Brian Scalabrine's big personality makes broadcasting a perfect fit
Brian Scalabrine pushes aside a crab salad and reclines into his wooden chair. In the back corner of the Will McDonough press room, deep inside the underground tunnels of TD Garden, he’s wearing a carolina blue dress shirt with a floral pattern imprinted around the collar. The jacket of Scalabrine’s navy suit is draped over the back of his seat.
The Boston Celtics’ road color commentator runs a huge, pale hand through his fire-red hair as he remembers his debut NBA broadcast.
“I was in Turkey and they were playing Fenerbahce and luckily they ran a ball-dominant offense with Bo McCalebb, because I couldn’t pronounce anybody else’s name on the team,” Scalabrine says with a throaty chuckle. “So, if Bo came off the pick-and-roll and threw back to somebody and [they] shot it, ‘Man what a great pass by Bo!’ If Bo was on the bench and they made a bucket I would say, ‘You know, that all started with Bo McCalebb breaking down the defense and getting that guy a wide open shot.’ It was great, navigating through how many different ways I could say Bo McCalebb.”
• New Open Floor Podcast: Millsap discusses Hawks, Isola on Knicks
That overseas odyssey was three years ago. One of the biggest NBA personalities of the last decade, Scalabrine has now settled in at Comcast Sportsnet. “He’s a fun guy. He’s a very high-energy person and he’s got a zest for life,” says Tommy Heinsohn, the former Celtics head coach and longtime color analyst.
Scalabrine went viral during an in-studio appearance for FOX Sports 1 last December, when he recalled a legendary story of Kevin Garnett defeating Glen Davis in an arm wrestling match on the team plane. As a result of his recent success, Scalabrine will begin an online video series with Yahoo! Sports dubbed, “The White Mamba Minute.”
“Some of it’s fun. Some of it’s going to be informative. They really buy into my personality,” Scalabrine says. One of the first videos features Scalabrine arguing that elite NBA superstars actually aren’t paid enough. There will be a running gambit called, “The Prestigious Redhead of the Week.” “Blake Griffin wins it every week,” Scalabrine cracks. “And then Matt Bonner wins it one time. So I’ll be like, ‘Let’s update our scoreboard! The update is: Blake Griffin, 36 weeks in a row; and, Matt Bonner… still at zero! Back to you guys!’”
“He’s a great storyteller,” Bonner says. “A really funny, great personality.”
• MORE NBA: George's return makes NBA one star richer
During CSN’s live coverage of this past June’s NBA draft, after the Celtics selected Georgia State sharpshooter R.J. Hunter with the 28th overall pick, the 6’9” Scalabrine contorted his large frame into an arm wave dance before high-fiving the broadcaster to his left.
“That’s ‘Scal,’” Scalabrine says. “That guy is made up. ‘Scal’ didn’t exist in 2001.”
As the lottery picks came and went and the first round of the 2001 NBA draft rolled onward, Brian Scalabrine left the living room to be alone on the front porch of his childhood home. With his NBA dream on the cusp of being realized, the USC standout had left his own draft party to enjoy the warm Northwestern air. “It was dumb to sit there. I didn’t know if I was even gonna get drafted,” Scalabrine says.
Perhaps to his surprise, the New Jersey Nets selected Scalabrine with the 34th overall pick. “My mom was crying after I got drafted. It was ridiculous,” he says. “That doesn’t mean shit, you know? Like what are you doing? People in general like to celebrate mediocrity.” Scalabrine never took a moment to exhale and appreciate the fact he made it. “It wasn’t like that for me. I was always afraid of getting cut.”
That timid nature followed Scalabrine from high school, when he was cut from all three freshmen sports. “It’s absolutely insane to cut a gangly 6’1” guy. Who does that?” he says. Scalabrine made up for it the next season, quickly becoming the varsity basketball team's sixth man. Scalabrine sprouted to 6’8” by his senior year and became an All-State selection. Even still, he was didn't receive a single Division I scholarship offer.
Scalabrine instead attended Highline Community College, just over 25 miles north of his hometown in Enumclaw, Wash. Away from the cocoon of the suburbs, Scalabrine’s eyes were opened to a different brand of basketball. “I grew up in a town of all white guys,” he says. “I started playing at my junior college with guys from the city, brothers that played above the rim.”
The culture shock lit a fire under him. “I learned the difference between playing and working,” Scalabrine says. He lifted weights in the mornings before class. His studies were followed by hours in the film room. Then Scalabrine would join the team’s regularly scheduled practice, only to run on the track afterwards. “He’s a [sic] obsessive-compulsive worker,” says Joe Callero, Scalabrine’s coach at Highline and the head man at Cal Poly. “After 28 years of coaching, he is the hardest worker I have coached.”
When he transferred to USC after redshirting his sophomore year at Highline, Scalabrine arrived in Los Angeles in great condition. “I ran a 4:45 mile. For a 6’9”, 230-pound guy, that’s pretty fast,” he says. “Like [Kyle] Korver does or Ray Allen or J.J. Reddick, they don’t beat people with quickness, they just beat people because they’re in ridiculous shape.”
