Kobe Bryant wanted to hear the Boston accent. He wanted to hear the wisdom of the street, he wanted to hear the wise-ass comments. He wanted to hear what "Sweetchuck" had to say.
"A lot of times a player's inner circle will only say the things the player wants to hear," said Sweetchuck. "I couldn't care less. There are some players who want to hear everything is good, they don't want to be coached or held accountable. That's not Kobe.''
Throughout the past season and a half, Bryant was leaning on the self-taught expertise of a white bald guy who is no taller than 5-foot-7 and no thinner than 220 pounds. Sweetchuck would analyze every upcoming game for Bryant and he would do so without reverence. He didn't want to meet with Bryant in person. He didn't even want to speak by phone. Up through Game 2 of the NBA Finals, they did most of their communication by e-mail because that was how Sweetchuck wanted it to be.
"I think he likes the fact I'm a little different, a little off," said Sweetchuck. "I just work. I don't ask for tickets, I don't ask for shoes or any of that. I try to argue my way out of going to the games. I don't want to be Turtle from Entourage, I don't want to be that guy. I'd rather watch the games with my fiancée back home."
He is Mike Procopio and he's 35. When he was growing up in Revere, Mass., a rough seaside town near the Boston airport, he was nicknamed after the nerdish character Carl Sweetchuck who was tormented by Bobcat Goldthwait in the Police Academy movies. "My friends used to always beat the crap out of me,'' he said. "I thought the nickname was quarantined at the city limits."
But Leo Papile -- now the assistant executive director of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics -- would hear from someone from Procopio's past that he had been known as Sweetchuck. Papile, a Boston-accented, wise-ass himself, spread the nickname and therefore did Sweetchuck a highly colorful favor: He helped him become a character, a memorable personality, which ultimately brought him into the world of Bryant.
"Now 80 percent of everyone I know knows me only as Sweetchuck," Sweetchuck said. "GMs, coaches, players -- none of them know my real name."
Sweetchuck grew up loving the sport he was too short to play beyond the four points he scored in his career at Revere High School. He was working the scorer's table and refereeing local AAU games -- the smart kid who would hurry along the play during blowouts -- when he was introduced to Papile, who, for 30 years, has run the Boston Amateur Basketball Club, one of the country's most successful AAU programs. Papile was apparently amused by the 18-year-old Sweetchuck and arranged to meet him at the Wonderland dog track in Revere.
"He picks me up there in a blue Cadillac," said Sweetchuck. "Twenty minutes after meeting him, he asked me for my shoe size and he gave me the blue Cadillac to drive the players. I've known the guy 20 minutes and he's giving me the car to drive around."
In his early 20s, he became the junior varsity coach at Revere after the school received an unexpected call from Kentucky coach Rick Pitino -- a Papile friend -- endorsing Sweetchuck for the position. It was not a straightfoward endorsement, however.
"Silvio, this is Rick Pitino, the University of Kentucky coach, calling on behalf of Mike Procopio."
"[Bleep] you, DiGiulio!" yelled the Revere athletic director. He assumed he was being punked by a Revere health teacher and track coach named PeterDiGiulio, a notorious prankster.
"Sorry? This is Rick Pitino and --"
"[Bleep] you, DiGiulio!" the AD repeated, so certain was he that no one of importance would be calling for Sweetchuck.
After Pitino took over the Celtics in 1997 he met face-to-face with Sweetchuck. "He offers me a driver's position to drive him around town," said Sweetchuck, who was finishing his degree at Suffolk University in Boston. "He offered me the job and then I never heard from him again. I guess Leo said I looked too young to be his driver. If we went to the casino, I wouldn't look old enough."
Sweetchuck is as Sweetchuck does. "He's not housebroken," Chris Wallace, current GM of the Grizzlies and former GM of the Celtics, has long said. "You can't bring him around to polite company."
One morning before a scouting trip to Puerto Rico, Sweetchuck took Wallace to the emergency room to deal with a skin rash on his swollen leg. "I'm sitting there next to him and he's all tensing up because they're bringing out the needle to give him a shot," said Sweetchuck. "I'm saying this is fantastic, so I flip over my phone and press the record button." During draft meetings he would sit with lower-level friends at the far end of the conference table, across from Wallace and the Celtic owners, and Sweetchuck would replay the halting shrieks of Wallace just quietly enough for the GM to not hear.
