When Brian Scalabrine, one of the most recognizable players in the NBA, retired in early September, fans across the country took notice. The 6-foot-9 forward logged just 4.4 minutes per game for the Chicago Bulls during the 2012 season, but that didn’t stop the Windy City faithful from anointing him the “White Mamba,” a nickname befitting the redheaded journeyman.
Scalabrine’s career spanned 11 seasons — far from a joking matter for a role player originally selected in the second round. He appeared in four NBA Finals, winning a championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008.
But perhaps unfairly, Scalabrine had to shake the perception that he was more of a sideshow as his career winded down, culminating in a now-infamous clip of a foreign reporter asking Scalabrine how it felt to “not [be] able to play even one little second” in Boston’s championship appearance against the Los Angeles Lakers. Scalabrine took the question about as well as one could.
“I’m all about winning,” he said. “When you’re asked the question, ‘Do you want to sit on the bench and win or play 10 minutes and lose?’ I will always say I’ll sit on the bench and win. Being a part of that was special.”
Long before a simple search of his name spawned millions of hits across the Internet, Scalabrine was a member of the USC men’s basketball team, playing an instrumental part on a squad that advanced further in the NCAA tournament than any other in school history. And with his professional career in the books, the college chapter of Scalabrine’s story serves as an important reminder of what he was able to achieve for more than a decade.
Where It Began
Brian Scalabrine’s rise to the NBA began at Highline Community College in 1997. He entered the school as a little-known recruit from Enumclaw, Wash., and remained under the radar despite winning a junior college state championship in his first season.
“No one was really recruiting him, that was the number one issue,” former USC coach Henry Bibby said. “But he was a big kid that had skills I loved.”
Playing in the relative obscurity of the Pacific Northwest, Scalabrine wasn’t sure if playing at a Division I program was in the cards, but a trip to California opened his eyes.
“After I played one year at junior college and I went down to a shootout in L.A. in the summertime, I realized I probably could play at the Division I level if I just continued the process of what I was doing,” he said. “And that was getting in the gym, working hard a couple of times a day. I realized a lot of people just don’t put that type of work in when they’re trying to make it, and I felt like I did.”
But the transition to USC wasn’t easy.
Scalabrine took a leap of faith from the small-town surroundings of Enumclaw, population 10,000, to the second-most populated city in the United States. In Enumclaw, farmlands dot the countryside, which served as a comforting sight as he honed his basketball skills. In Los Angeles, it was impossible to block out the world around him like he had in the past — Scalabrine had to adjust to a new way of life before he could truly focus on basketball.
“The hardest year was my first year,” Scalabrine said. “My slow-paced lifestyle switched over to something so big. You realize that L.A. is such a big city and everything is a big deal.”
Still, Scalabrine put together a more than solid stat line as a sophomore during the 1998-99 season, averaging 14.6 points and 6.4 rebounds while winning Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year. The Trojans finished 15-13, a six-game improvement from the year before.
Draft night in 2001 wasn’t the glitz and glamour occasion many see at Madison Square Garden each June. Scalabrine knew he’d be selected somewhere, but carried the same mentality that nothing was guaranteed. And he quickly discovered that type of mentality was necessary to survive the dog-eat-dog competitiveness of the NBA.
Scalabrine was selected in the second round (35th pick overall) by the New Jersey Nets, a team that would soon swap point guard Stephon Marbury for fellow point guard Jason Kidd.
“I had a non-guaranteed contract so I had to go earn my way,” Scalabrine said. “I made it, but I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to make this my life.”
He was thrown into an unusual situation, playing for a team full of surprisingly mature 20-somethings who quickly combined their talents to make a run through the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Scalabrine was limited by injuries as a rookie, appearing in 28 games toward the end of the season. But he was still a member of a Nets team that advanced to the NBA Finals before bowing out to the Lakers. The next season, Scalabrine saw an expanded role, averaging 12.3 minutes per game off the bench as the Nets returned to the Finals, losing to the San Antonio Spurs in six games.
“Culture is very important,” Scalabrine said. “I can pinpoint teams that lose all the time that have bad culture. Kenyon Martin and Jason Kidd were all about winning. For me to go the Finals two years in a row, it helped me learn a lot about the culture of winning and the culture of the NBA.”
