- Nick Friedell, ESPN Staff Writer
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DEERFIELD, Ill. -- It's just before 3 p.m. on a bitterly cold January day and I have just pulled into a hotel parking lot looking for a folk hero.
Brian Scalabrine may not be the richest player in the NBA, but he is certainly one of the most popular. Every time he enters a game, no matter what city he's in, fans go insane. They chant his name until Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau relents and sends the veteran forward into the game. Scalabrine knows that fans love him, but even he struggles with all the hype. After all, he just wants to be considered a solid pro. He doesn't understand why he is viewed so differently.
"What's funny is the perception of myself is clearly different than when I'm out and about," Scalabrine said. "My perception of myself is, I don't believe I'm the 12th man, the 13th man, the 15th man on a team. I believe that I'm a good basketball player that can go out there and play. Now, I'm not unrealistic. I know right now there are four bigs that are all better than me. I'm not unrealistic in that. But when I wake up on a gameday, I feel like I'm playing that day.
"And if something happens, I'm going to play 40 minutes, I've got to be ready to play 40 minutes. This happened to me in the past. I played big minutes and I had to keep playing and playing and playing. And you have to be ready for that. You can't just, because you're not playing, not work. I work every day like I'm going to be playing basketball for 44 minutes a night."
He doesn't have to worry about that on this day because his Bulls have the day off. Dressed in a white hoodie and jeans, and carrying a hot chocolate and a big computer case over his shoulder, the 6-9, 235-pounder throws the big black case into the back and hops into my car. We're off to run some errands.
How did we get here?
Scalabrine, who makes his offseason home outside of Seattle, doesn't have a car with him at the moment. He lives in a hotel in Deerfield, Ill. If he needs a lift he usually just gets one from Erik Helland, the Bulls' strength and conditioning coach, or one of his teammates. The only reason I've been pressed into service is because I asked Scalabrine to go on the "Waddle and Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000. He said he would if I would drive him around the next day. I said no problem, as long as I could write about the proceedings. I want to know what it's like being around the White Mamba for a day. I want to see how he gets treated by an adoring public.
Our first stop is to the Apple Store in Northbrook Court. After several years of use, Scalabrine fears that his hard drive may be fried.
"Computer crashed," he said. "It was just a matter of time. Enough is enough. It tapped out."
The day gets off to a good start considering we find the closest parking spot to the front door. As the car pulls out of its spot and we slide in, Scalabrine can't help but smile.
"It's our lucky day," he said. "The [expletive] Mamba."
We walk into the mall and into the store. As soon as Scalabrine sets foot into the trendy computer haven, almost everyone takes notice.
"The White Mamba," one teenager said to his friends, as if he's just seen the Loch Ness Monster or another mythical creature.
Scalabrine heads to the front in hopes that he's not too late to re-arrange his appointment that was well over an hour ago. He is stopped by an Apple employee.
"What's the name?" the middle aged man said.
"Scalabrine," he responds, without a hint of arrogance. "Brian Scalabrine."
It becomes obvious very quickly that in a store full of people who know exactly who Scalabrine is, this man doesn't have a clue. He asks Scalabrine when his appointment is for and when Scalabrine said it was for 1:45, the middle-aged man said he won't be able to help the Mamba until 10:30 at the earliest.
Scalabrine can't believe what he is hearing.
"This is what happens when Kyle Korver goes over his massage [time]," he said, just shaking his head.
Scalabrine debates whether he should just leave the computer and come back for it in a couple of days. But then a stroke of luck happens for the big man. A "Genius" comes from the back of the store and asks for a picture. Scalabrine happily obliges.
"You have any power to move me to the front?" he asks.
Within minutes, there are two Apple employees standing at the front with Scalabrine.
"It's good to be the Mamba!" Scalabrine exclaims.
The group opens up the computer only to find steak sauce on one of the keys.
Scalabrine, who repeatedly talks about how much his misses his wife and two young daughters, explains that he is living the type of life that any college kid can appreciate. Sometimes he just sits in front of the television or the computer, eats in his boxers, and watches movies or basketball games.
"I keep it in super perspective," he said later about the type of star studded life the general public believes that he leads. "I don't even have a car, so 99 percent of the time I'm either traveling on the road or in a hotel room. Tonight would have been no different. If my computer didn't break, I wouldn't have came to the mall. I would have just sat at home and watched movies. Maybe went back to the facilities, shoot, maybe go in the steam room. It's a simplified life that I live and sometimes it's good to get a break from the hustle and bustle of normal life."
Don't let him fool you, though, normal life suits Scalabrine just fine. He enjoys talking to people and his ability to communicate with everyone, from all walks of life, is on display all the time. After diagnosing the issue (the hard drive is, in fact, in danger), and explaining to Scalabrine that his computer would have to stay at the store for a couple of days, Moorad, the young 'Genius' behind the counter admits something to one of his favorite players.
