Traffic is building on the Massachusetts Turnpike.
It’s a rainy Wednesday night and everything is bumper-to-bumper and there are accidents littered about, so every car in sight is rubbernecking and jeez, it’s almost 7 o’clock. The black Ford Focus is idling right by Fenway Park when its 6-foot-9 driver finally gives up hope of the drop-in. Grill 23 in Boston’s Back Bay is the destination and with the gridlock and all, the need for a reservation is growing.
Hi, this is Brian Scalabrine. I was with the Celtics and now work for Comcast – I was wondering if I could get a table for two for, say, 7:15?
You do? Great. Thanks so much. See you soon.
He hangs up, drops the phone in the center console, then shuffles himself back in the seat and exhales.
“Was that weird?” he asks, semi-seriously. “That wasn’t weird, right? I hate playing that card. I’m not a name-dropper. I mean, we needed a table right? I just hope it didn’t come off to the guy as too lame, you know? If I do have to name-drop, I try to do it up front and not wait until they tell me they don’t have a table and then I’ve got to bust out the ‘Well, I’m Brian Scalabrine and I’m with the Celtics and we won the title a few years ago. Do you have a table for me now?'”
“I’m just waiting for the day when I name-drop and then walk into an empty restaurant.”
It’s not empty when he enters. It never is with Scalabrine. He makes small talk with the valet guy, then the hostess and finally the waiter. They are used to celebrities dining here, but that is not Scalabrine. There are no iPhones being whipped out for selfies or Instagram pics. No requests for autographs. A few people turn their heads – mainly because of his size – but once they recognize who it is, there’s a casual acceptance.
“Oh, it’s Brian Scalabrine. Cool.”
“What were you expecting?” Scalabrine asks, laughing as he takes his seat at the table. “A private room?”
If you’re wondering why you’re reading about a retired NBA player who averaged 3.1 points, 2.0 rebounds and 13 minutes per game over an 11-year career, it’s simple: In early August, Brian Scalabrine wrote 1,561 words that broke the internet.
He spoofed LeBron James’ first-person essay in Sports Illustrated announcing he was returning to Cleveland to announce he was returning to Boston – to be the new color analyst for Celtics games. It was a plan hatched up partially by Scalabrine, the agency representing him, Wasserman Media Group, and his new employer, Comcast SportsNet New England.
It was another joke. Another genial mockery of his underappreciated NBA career. Scalabrine didn’t mind that, but there was one thing that he hoped resonated with people when they read the letter: Boston is home.
This is a man who has moved his family from the Bergen County suburbs (with the New Jersey Nets) to a temporary house in the Boston suburbs (with the Celtics) to a long-term stay suite at the Renaissance Hotel in the North Shore (with the Chicago Bulls) to Treviso in Northern Italy for five months, before returning to Chicago after the NBA lockout in 2011. Scalabrine maintains a year-round home in Enumclaw, Washington – he went to high school there – where his wife and two daughters live.
He is tired of packing. He wants to settle. And the only place that has ever truly felt like a home has been Boston.
“I loved Chicago, I really did,” he says in a quiet early-morning breakfast in the lobby of a suburban Boston hotel. “But when you win a championship in a place, you have a different relationship with that city. I had a radio show here when I was playing. The fans got me. Here, I’m just a normal guy. I’m not, ‘That guy who plays for the Celtics.'”
While the majority of his television analyst duties will be for road games, Scalabrine is using this year as a scouting mission of sorts.
He knows the city, its suburbs, its people. He wants this to be the final move. So when he is sporadically scheduled to be in Boston for in-studio work or promotional appearances, he’s doing research of his own: Find the right community, with the right house, the right schools, the right everything. The house in Enumclaw will be sold and the Scalabrine clan will move east.
“Everything has to be perfect though,” he says, sincerely. “I don’t want to move my family anymore.”
Scalabrine thought he had a post-playing career firmly rooted last season, when he was hired as an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors under Mark Jackson. Those close to him had told him he’d be better off pursuing a blossoming television career – he had done some work for Comcast SportsNet New England in 2012 – but the allure of remaining around the game and players was too great.
It blew up. Jackson turned out to be a paranoid egomaniac, alienating nearly everyone within the organization and demoting Scalabrine to coach the Warriors’ NBA Development League team. Jackson was fired and Scalabrine left coaching, despite Doc Rivers and Tom Thibodeau – two of the NBA’s most respected coaches – offering him positions on their staffs.
They are two men whom Scalabrine has tremendous respect for, but in the end, he passed. It meant another move and potentially more down the road. And he had already turned his eye back toward the one career he wanted since he first joined the Celtics in 2005.
“I always knew I wanted to be a broadcaster for the Boston Celtics,” he says. “Ever since I’ve retired, every move I’ve made I kept thinking it was going to be the long-term one. But I know that this decision is the best decision.”
The phone call from the Southern California area code was a familiar one. Kyle Korver –11-year NBA veteran, former teammate and close friend – had called Scalabrine to catch up in June. Somewhere during the course of the conversation, Korver documented the latest workout routine to keep his 33-year-old body in shape for the upcoming season.