Four years ago, Sweetchuck quit his job as a scout for the Celtics to become a full-time associate of Tim Grover at ATTACK Athletics, the 65,000-square foot training center for NBA players in Chicago. Yet, Sweetchuck continues to bust his former employers and colleagues. Friends who call his voicemail are greeted instantly by a 30-second campaign ad recited by the Celtics co-owner: "I'm Steve Pagliuca! I know how to create jobs ..." (Pagliuca received 12 percent of the primary vote last year in the special election to replace the late TedKennedy in the U.S. Senate.)
Bryant employs Grover as his personal trainer, and on the occasions when he would bump into Sweetchuck, he would be greeted with pointed questions about a certain kind of move or his approach to attacking specific defenses. This is how Sweetchuck has become a basketball expert, by cataloging these bytes of information. Over the years he has learned to organize the experiences of others and make them his own, which is the definition of street smarts.
Bryant had gone six years without a championship, culminating in a 39-point loss in Game 6 at Boston to lose the 2008 Finals. He had learned the hard way that he needed to be challenged, that he needed the advice of someone who wouldn't be afraid to tell him the painful truth. Out of all the voices in all the basketball world he sought out the wise-ass, take-a-hike voice of Sweetchuck.
Sweetchuck would analyze an upcoming opponent and send video clips, as well as descriptions, of the moves Bryant wasn't making and the plays he should make in the next game. In March 2009, the early days of their newfound relationship, Sweetchuck purposely waited to pass his thoughts onto Bryant. "I held it off until 11 a.m., and I'm getting about eight e-mails from him -- 'Mike, what's the matter' ... 'Mike I haven't gotten anything from you,'" said Sweetchuck. "So now I know he's reading them."
Sweetchuck learned from Papile -- who more than occasionally treated him like a bootcamp jarhead at Parris Island -- there are times to bury the wise-ass and demonstrate 100 percent respect to the mission. Bryant has become the most celebrated beneficiary of this discipline. Phil Jackson has more championships than any NBA coach in history, and Bryant relies upon him devoutly. But Bryant is also trying to become one of the greatest players in history, despite his relatively short height of 6-6, and so he does not want to miss any advice that can help him win. Sweetchuck is business-first when it comes to his dealings with Bryant.
When the Lakers lost Game 2 of the Finals at home, Bryant asked Sweetchuck and Grover to travel to Boston and then back to Los Angeles to provide first-hand advice for the remainder of the Finals. Sweetchuck found himself sitting in an expensive seat at his childhood basilica, the TD Garden, working up strategy on an iPad to help the villainous Bryant beat his beloved Celtics. "I have a bunch of childhood friends who won't talk to me anymore, I've been called every name in the book," said Sweetchuck of his traitorous allegiance with the Lakers. "But for me it's not personal at all. It's business. I have the best player on the planet asking me for advice, and what am I going to do?"
His advice was technical and specific to dozens of situations and the difference it made is impossible to quantify. The Lakers won Game 7 by four points, which is to say that two field goals gave Bryant his fifth NBA championship. Maybe Sweetchuck's advice on how to pass out of the double-teams made an incremental difference. Maybe confidence was drawn from Bryant's knowledge that he had done everything he could imagine, even relying on the most unimaginable of basketball Rasputins. "He's my Jack Bauer," said Bryant. "He gave me all the edits and scouting reports and wrote defensive rotations of the Celtics. He was my eyes and ears, so when I played the game I'd use all the scouting reports and all the information. And it was huge for me."
How many merit hires are made in the NBA? How many self-important people throughout the billionaire industries of pro sports are smart enough to realize they should be laughing at games that are taken too seriously? Sweetchuck is a character out of Damon Runyan and the days of Prohibition, outfitted a century later with hard drives and his own website. "You look at big-time basketball events and you sort of see me in the background,'' he said. "I'm the fat Forrest Gump."