Scalabrine was the newcomer in the Pac-10 for the 1998–99 season, but he still managed to lead the Trojans in scoring and rebounding. Sporting News named him an All-American honorable mention following his redshirt-junior season. In his senior campaign in 2000–01, Scalabrine led USC to a 24–10 record and the NCAA Tournament.
With his on-court abilities finally shining through, Scalabrine discovered himself. Brian began to give way to “Scal.”
“The one place in the world where I felt 100 percent comfortable: Basketball. You could do anything that you want, you could say anything that you want,” Scalabrine says. “There were no ulterior motives. You just competed. I would never be thinking about my contract or if a girl is going to like me. That’s why I became such a talker.”
Scalabrine certainly chatted more than he competed in his NBA career. He never played a full 82-game season; In his 11-year career with the Nets, Celtics and Bulls, he made a total of 61 starts, surpassed 20 minutes per game only once and never scored more than 6.3 points per game in a season.
In a sport that celebrates heroic feats of athleticism, Scalabrine was heralded for embracing mediocrity, having accepted a role most college stars would have refused. “He would do anything to help the team,” says Tom Thibodeau, the former Celtics assistant and Bulls head coach. Scal emerged as a pro-wrestling persona cheerleading at the end of the bench, patiently awaiting his opportunity to suplex opponents during the final seconds of blowout victories.
“I really embraced the fact that my teammates worked really hard to get this 20-point lead, let’s cap it off with a bucket! Let me give the people what they want! I started playing to the crowd, waving to them to chant louder,” Scalabrine says. “I’m incredibly cocky, even though I’m not very good. It’s almost irritating to my opponent.”
Scal was oddly relatable. Despite earning over $20.1 million as an NBA player, fans connected with the affable ginger on the end of the bench.
“Boston fans really embraced 'him,’” Scalabrine says. “I knew I wanted to [broadcast], so I started reaching out to Comcast even as a player. A persona had to be created.”
As the Celtics uncorked champagne and raucously celebrated the franchise's 17th championship inside their home locker room, Boston’s longtime Vice President of Media Services Jeff Twiss couldn’t convince a key player or head coach Doc Rivers to leave the party and meet with the awaiting press. After minutes of begging, Twiss managed to persuade Scalabrine to speak to the media.
One reporter asked Scalabrine if it was difficult to watch The Finals from the sidelines. “I’ll tell you why it’s not that difficult to do,” he responded. “Because, guess what: Now, you could say I didn’t play a second. But in five years, you guys are gonna forget. In 10 years, I’ll still be a champ. In 20 years, I’ll tell my kids I probably started and in 30 years I’ll probably tell them I got the MVP,” his mouth curved into a smirk. “So, I’m really not too worried about it.”
“It’s hilarious. That really captures who he is,” says Thibodeau. “He’s just a fun-loving guy.”
“I would hate for someone to do to me what I did to them,” Scalabrine now says. “Someone would ask me something and I’d be like, ‘That’s a terrible question! Gimme a better one!’ If that happened to me now, I’d be so nervous, you know?”
The day after his final NBA game, Game 6 of the 76ers’ 2012 first-round playoff upset of the Bulls, Scalabrine called Comcast Sportsnet, offering his expertise on Philly, now the Celtics’ second-round opponent. “I went and packed up my stuff in Chicago,” he says. “By the time I grabbed my phone again, there was like 20 messages. ‘Yea, we want you.’”
Scalabrine officially joined the network before the 2014–15 season, announcing his commitment to CSN in a hilarious mimic of LeBron James’s Sports Illustrated essay. “I piggyback off of major super stars,” Scalabrine says. “Once LeBron came out with that picture, it was done.”
His foray into broadcasting came only after Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers offered Scalabrine an interview for Steve Kerr’s coaching staff. Scalabrine was the only member of Mark Jackson’s staff that Myers asked to return. “I didn’t want to be that guy where it’s like, ‘You threw him under the bus or sold him out or any of that stuff,’” Scalabrine says. “I just wanted a clean break.”
As Kerr led the Warriors to the championship in his first season, Scalabrine analyzed the team for FOX when he wasn’t commentating on the Celtics’ 2014–15 road games. “I think that as a broadcaster, he’s seeing the game through the coach’s lense,” Callero says. “I don’t really see him as a broadcaster, I see him as a coach who happens to be on the air.”
Scalabrine vows the coaching bug is out of his system. “This is my job. This is what I’m passionate about, what I study. I love the Celtics. I love the area,” he says. Mike Gorman, Boston’s long time play-by-play voice, seconded that.
“I think Scal will be a very, very good longterm addition to us at Comcast Sportsnet and my only hope would be that, at some point, he doesn’t get stolen away by the networks because I think, potentially, he’s that good,” Gorman says. “He’s right there with Tommy and Bill Raftery and the old days of Billy Packer. I’ve worked with a lot of people in my 35 years of doing college and professional basketball, and he has the potential to be one of the best.”