in Boston after doing TV playoff work. Friends say to take it and don’t look back. But Scalabrine isn’t exactly someone who ever listened to the consensus. Because if he did, he never would have been in the Finals four times, eight times in the playoffs, and with more than a decade in the NBA totalling about $20 million in contracts.

Brian Scalabrine

“I’m not delusional,” says Scalabrine. “I don’t believe if you make me a starter you’ll win a championship. But in the regular season, a guy like me can fill in and help your team win. It’s disappointing if people don’t see value in that.”

“You don’t measure him in stats,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who added he is disappointed to lose Scalabrine. “He knows how to win; he helps you win. To me, he’s invaluable with what he brings to a team.”

So just what is that other than one of the most fan friendly players ever to be around the NBA? Last week’s appearance with the Bulls—even after he was told he won’t be returning—was his second this summer. What is it that led Kevin Garnett to call him the best teammate he’s ever had, for Jason Kidd to thank him for all he did for the team?

Rarely, if ever, starting; not playing for a week or more at a time. Often wearing out more towels waving them than needing them for showers. Dunking being more about coffee, though he can do it. And then playing those mop up minutes to chants and cheers that shake the arena. Is he pet or player? Producer or imposter?

“I don’t get discouraged,” Scalabrine was saying when I asked him about those fans chanting his name despite such a limited contribution. “I’ve heard ‘I’m not good enough’ plenty of times. I really don’t care what people say. I don’t care if people think I’m not good. It doesn’t bother me. Because I think I am a good player. I know the game. And even now if someone says I suck as a broadcaster, I’m not going to be offended.

“The way I look at it is if that’s the case (people are mocking me), then—and no disrespect—you’d have to be an idiot,” he says, getting just a tiny bit red other than in his hair. “That I won some contest to be in the NBA? Or that I don’t have to fight every day? That I’m not the first guy on the floor and the first in the weight room and the last to leave? That I haven’t been waking up 5:30 my whole life to train? I’d have to think you’d are an idiot to think I’m a joke. They might, which would be disappointing. Maybe it is that. But I know why I’m here.”

It really is an amazing story of perseverance. It’s also a lesson and a model, a role model in sports if you want to go there against Charles Barkley’s generally sage advice. The cities are filled with sportsmen and athletes far more talented and capable than Scalabrine, players who couldn’t miss and did while the kid who seemingly had no business being there sticks around for more than a decade. And with good teams and great players who wanted him to stay.

In many respects, Scalabrine’s story is as important and significant as any of the big stars of the game. Because he did it when he shouldn’t have. He defied convention, if not popular opinion. And that just doesn’t apply to sports. It’s a nice life lesson. Don’t let the critics and doubters chart your future. It’s there for you to make.

Scal wasn’t much of a basketball player as a reasonably well rounded kid growing up in a rural area near Seattle in Enumclaw, Washington. The guys played basketball, so he tried out. He was cut as a freshman in high school. And not the Michael Jordan cut. Michael wasn’t promoted to the varsity because they needed a big guy. Scal was cut because he wasn’t good enough to play freshman ball.

“The thing for me is I always loved to play and I never get discouraged,” recalled Scalabrine. “I had huge feet, size 17 same as now, but I was 5-11. I’m not a natural athlete. I’m athletic in the sense I can play sports. But run fast, jump high, things like that? No. The biggest thing when I look back is how hard I work. A lot people say they work hard. And they do. I’m running on the track five, six times a week, pushing myself. Guys go into the gym and dribble and shoot. For me, I learned how to work. That was the difference.”

It took most of high school before Scalabrine began to figure it out, though. He really didn’t play much in games other than with the high school team. He just continued to get in better condition. He figured if he could outwork everyone it would make up for so many others being more athletic and talented. And he’d learn to shoot. After all, they counted the total of points. Not just dunks.

“The things I do are a gift, too,” Scalabrine insists. “I have an unbelievable motor. But it’s not something you can see in a minute thirty at the end of a game. The games I started with the Celtics when Kevin Garnett went out. We were something like 21-3.

“In the course of a game,” Scalabrine notes, “if you run the floor every time, if you block out every time, if you show on every pick and roll, if you do everything full tilt, eventually your effort is better than theirs, even if they’re more athletic. I have to play a lot harder than everyone. But I have a bigger motor. One of my gifts is my motor. It’s hard for people to see because everyone thinks they have a motor.”

Brian Scalabrine

Though he won't return to the Bulls this coming season, Scalabrine fulfilled a commitment he made to appear at the Bulls/Sox Academy in Lisle last week.

It’s not unlike the Bulls’ Joakim Noah, who has an advantage on Scalabrine of being taller. But as we’ve seen, Noah is hardly your model for shooting. He’s not a great leaper. He was told he’d never be a pro, and hardly anyone disagreed. He just outworks you. But it’s more than just working hard. It’s working relentlessly. He doesn’t stop, like Scalabrine. And eventually the other guy stops or slows or takes a breath. And the turtle is still moving.

“I don’t recall exactly the winning numbers when he started or the plus/minus, but they were crazy good,” said Thibodeau. “That’s why to me what he brings to a team is invaluable: Readiness to play, positive attitude. He can start, come off the bench, be inactive and then if you need him he’s ready. He’s smart, executes on offense and defense, is not a mistake player. Whatever role you ask him to do, he does great.”

