It takes a special player – scratch that, a special man – to stay ready to play when minutes are never guaranteed and starring is never an option.
It is the sign of being even more special that Brian Scalabrine never complains.
For years, Scal has been the laughingstock of the Boston Celtics' organization. Sure, he has been considered a fan favorite for a long time, but it's been because of the things he doesn't do, rather than what he does. By NBA standards, Scal is slow and unathletic. By any standards, he is chunky and a little (a lot?) goofy.
But that's never stopped him from being ready to play during any and all situations. From one night to the next, Scal doesn't know whether he'll start or register a DNP-CD. When he gets to the gym, he has no idea whether, at the end of the game, he'll wind up sweaty and tired or fresh and still wearing his warmup suit. Somehow, Scal takes it all in stride.
As a college basketball player whose desire to win and to compete far out-shined my middling (to be very generous) athletic abilities, I know how hard it is to arrive at a gym every day and not know whether, or how much, you're going to play. I know how hard it is to sit on a bench and watch your teammates – not you – play the game you love, the game you desperately wish you were better at. I know how hard it is to suck up the pain of not playing and throw it aside in order to cheer on your teammates, to feel happy about a win when every win you don't play in further marks how little your team needs your presence. I know how hard it is to show up every day at practice and give it your all, knowing that it doesn't matter how hard you play, how well you shoot. I had teammates who were better than I was, and I wasn't going to get playing time no matter how many jumpers I hit in practice, no matter how many times I dove on the floor after a loose ball.
Granted, I never made $3 million a year – like Scal – but I'm sure he doesn't once think about the money while riding the pine during a close loss, while wishing he could still play, still compete, at the game he loves. Scal rode the bench for many years, but he did it with a smile on his face and a winning attitude in his heart.
Then, finally, his chance came. After Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe went down to injury – and, really, even before the injury to a certain extent – Scal was relied on by Doc Rivers like never before. The big redhead was just returning from a series of concussions that left him out of play for a long time, but he came back ready to contribute anything he had to the Celtics, even wearing the thickest headband ever manufactured.
All of a sudden, Scal – the forgotten man, the laughingstock, the overpaid bench-warmer – was a reliable performer, a key component to the Celtics' limited playoff success. With a smooth outside stroke to stretch the defense and an underrated ability to move his feet defensively, Scal provided the Celtics with a steady presence and a jolt of energy every time he touched the floor. For a big, goofy guy with an oversized stomach, Scal is a lot tougher than he looks. He was more than willing to bruise inside, providing the injury-ravaged Celtics with their best post defender off the bench.
The man who had so long been overlooked, except by half-mocking fans serenading his name, became a pivotal member of the C's, and he did it all with the knowledge that the next time he bumped his head could be the last time he ever played basketball. After all those concussions, Scal was still willing to sacrifice his body, still ready to take a charge, still ready to dive after loose balls, still ready to bang with bigger men in the post. It took Scal a long time, but he had finally carved out his niche as a Boston Celtic.
But the NBA is a fickle game and, just as quickly as he earned his spot in the rotation, Scal once again is on the outside of the rotation looking in. The Celtics signed Rasheed Wallace and Shelden Williams to bolster last year's thin frontcourt, and Scal will enter the season not knowing when, or even if, he'll play any minutes in each game.
It's a familiar spot for the big redhead, but one he is willing to, if not embrace, understand.
And you can be damn sure he'll be ready whenever Doc decides to call his name.