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The Life of Brian

Brian Scalabrine doesn’t play the most minutes, but he does get the loudest applause.

Brian Scalabrine

With the Bulls up 22 points in the final minute of a January rout of the Detroit Pistons, Brian Scalabrine makes his way to the scorer’s table and strips off his warm-up gear to a roar from the crowd. He plays for three minutes and takes exactly one shot, a soft fadeaway from just outside the key that swishes in. On the sidelines, Derrick Rose drops his normal scowl and grins like a kid. Carlos Boozer whips a white towel through the air and screams Scalabrine’s name. Fans give him a standing ovation. Scalabrine has become the NBA’s most popular benchwarmer.

Career subs that rarely play don’t usually get their own nicknames, but Scalabrine has six. An assistant coach for the New Jersey Nets (Scalabrine’s first team) nicknamed him “Veal Scalabrine.” That was shortened to “Veal Chop” — because of Scalabrine’s herky-jerky style on the court — and then to “Veal.” Some fans call him the “Human Victory Cigar,” and his Bulls teammates call him “Scal.” He dubbed himself the White Mamba, and it stuck. “It’s just a great stage name,” he says. And though he wears a modified version of Kobe Bryant’s shoes, that’s where any resemblance to the superstar — or any superstar — ends. He scored just 32 points in 28 of the Bulls’ 66 games this season, and after that Pistons game, he didn’t score for over a week.

There are a lot of reasons for Scalabrine’s popularity. He only plays when games have turned into routs. He has a goofy public persona (he once called into a Boston radio station to rap old-school songs like N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton”). He plays his heart out even in garbage time. But the biggest reason may be the simplest: Scalabrine, a tall white guy with a shock of red hair, looks just like many of his fans.

The Scalabrine phenomenon points to an aspect of the league’s fraught racial dynamics, one that the Bulls forward is well aware of: White NBA fans may naturally gravitate toward a white benchwarmer, especially one who looks like he stumbled in from a neighborhood rec league and occasionally gives the impression of someone who deserves to be on the court about as much as they do.

“It’s what goes on in all of basketball,” he says. “People always looked at me and said, ‘There’s no way he’s going to be able to play here; he doesn’t look like he can play.'”

Scalabrine doesn’t shy away from the fact that his race may play a key role in his popularity. When he busted out his rapping skills on Boston’s Sports Hub, Scalabrine dubbed himself “Scanilla Ice,” a joking play on the infamous white rapper Vanilla Ice. “White Mamba” is an even clearer play off of his race.

At the same time, Scalabrine is acutely aware of the sensitivities that come from being a white player in a mostly black league.

On an afternoon in January, a young fan showed Scalabrine a homemade sign that read, “White Mamba > Black Mamba.” He’d planned on bringing the sign to a Bulls game earlier this year, not realizing that it was being played on Martin Luther King Day.

“You can’t bring that sign in,” Scalabrine said, shaking his head. “That’s a bad move.”

Scalabrine thought about it a bit more, and then corrected himself.

“If you just put ‘white’ and ‘black,’ then that probably would have been really bad,” he said. “‘Mamba’ kind of nullifies the damage.”

The life of Brian includes more than its share of indignities, with his relationship with fans reflecting a strange blend of mockery and genuine affection. There are the fan-made YouTube videos, like this one. It lists him among the five worst players in the league, pointing to a breakaway dunk that was blocked by the much shorter Rose. It has almost 2 million views. Yet, Chicagoans ask Scalabrine to pose for photos when they see him on the street.

Scalabrine acknowledges that some of his popularity may stem from the fact that he’s white, but he believes they root for him because he tries so hard to make the most of his few minutes.

“There has to be 50 white guys in the league,” he says. “There have got to be reasons why I’m treated differently from everybody else. … A lot of people think those two minutes are a joke, but I take them very seriously. Whether it’s two minutes, one minute, 30 seconds, that’s what I get. And how hard I play is a reflection of me and the kind of man I try to be.”

Scalabrine’s teammates have their own theories for his popularity. C.J. Watson, the backup point guard who has ably filled in for the injured Rose, has a one-line explanation: “The dude looks like Will Ferrell in Semi-Pro,” he says, accurately.

Scalabrine has a striking ability to laugh at his appearance and the jokes it inspires, including Watson’s comparison.

“People liked me way before that movie came out,” he says. “Will Ferrell probably stole it from me.”

In most sports, Scalabrine’s career would have ended a long time ago. In the NFL, Scalabrine would have been cut once it became clear he wasn’t going to match his college glory. If he played baseball, Scalabrine would have been sent down to the minor leagues, probably never to return.

But the unusual economics of NBA guaranteed contracts have allowed Scalabrine to carve out a long and lucrative career. He’s been in the league for a decade and earned about $10 million. That would be a pittance for superstars like Rose, who make more than $20 million a year in salary and endorsements, but it’s a lot of money for a player with a career average of 3.1 points per game.

Race has hung over Scalabrine’s career from the start. He grew up in Enumclaw, Washington, a small, rural, mostly white town. He didn’t get any scholarship offers coming out of high school and began his career at Highline Community College, a tiny junior college not far from his house.

“My high school team was all white and my junior college team was mostly black,” Scalabrine says. “It really improved my game — I learned you had to play above the rim, you had to go up hard, you couldn’t bring the ball down or it would get stripped. Once I started playing every single day at that level — with players that were stronger and more athletic — my game just took off.”

