If you watched the fourth quarter of last night's 111-91 victory of the Chicago Bulls over the Toronto Raptors, there was no overlooking what happened when forward Brian Scalabrine came in off the bench. There had already been a "Scal-a-breen-ee!" chant ringing out before the 6'9", 32-year-old, nine-season NBA vet with the blazing red hair took the court. But when his sneakers hit the hardwood, the United Center exploded. And when he hit that jump shot as the clock was winding down? Forget about it.
There are players fans love to hate (LeBron James if he's playing for opposition); there are players fans hate to love (LeBron James if he's playing for your team); and there are players fans love to love -- despite the fact that they're really not very good. Enter Brian David Scalabrine. Drafted by the New Jersey Nets in the second round of the 2001 NBA draft, Scalabrine has always been regarded as a hard-working, team player in the truest sense. He's a dismal shooter, has always been limited defensively and hasn't even been a good rebounder for a long, long time. But he shows up, reportedly practices hard, never complains and, y'know, there's just something likeable about the guy.
For this, fans reward him with his namesake chant, hearty cheers whenever he makes an appearance and cries of ecstasy if he actually manages to land a shot as he did last night. That's all well and good, I guess. But there a couple points related to this practice that, admittedly, make my skin crawl a little bit.
For starters, the tradition of cheering Scalabrine when he enters the game started during his five-year tenure with the Boston Celtics. So, as much fun as it might be to whoop it up when No. 24 hits the court, just bear in mind that you're, in effect, following in the footsteps of New Englanders. Of course, Celtics fans didn't originate the idea of cheering the guy at the end of the bench who unwittingly comes to personify a blowout win. Why if you go back to the mid-1980s, the Bulls themselves had Granville Waiters, who played his last two seasons with the team and, in his final year, appeared in only 22 games. Like Scalabrine, Waiters would hear fans chant his name during blowouts and enter the game in the waning moments to sarcastic cheers.
But I can let the Boston thing go. Hey, a good time's, a good time. And were I to attend a Bulls game, maybe I'd give in and throw some noise Scalabrine's way if it was looking like he was about to get some playing time. (Anyone want to give me some tickets? We can put this theory to the test.)
No, what bothers me more is the heavy dose of sarcasm involved. I mean, it can't be easy for a guy who's spent almost a decade in the NBA to be relegated to the punch line of every laugher that comes along. Oh, he may play dumb -- in this Wall Street Journal piece, he's quoted as assuming that his name just sounds fun to chant. But you have to figure that, once the game is over and the crowd is gone and the cameras are off and maybe he's back home trying to get to sleep, his position somewhere just above Benny the Bull must gnaw at his soul a bit. Presumably, even slow-footed bench players have some pride.
Of course, the baseball fan in me can't help but think of former Cubs outfielder Matt Murton when I see Brian Scalabrine. And, yeah, it is because of the red hair. But Murton was also a player who arrived in Chicago via Boston (in the Nomar Garciaparra trade, no less), and he was a similarly quiet, unassuming sort with no discernible ego. Whatever became of "Orange Guy"? He's playing in Japan now, which is where I'm guessing some small part of Brian Scalabrine might wish he was every time his name is announced at the United Center.
The Bulls are back in action tonight, on the road, against the New Jersey Nets. Tip off is 6 pm Central.