The Meme That Plays Defense

Brian Scalabrine's cult status is unquestionable, but also more complicated than it seems.
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Image via nba-2k.com

I wouldn't have started off with the question, of course, because I'm not an asshole. At some point during the series of interviews I hoped to have with Brian Scalabrine—I assume they would've taken place in the palatial suburban hotel in which he resides during the season—I would've asked him something about how it felt to be a second mascot for the Chicago Bulls, or a human meme, or something along those lines. I was going to be professional about it. But after a few days of gentle prodding, a nice spokesman from the Bulls got back to me with an unfortunate answer, if not one that wholly shocked me. “Brian’s going to have to take a pass on this one,” he said. I don’t doubt that Scal’s got stuff to do: spending time with his family in between games, getting more reps at the Berto Center, finally finishing the second season of "Twin Peaks". But really, I imagine it’s much simpler than that. I imagine he’s probably just tired of talking about himself.

It’s easy to understand why. Turn your TV up the next time Scalabrine checks into a Bulls game—you may have to wait until next season, or you may not—and listen to how the crowd reacts whenever he does anything. There’s no John Hollinger to measure this for us, but it seems safe to say that Scal averages the highest DPT (decibels per touch) of anyone on his team, and possibly anyone on any team. When he gets the ball, even if it’s just to hold it for a second before kicking it back to one of his teammates, people lose their shit for reasons that seem both amusing and condescending; a crowd of hardcore partisans becomes, in an instant, an arena of overenthusiastic parents braying and drunk with pride (and beer) because their kid got into the game. Serious fans respect Scalabrine's “veteran presence,” however vaguely defined that is, and that he doesn’t seem to mind having his minutes jerked around. Casual fans love him far more than they do any other 12th man in the league for reasons that seem easily reduced to tokenism: He’s a big, tall ginger who looks a little like Michael Rapaport.



In short, it can sometimes seem as if Scal’s not just a player but a living meme, better represented by a sliding scale of BuzzFeediness than conventional metrics: LOL (when he blocks, or gets blocked), OMG (when he drives to the hoop in one of those slo-mo bursts of “speed”), WTF (when he squares away in the corner to take a potentially game-winning shot against Indiana), WIN (when he’s on the court in the closing minutes of a blowout) and FAIL (conversely, when he’s on the court in a potentially crucial situation). Compared to his hobbled teammate Derrick Rose, whose vertical simulates human flight more accurately and exhilaratingly than anything else currently available, Scalabrine off the dribble resembles nothing so much as a deep sea diver slowly moving through water, limbs half-suspended in motion. It’s why the only level of play he could ever dominate as a professional was the Italian League, where he freelanced with dazzling results during last year’s lockout. The Scalabrine in competition against teams like Montepaschi Siena and Otto Caserta is truly Herculean. He looks like Kevin Love unleashed on a pickup game at the Y, grabbing rebounds, draining threes, moving to the rim with blazing grace. Same dude. He's that good, but NBA competition is that much better.



The raucous adoration bothers some columnists, who’ve called for a moratorium on all ironic Scalabrine cheering. It's easy enough to understand this response, although there's also a palpable cynicism to it—it collapses on that oldest and most beaten-down straw man of argumentation, “You’re just pretending to like it!” If people are cheering for Scal because he looks like a construction worker—or Michael Rapaport playing a construction worker—and not because of how well he understands team defense, well: fair enough. It’s not like cheering is different for anyone else working for the entertainment empire David Stern has so meticulously built, highlight reel by highlight reel. Look at the de-contextualized monster jams that fill SportsCenter, the Twitter spasms whenever Blake Griffin dunks through someone (and then forgets to rotate on defense).

The spectacle is what gets people in the door; the mechanics are what keep it going. Scalabrine means more to the Bulls as a team mechanic—Coach Thibodeau has called him an extra assistant coach, and again, he knows the defense!—but his simple act of being has generated its own spectacle. The motivation behind this has not escaped him, but his reaction is seemingly magnanimous. “The only thing that I don't like about [the popularity] is the individualism," he said to ESPN. "I'm just not an individual guy." If that’s good enough for him, then it should be fine for everyone else, right?

But it's not that simple, even if it's also not all that complicated. It doesn’t matter that fans likely wouldn’t care as much if Scalabrine's skin were a couple shades darker, his hair a different hue flaming red—that schmoes like Ryan Hollins and DeSagana Diop have eked out similarly semi-effective careers with a fraction of the attention. Or that framing whiteness as a priori novelty limits our ability to do descriptive justice when it’s merited, which is why people keep searching for reasons not to believe that Kevin Love is the best power forward in the league. That said, it feels a little dirty and not entirely true to suggest that whites are underappreciated anywhere. There’s no real reason to suggest that J.J. Redick isn’t getting the exact amount of attention he deserves. Still, elevating Scalabrine into comic heroism just because he looks like the squarest of them all seems a little dishonest, and definitely a little mean.

How we respond to the way people respond to Scal offers some perspective on the strangeness and thwartedness of watching sports in a "serious" way. It’s nice to imagine that our powers of observation confer upon us an inalienable rightness when viewed next to spectators who are just along for the ride of downing some drinks while rooting for Our Guys to beat Those Guys, or that the serious fans are somehow seeing more and enjoying more than their sozzled, Buffalo sauce-smeared peers. I am not the only person to have yelled at a TV as though it contained a direct walkie-talkie to Joakim Noah’s ear, and could thus relay my instruction to “box out, you shitty idiot.” I am surely not the only person to have delivered that particular bit of instruction, either. But it helps to feel that this is all being done for the right reasons, that we’re not all endlessly pivoting, in parallel, in the dark, regardless of how well we understand, say, Player Efficiency Rating or True Shooting Percentage. It helps, in a basic self-identification sense, to believe that the knowledge serious fans accumulate is not just a tarted-up version of the gee-whiz-guessing and emotional intuition that the un-serious fan relies upon when laughingly howling for Scal.

It’s not a coincidence that when Derrick Rose tore his ACL last weekend, a meme imagining Scalabrine as team savior quickly spread around the Internet, because of course it would never happen; the idea was hilarious enough and could replace any actual discussion of how the Bulls might overcome the absence of the team leader. When they lost Game 2 to the Philadelphia 76ers at home, you can be sure the people clicking “share” on that goofy image weren’t the ones complaining about a failure to box out.

Maybe that’s a little unfair, because in the end there's really nothing wrong with having a little fun. Perhaps looking for the finer points in Scalabrine is missing the point, or missing out on an opportunity to enjoy his delirious incongruities as fully as the laugh-howlers do. Scalabrine, because of his lumpy gracelessness more than his race or any of the other factors that play into his cult, is the most recognizably lumpen-human representative of the sport as it is in front of us. There's something elemental to his goofiness: his presence on the floor shows the game as what it fundamentally is: a collection of dudes running up and down the court, sweating and puffing as they toss a little ball into a hoop. Not a collection of brands and genetic outliers, future Kia spokesmen and abstractly visualized statistical avatars, but men whom we watch while they work. In a stranger world, imagine one of those NBA on TNT ads that begins with Scalabrine dribbling against some spiritual cousin—Shelden Williams? Brian Cardinal? Eduardo Najera?—while the text drapes over the screen: “A man and the ball, doing work.”


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