It involved swimming a mile off along the California coast, diving for a 10-pound rock near the bottom of the tidal shelf and then running a mile back carrying the rock.
“I already knew that I was done playing,” Scalabrine laughs. “But hearing that? I knew. I’m done carrying rocks. My days are over.”
Scalabrine says that since his first day in the NBA back in 2001, one of the most valuable lessons he learned was to know that his lifespan as a professional athlete would end. So when he signed as a free agent with Boston four years later, he grasped the importance that Tommy Heinsohn had around the city and the organization. He saw how you could be in, around and part of basketball without actually having to play.
Tommy Heinsohn was Celtics basketball. Tommy Heinsohn still is Celtics basketball.
“Legend,” Scalabrine says when Heinsohn’s name is first brought up. “Legend.”
But Heinsohn is 80 now. He began his broadcasting career in 1966 and has been the color commentator for Celtics games on television since 1981. But he has gradually been reducing his workload each season, doing almost no games on the road. Comcast SportsNet New England, which broadcasts all Celtics games, needed a familiar, yet authoritative, voice for its road games. Scalabrine was the natural choice.
Even though it’s not hard to look into the crystal ball and imagine a day very soon where Heinsohn is not behind the mic and Scalabrine is the new color-analyst face of the franchise, he is quick to snuff out that reality.
“I’m not a Celtics legend,” Scalabrine says. “His number is in the rafters. He’s won two championships as a coach. He’s one of the most successful people in all of basketball. I am not that at all.”
What he is though, is a face and personality that is already beloved by the city he serves.
Scalabrine isn’t trying to take Heinsohn’s place in Boston and Celtics lore. For as popular of a player as Scalbrine was during his five years in Beantown and being a part of the franchise’s first NBA title in 22 years back in 2008, Heinsohn is Heinsohn. Scalabrine knows the gravity of the position that he is gently stepping into.
Which is why he feels that he could only do this job in this city. Nowhere else.
“Scal doesn’t go after anything half-assed,” his longtime agent and friend, Arn Tellem says. “And people sense that. That’s why people like him and that’s why this role is going to be a perfect fit. He’s so authentic. It’s not an act with him – it’s who he is.”
“Come on man, get me a coffee! Remember: I’m the talent!”
Andy Levine takes the $20 bill, knowing that he has created a monster. Scalabrine laughs, as he walks down Canal Street across from TD Garden on a cold, overcast Thursday afternoon. Levine, the associate producer for CSN New England’s Celtics coverage, has been directing Scalabrine all over the neighborhood as part of a video shoot for the team’s season-preview package. It’s Scalabrine standing in front of notable sights around Boston, where portions of him reading from his “I’m Coming Home” letter will be dubbed over later.
Scalabrine has been constantly ribbing him about being the “big-shot on the set.” (The set consisting of Levine, cameraman Scott Sassone, Scalabrine and one reporter.)
“How would it look if I got my own coffee?” he jokes.
Before heading into the Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner, Levine tells Scalabrine that he’s going to use $15 of change to tip the guy behind the counter.
“Funny thing is,” Levine says, heading inside, “Scal is nice enough, he probably would tip the guy $15.”
It’s all part of the Scalabrine experience. The night before at the steakhouse, Scalabrine chats up two lawyers waiting for their valeted car. Earlier in the day, he challenges one of the trainers at the Boston Sports Club in Waltham (site of the team’s practice facility) to a game of squash. After the latest shot for the video is completed, Scalabrine will carry the camera tripod while Sassone goes ahead to scout the next location.
“I think my relationship with this city is very different,” Scalabrine says. “I just happen to be a normal guy who played for the Celtics. I think it’s different than any other NBA player. I just walk around normal.”
When you Google “Brian Scalabrine,” the first one of the eight related searches is: Why is Brian Scalabrine so popular?
Part of the answer is that we like cult figures in sports. Scalabrine was the ginger at the end of the bench, the longshot to make the team who made over $20 million in his career. The guy who embraced nicknames like “Veal” and “White Mamba.” The guy who appeared to slow games down, but actually made an offense faster. The guy who Kevin Garnett says talked more than he did on a basketball court.
“I honestly don’t know,” he says, when asked why he’s so popular. “I mean on the one hand, I feel blessed that people like me. But on the other? I don’t know. That’s hard to figure. I guess it’s better than ‘Why is Brian Scalabrine so unpopular?'”
He laughs as the filming moves back across the street to the area in front of the arena. Levine asks him to stand in front of the giant “TD GARDEN” sign to get some walking shots. A couple of people pause for a second, but are mainly curious because of the television camera, not the person in front of it.
Then, an Old Town Trolley Tour bus pulls up.
The tour guide begins talking about how the new building replaced the legendary Boston Garden and this is where the Celtics and Boston Bruins play their home games. He’s wearing a Celtics cap and pauses as he leans out the side of the trolley car.
“What’s up Scal!”
Scalabrine waves back.
“Great to see you again,” he yells. “Welcome home!”