Scalabrine says the best player on his Highline team was Quincy Wilder, an explosive African American guard who seemed destined for D-1 glory and then the NBA. The two transferred to USC together, but their paths quickly diverged. Wilder never found his place at USC, and his college career ended altogether when he was convicted of second-degree assault and robbery. After getting out of prison, Wilder took a job at a local YMCA.

Scalabrine, for his part, quickly turned into a star. By his sophomore year, Scalabrine was an All-American and USC’s top scorer and rebounder. He averaged 19.4 points in conference games the following year, making him the second leading scorer in the Pac-10.

Then-Arizona coach Lute Olson said Scalabrine reminded him of a white NBA star. The USC forward, Olson said, was “the closest thing I’ve seen to Detlef Schrempf since Detlef Schrempf. He can bring it on the break. He can pass it and he can shoot it. He’s a pro, no question.”

Boozer played against Scalabrine repeatedly in college, including during a hard-fought Elite Eight game in 2001 where Scalabrine made a pair of long 3s to keep the Trojans in it. Duke eventually won the game en route to that year’s national championship.

“People don’t realize that Scal can flat-out play,” Boozer tells me during a break in a recent Bulls practice. In the distance, Scalabrine is hitting 3s and hooks over Noah and backup center Omer Asik. “They don’t realize that he was Mr. Do It All for the Trojans in college. He was a great, great player.”

He still plays his heart out in practice and understands the nuances of the game as well as anyone else. Scalabrine high-fives starters as they return to the bench and stands right next to Bulls coaches, nodding along as they diagram plays he won’t be a part of.

“He’s like an extension of the coaching staff,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau tells me. “You can count on him all the time, even when he’s just sitting on the bench. He keeps himself ready.”

Thibodeau is one of the most intense head coaches in the league, willing to yank starters like Boozer or Noah if they get beat on defense or make a bad pass. Bulls assistant Rick Brunson says Scalabrine helps smooth over Thibodeau’s occasionally rough edges. In a bit of NBA serendipity, Brunson was known as the “human victory cigar” when he was a little-used benchwarmer on the Knicks teams of 1999 (when he averaged one point per game) and 2000 (when he bumped it up to 1.9 PPG).

“Sometimes Thibs is yelling at a particular guy, and Scal can go over there and say, ‘Hey, this is why he’s screaming.'” Brunson says. “It helps defuse things.”

Scalabrine’s lack of playing time also makes it easy to overlook that he’s made the most of his rare opportunities to log minutes in big games. His best came for the Nets in 2004, when he scored 17 points — including a victory-sealing 3-pointer — in a triple-overtime playoff win over the Pistons. He’s also had his share of YouTube-worthy moments, from a no-look pass to Kyle Korver in a romp over the woeful Bobcats to a Jordan-esque up-and-under reverse against visibly stunned Nets defenders.

Highlights aside, Scalabrine has played so little this year that he was able to easily tell me exactly how many minutes he’d spent on the court as of late April (116) and the name of the specific inbounds play the Bulls called to spring Scalabrine free for an off-balance, banked 3-pointer against the Wizards (43 Reject).

He’d love to re-up with the Bulls but knows they may decide to bring in a younger, faster player. Scalabrine began his career with a Nets team that made back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals and has spent seven years at the top of the basketball world with the Celtics and Bulls; going to a non-contender would be a significant step down.

Retirement won’t mean that the White Mamba fades away. Celtics color analyst Tommy Heinsohn turns 78 later this year, and it’s not clear how much longer he’ll keep his job. Scalabrine is in discussions with Comcast SportsNet New England about serving as a color commentator for some Celtics TV broadcasts so Heinsohn can take the occasional night off. If they can agree on terms, Scalabrine would likely start his new job as soon as next season with an eye toward eventually becoming Heinsohn’s successor. Given his sense of humor and understanding of the game, he seems like he’d be a natural.

Last week, I met up with Scalabrine outside the Berto Center, the Bulls’ suburban practice facility 30 minutes north of Chicago. He lives with his wife and young daughters in a Residence Inn barely a hundred yards away. He was wearing blue dress pants, a pink button-down shirt, and a gray sport coat with the sleeves rolled up. Scalabrine was on his way downtown for a paid appearance at Giordano’s, a famed Chicago deep-dish pizza restaurant.

The crowd was made up of wealthy white financiers in expensive suits, and Scalabrine was in his element. One of the men in the crowd asked Scalabrine what he had thought of Joakim Noah before joining the Bulls. “Before I got here I didn’t like him at all,” Scalabrine responded. “Outside of Chicago nobody really likes him.”

A few minutes later, Scalabrine was asked what kind of car he drove. He proudly said it was a Honda Odyssey minivan he’d “purchased” by giving a local Honda dealer eight Bulls-Heat tickets.

“Good deal, right?” he said. “And none of my teammates get to drive cars with automatic doors.”

As the event wound down, Scalabrine posed for pictures with waiters and kitchen staff and patiently autographed dozens of pizza boxes and paper plates. Before he left, Scalabrine carefully packed up some leftover pizza. “For my kids,” he said, shrugging.

Scalabrine was still carrying the boxes a few minutes later when a pair of white men stopped him on the street. This time, it wasn’t for an autograph. “You know how to get to Giordano’s?” one asked, clearly not recognizing the 6-foot-9 redhead. “Do they deliver?”

Scalabrine dutifully pointed them to the restaurant and waited until they were out of earshot before laughing out loud. “Make sure you put all of that in your story.”

Yochi Dreazen is a senior correspondent for National Journal. This is his first piece for Grantland.