"I waited on Derrick Rose for 45 minutes and didn't even think about asking for a picture," he tells Scalabrine.
A few moments later, the White Mamba is taking a picture with Moorad in front of the bar.
As we walk out of the store, Scalabrine signs a couple more autographs, taking his popularity in stride. There's no doubt he enjoys being loved, but he doesn't want all the adulation to define him.
"The only thing that I don't like about [the popularity] is the individualism," he said. "I'm just not an individual guy. Like I don't think if I make a pass to Jimmy Butler and he scores a layup that that's a bad thing. I don't think if I make a pass to Omer [Asik] and he scores, that's a bad thing."
We head into Teavana next, a tea store in the middle of the mall, in which Scalabrine has become close to the older woman who manages the store. He swears by the mixes of tea she has put together for him in the past. He trusts she would brew him up something good.
When we walk in and we're told the woman no longer works there, Scalabrine can't believe it.
"She left without telling me?" he said.
After a few minutes of conversation with the current employees, Scalabrine decides he doesn't want to get any tea on this day. The woman behind the counter tries to change his mind, showing him all kinds of new concoctions she has put together with all the different leaves and herbs, but he's not budging.
"You don't want to be the rebound tea lady, do you?"
With that, we are on to our next stop. Lunch at California Pizza Kitchen.
Scalabrine orders the pork tacos, I grab a Barbeque Chicken Pizza. And we start talking about what life is like for him as "The White Mamba."
"Normally it's pretty easy, I just do my own thing," he said. "But I think being the Mamba helped today. Being in the Genius Bar, the guy [at] first blew me off, said I don't have an appointment today. A couple eye contacts, pictures, Boom! The computer's getting fixed. I have to admit, those type of things are nice. But they don't change my life. I'm still a normal guy that just happens to get special treatment at the Apple store."
Scalabrine admits that the only people who truly get to see him as Brian are his family. Being the "White Mamba" is fun, but he's not the same guy when he's with them.
"Brian doesn't really exist," he said after finishing up the tacos. "Brian's only really at home with my wife and kids."
That wife and those kids are the ones the 33-year-old misses the most. They're coming back to town in a week and he's excited to see them again.
"I think the biggest thing is just missing my kids," he said. "Besides that, I really enjoy my life. I think it's a phenomenal way for me to live. No responsibility. Practice, games, train, recover. Like tonight when I'm done I'm going to jump in the hot tub, cold tub. Hot tub, cold tub. Just because I can and it's there. I don't have any other obligations. My family's going to come in a week. My obligations are to my team and to them. Right now my obligations are only to my team."
With that, we get back into the car for our last stop: The Verizon Store.
Since heading over to Europe to play in the summer, Scalabrine has been carrying a phone that would have been cool in 1999. It's a small silver flip phone with an antenna on top that looks as outdated as it sounds. To Scalabrine, the phone is filled with memories.
"This phone represents Europe," he said wistfully. "When I see this phone, I think of Europe."
When we enter the Verizon store, yet again, everything stops for a moment as the big red head walks in.
"Can you guys help me?" he said to one of the salespeople. "It might be complex."
Scalabrine wants to transfer all his contacts from the old phone to a blackberry his agent gave him. The staff doesn't think this will be much of a problem, but first they have a request for him. The manager of the store walks him to the back and into an employees only area. He explains that he asks every Bull who steps through the doors to sign a big sign hanging in the room.
Scalabrine looks at some of the signatures from his other teammates and then happily scratches out his name with a special addendum underneath. Brian Scalabrine "The White Mamba."
As Scalabrine walks back to the front, he is greeted with handshakes and well wishes from employees and customers. While one staff member works on his phone, four more stand around with a few customers and pepper him with questions about the team. He answers each one as if he's just shooting the breeze with his buddies.
The manager tells Scalabrine to come back whenever he wants and sign some autographs for the customers. Another man tells Scalabrine that he would gladly get his grandson out of school to come meet him.
"If you can't miss school to see the White Mamba, what can you miss school for?"
Everyone laughs, including Scalabrine.
As usual, Scalabrine is trying to make everybody smile. After all, it's the same thing he tries to do every night when he actually gets into a game.
"I do become a little bit more aggressive to score, to give the fans what they want," he admits. "But on the other hand, I'm still going to try and play basketball the right way. And this thing is getting blown up to a higher level with SportsCenter playing every one of my buckets. No one wants to be the guy that the White Mamba scores on. So these guys are playing defense on me like it's Game 7 of the NBA Finals. It's something you've got to get used to."
After spending the afternoon with Scalabrine, it's clear that while he enjoys playing the role of the "White Mamba," he enjoys just being Brian sometimes, too. He knows that he is living a charmed life in the NBA and he wants to continue to take advantage of every second of it.