Coming to grips with the immense popularity of Brian Scalabrine can be a chore, but it's important to remember the reserve forward was backed by a thousands-strong fan army long before the United Center became his home floor. Scalabrine received a king's treatment during his five seasons as a member of the Boston Celtics, making his mark as a replacement starter for Kevin Garnett for 17 games during the 2006-2007 season. Boston turned Scal into something of a false idol, with the civic love-affair running deep enough to get the red-headed wonder a TV gig during last season's playoffs and an offer for a full-time commentating job next season. It doesn't look like Brian Scalabrine will be the voice of the Boston Celtics anytime soon, though. According to a scoop by Comcast SportsNet's Aggrey Sam, Scalabrine appears set to join Tom Thibodeau's staff as an assistant on the Chicago Bulls.
We've been over Brian Scalabrine before. With a lot of luck, the gift of size and the rampant support of the everyman, the bumbling forward somehow carved out an 11-year NBA career. That career reached an end this summer when Scalabrine became one of many reserves dropped by the Bulls. Though Scal has been vocal about his desire to fight for a roster spot next season, it reads as the type of do-or-die jock-speak high school coaches romanticize rather than on an attainable goal. Brian Scalabrine has gotten a lot out of this game, though his playing days have lingered for long enough.
This is a man longtime local basketball scribe Sam Smith described as having "the most extraordinary NBA career", and no one could find fault. Scalabrine's career really was incredible when consider just how many in this country spend their whole lives trying to claim one of those precious 450 available roster spots in the league. Many of the same qualities that endeared Scalabrine to Boston and Chicago also made him a coach's favorite, to the point where even someone as pathologically driven towards success as Thibodeau preferred to use one of those select few roster spots on a glorified assistant rather than on able on-court body.
And this is where Scalabrine's popularity always reached a crossroads.
There was something undeniably dirty about the unwavering fan adoration for Scalabrine. While there's certainly nothing wrong with a fanbase appreciating one of its own, the reactions triggered always bordered on misplaced worship. As the Bulls dominated the Eastern Conference over the last two years, winning more games than any team in the NBA during the regular season, Scalabrine become the victory cigar. When Scal was on the floor, the rout was on and the good times were flowing. But what was grating was how the overly enthusiastic cheers for Scalabrine came at the expense of the players who actually earned the appreciation.
When the Bulls would be winning by 20 and Scalabrine would check in for a Luol Deng with three minutes left, after the type of gutsy effort the small forward has made routine, the raucous cheers weren't for Deng's exit. They were for Scal's entrance. This felt wrong. The Scalabrine love reached a boiling point last season during a road game against the New Jersey Nets when the away fans even started chanting his name while the home team was getting steamrolled. What other bench warmer could elicit this type of reaction as a visiting player?
Scalabrine fully embraced it all, even cultivated his try-hard-bench-warmer image himself. You can't blame him for that one bit. In a sport populated by people who look like they came from another planet, Scalabrine was relatable. At 6-foot-9, he was obscenely tall by normal people's standards, but nothing else about him was extraordinary. While someone similarly sized like Rudy Gay could incomprehensibly run like a gazelle, Scal bumbled along shooting off-balanced jumpers. He was unquestionably skilled, though his game more closely resembled something you'd see in a rec league rather than an NBA game. Brian Scalabrine could have been me, or could have been you, and that was at the root of his overbearing popularity.
There's certainly nothing cheap about his inevitable second career as a coach, though. If Thibodeau likes him, he must be doing something right. At least under the new arrangement, Scal won't be taking up a roster spot. One still has to wonder how long it will take the United Center to chant his name like a fallen hero, though. The guess here is before the end of the first half during the first preseason game.
More than anything, the move to keep Scalabrine in the arena as an assistant amounts to throwing the fan's a bone during this "F-" offseason. So much else that was good about the Bulls over the last two seasons has been destroyed in the name of saving a few dollars, but Scal remains. It's a fitting way for this team to enter training camp, with one of the only "Bench Mob" holdovers sliding from one end of the bench to the other. While Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson and Omer Asik will help other teams win games, Scal endures in Chicago. He'll be around for a funny quote, he'll help mentor a young forward. Scalabrine was always more than the mascot the fans turned him into, and now his value will finally have reached an appropriate setting. Brian Scalabrine, Assistant Coach makes sense. Scalabrine, the player rarely did.