Still, it’s rarely what scouts can see.

Scalabrine didn’t make the varsity in high school—and hardly in a high level, competitive area—until his junior year when he became a starter. That was when he made his big jump, when he went to play AAU ball for two weeks in the summer. “I got my butt kicked,” Scalabrine recalls. “I’d never seen players with that speed and size.”

But Scalabrine said that experience changed his sports life. He began his work regimen, changed his diet. He didn’t play games; only worked and practiced. He decided the only way he could succeed was to be in better condition in mind and body. It was something basically anyone could do, though it did help that he was growing toward 6-9.

He did well in high school, but not enough for a scholarship. He had an offer of a half scholarship at Seattle Pacific as long as he paid $12,000 for the first year. He went to junior college, Highline in Washington State, and back to work.

“I just don’t get discouraged,” Scalabrine reiterated.

He says it never was about being in the NBA or a pro. “Hey, I’d turn on the TV in Seattle and there was Shawn Kemp. How am I ever going to think I can be a pro watching Shawn Kemp?” Scalabrine asked with a laugh. “I wanted to coach basketball and teach.”

His junior college team went 31-1 and won its title. After two years, he got a scholarship to USC. But in playing with the enhanced competition in junior college and in the summers, he learned to play tougher and stronger. He also became more a student of the game to make up for what he lacked elsewhere.

“If I did something wrong, I always felt I could self correct,” he says. “Like if I show on a pick and roll and the guard did not get through cleanly. I will analyze how to do that better: ‘If I take one step up and get on the guy’s shoulder and give my guy a chance to get through.’ I’ve always been able to adapt.”

Then even in the Pac-10 playing against so many better athletes, Scalabrine did well. He red shirted in junior college to have three years of eligibility, averaged 15.7 points and 6.1 rebounds in three seasons at USC (comparable numbers to Taj Gibson at the same school), made honorable mention all-American and was in the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament.

“I was in great shape,” recalls Scalabrine. “I ran a 4:45 mile at USC. How many 6-9, 240 guys are doing that? It was still the same old stuff. Everyone is telling me when I went to USC I’d never be able to do it. I don’t care what people say. I never cared that people didn’t think I was good. Maybe because I think I’m good, because I know the game and know how hard I work at it.”

Scalabrine still wasn’t thinking much about the NBA, though. Yet, he was a second round draft pick by the Nets in 2001. Then summer league became something of the revelation for him.

“It was there I realized I could play at this level,” he says. “Being able to move from point A to point B is important. But I still think the most important aspect is to adapt, see what this guy is doing and counter that. OK, a guy comes down and goes right really hard. That’s what he does. I’ll be ready next time. The elite players and athletes of the NBA are from a different planet. But besides the upper echelon, there’s a lot in that middle group. One player gets an opportunity, another doesn’t (see Jeremy Lin before and after the Knicks were just about to cut him again last season).”

Scalabrine was injured in preseason with the Nets and didn’t play much as a rookie. But the team went to the Finals his first two seasons, and he rode that good feeling with the long underperforming team.

“At that point, it’s a lot of luck from the sense the Nets go to the Finals, they like me and it’s ‘Bring guys back,’” Scalabrine said. “Then I get an opportunity in a playoff game (triple overtime in the conference finals with Detroit and Scalabrine scores 17 points including the big three with 40 seconds left in the third overtime for the clincher).

“I’m playing with Jason Kidd, who is a great player, and all I have to do is make a shot,” says Scalabrine. “The next year, Kenyon Martin leaves because they don’t want to pay him like $96 million and there’s 48 minutes of playing time available and I get some. Am I good enough to be a starter in this league? Probably not. But on any given night, put me with Jason Kidd and I’m a guy who plays extremely hard and can adapt and my winning percentage (in the NBA) as a starter is up in the 60’s.”

That enabled Scalabrine to have his best pro season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.5 rebounds in 21.6 minutes per game, though the Nets were swept in the first round of the playoffs.

“I’m not delusional,” says Scalabrine. “I don’t believe if you make me a starter you’ll win a championship. But in the regular season, a guy like me can fill in and help your team win. It’s disappointing if people don’t see value in that.”

Danny Ainge did. Scalabrine was a free agent at the right time. He signed a five-year $15 million deal from a Boston team in decline, but then he wasn’t such a fan favorite anymore. The chants became boos as Celtics fans reacted to the big money for limited production. He became the new era’s Jon Koncak.

You mean that guy’s making that money?!

Those little things Scal did turned 30 points losses into 22-point losses. That makes his value harder to appreciate.

“For me and my personality and my style of play it’s much better to be on a good team and when I get an opportunity to play, to play well and win rather than playing a lot more on some (bad) team,” Scalabrine says. “I’d rather learn from players better than me, how organizations win, what is important from a winning standpoint. What good would it do me being on the Wizards last year?”

Then Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen came along, the Celtics won a title and Scal was again a fan favorite for his enthusiasm, effort and some nice contributions people could see more clearly.

He helped the Celtics close out the Bulls in that classic 2009 playoff series, finished up his five-year deal with Boston and then spent two very popular seasons with the Bulls. And now it could be the end in the NBA, as Scalabrine doesn’t have an offer and contemplates perhaps a bright TV analyst future.

But he’s been here before and forced overtime when no one thought it was possible.