During the 2004-05 season, Scalabrine averaged a career high 21.6 minutes per game, putting up 6.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.6 assists.
That was enough to attract the attention of the Boston Celtics, who signed him to a five-year, $15 million dollar deal the following offseason. A championship and a meteoric rise in popularity would soon follow.
The White Mamba
Scalabrine quickly became a fan favorite for the Celtics, his public profile growing even larger after a joyous post-championship press conference about proving the media wrong for choosing the Lakers to win their Finals matchup. Even the disparaging question from the foreign reporter failed to dampen the moment.
Two years later, Scalabrine joined the Chicago Bulls, where he played even more sparingly but took on a leadership role. He turned into a strange phenomenon, becoming one of the most identifiable and endearing players in the league while hardly leaving the bench. Chicago fans lobbied for his appearances at the end of blowouts.
“There are a significant amount of people out there that like the idea of me making it to the NBA and think that I’m a good player,” Scalabrine said. “There’s also a significant amount of people that think that what I do is a joke and they’re being condescending towards me. In no way would I want to put down any NBA fans, but I will say this: If you think what I have and what I got is because I won a contest or something, it’s not like that.”
Scalabrine isn’t being cross when he says this, but he does want to be treated fairly.
“I do love the fans that truly understand the game,” Scalabrine said. “But I also have a low level of respect for fans that don’t understand the game and think that what I have was given to me.”
It’s hard to argue with his logic — Scalabrine was cut twice from his high school basketball team before even catching on at the junior college level. His work ethic since his early teenage years is indisputable. He made it through 11 NBA seasons, six more than the average player logging his amount of minutes per game. And he certainly isn’t the first athlete to contribute veteran guidance to a championship team while not registering many minutes.
Back to School
If you believe Bibby and the rest of the 2000-01 Trojans, the team that went further in the NCAA tournament than any other squad in USC history was also far less talented than their record shows.
“I didn’t have a lot of talent, but I had guys playing together,” Bibby said. “It was a team of guys who knew how to play, win and sacrifice.”
By 2001, Scalabrine had established himself as one of the best players in the Pac-10. He averaged nearly 18 points and six rebounds per game as a junior. Those numbers took a slight dip on a deeper team, but that was the least of Scalabrine’s concerns: He was well on his way to a pro career.
“[The starters] all played 37, 38 minutes a game,” forward David Blu said. “We all took a different leadership role. It was a competitive nature that we all had. We pushed each other every day.”
The Trojans finished the regular season 24-10, entering the tournament as the sixth seed. They knocked out 11th-seeded Oklahoma State 69-54 in the first round before rolling off upset victories over third-seeded Boston College and second-seeded Kentucky. USC’s run was eventually ended by Duke, which went on to win the NCAA championship. Even still, it was a memorable experience for all those involved.
“I’ve been in basketball close to 40 years, and the most satisfying event I’ve ever been a part of was that Elite 8 run,” Bibby said.
The Next Step
“Brian is one of the hardest working players I’ve ever known,” former teammate David Blu said.
It’s not a lack of passion for the game that made Scalabrine decide to hang up his kicks in early September. He could’ve gone through training camps and tried to catch on with an NBA squad, or travel overseas to play a larger role internationally. But at 34 and with a young family, Scalabrine insists he has nothing left to prove.
He told Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski that he’ll be working in a limited role for the Boston Celtics broadcasting booth this season, although that partnership has yet to be made official.
“If I had no other opportunities in life, I would’ve just tried to play and see what happens,” Scalabrine said. “But I do have these other opportunities to do something and I don’t want to pass [them] up.”
Another such opportunity could be a coaching career, possibly at USC, should the prospect present itself.
“I would never want to say, ‘I want to take someone’s job,’” he said. “If something intriguing like my old school wants me to coach, help out or be an assistant, I’d really think about that. I’d think about that because my time there was special, and the relationships I built there were special.”
Scalabrine means what he says about his time at USC — Bibby and his staff were the first people to take a chance on the big man who had been passed up so many times before, and that isn’t lost on him today.
“USC gave me the opportunity to go out there and showcase my talents,” Scalabrine said. “USC gave me the opportunity to expand my horizons and become more culturally diverse. USC gave me the opportunity to play in the NBA for 11 years. I feel like I owe my alma mater as opposed to they owe me.”