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Brian Scalabrine’s unlikely path from Celtics’ benchwarmer to broadcaster

The affable ‘Scal’ was a fan favorite when he played for the team, and now he gets to run his mouth talking basketball as a broadcaster.

Brian Scalabrine, now a color analyst on NBC Sports Boston, was a fan favorite when he played for the Celtics from 2005 until 2010.
Webb chappell for the boston globe
Brian Scalabrine, now a color analyst on NBC Sports Boston, was a fan favorite when he played for the Celtics from 2005 until 2010.

The former stars were out when the new Big3 pro basketball league, a showcase for ex-NBA players, rolled into the TD Garden in August. The rapper Ice Cube, who cofounded the event, was sitting courtside. On the sidelines, one of the coaches, Julius Erving — the great Dr. J — looked dashing in a tan suit.

A lumbering redhead on the team called the Ball Hogs grabbed an uncontested rebound and put back an easy layup, and the Big3 hype man shouted into his microphone, “Where my Mamba fans at?”

That’s shorthand for the “White Mamba,” Brian Scalabrine’s tongue-in-cheek nickname (the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant called himself the “Black Mamba”). The affable “Scal” was a fan favorite when he played for the Celtics from 2005 until 2010, a modest player who spent quite a bit of his NBA career cheerleading from the bench. Boston fans would start clamoring “SCAL-a-BREE-nee!” when another game was in the bag and it was time to bring in the enthusiastic mop-up guy. Scalabrine won a championship with the Celtics in 2008, when the team beat the Lakers in six games — without playing a single minute in the series. But he was nonetheless trotted out for the televised post-game press conference, during which he turned the table on the assembled reporters, asking them why they projected the Lakers to win. “I have questions for you guys,” Scalabrine said.

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In recent years, the 40-year-old Scalabrine has developed a post-career cult following as a rising TV star, a color analyst on NBC Sports Boston’s Celtics broadcasts who’s being groomed as the next Tommy Heinsohn, the beloved celebrity announcer who bleeds Celtics green. In some ways, the two men couldn’t be more different. Heinsohn, 84, a Hall of Fame player and coach who was named to several All-Star teams during his career, is gruff and sometimes blunt, compared with his younger colleague’s eager demeanor.

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Just as Scalabrine was surrounded by first-rate talent as a player, he knows he has lucked his way into an ideal second career. “These jobs don’t come available that often,” he says.

A commentator should make the game fun for casual fans as well as diehards, and shouldn’t try to be “the Albert Einstein of basketball,” Heinsohn says. And he thinks Scalabrine is learning that lesson. “I know he’s going to have a future in it,” Heinsohn says.

THAT CHAMPIONSHIP PRESS CONFERENCE

With all the talent the Celtics have amassed — with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back from injuries, and Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum both poised for stardom — Scalabrine is as impatient as any fan for the opening tip-off. A few weeks after the conclusion of the Big3 season, the big fella bursts into the warehouse office space of ISlide, a maker of custom athletic sandals, in Hyde Park. He became friends with founder Justin Kittredge after the company launched a White Mamba line of slides. On a half-court in the office, Kittredge hosts a Saturday morning group for some pickup basketball. One of the guys is the top scorer for Worcester’s new American Basketball Association team; another works for the Celtics in community engagement. It’s not yet 8 a.m., and already Scalabrine has launched his customary fusillade of good-natured disses.

“Tie your shoes!” he barks at 5-year-old Ryder, the youngest of his three children, who is tagging along this morning, as rapper Kendrick Lamar’s insistent voice blares from a boombox. “Oh, wait, you don’t know how to tie your shoes.”

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Scalabrine folds his bulky 6-foot-9 frame to tie his son’s laces.

After his NBA career ended in 2012, Scalabrine was offered a trial run as an analyst on Celtics broadcasts. He left the following year for a brief stint as an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors, but then rejoined the Celtics broadcast team with hopes of a long-term relationship. Coaching would have kept him away from home too much, he says.

“I couldn’t imagine not being around them day in and day out,” he says of his wife and children.

So he began to work in earnest on his new game: running his mouth. “You need to ask yourself: Can I say this in three to seven seconds?” he says.

He loves to pick Heinsohn’s brain during pregame dinners, but he’s not sure what the veteran broadcaster thinks of him as his eventual replacement just yet.

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“I don’t think he looks at me like that,” Scalabrine says. “I think he looks at me like, ‘Scal is going to do anything I don’t want to do’ — and that’s great!”

But fellow Celtics commentator Mike Gorman, one of the most respected play-by-play announcers in the business, says he recognized his junior partner’s potential to be a very good broadcaster even back during his playing days.

“He’s a rare combination of being a natural and also a student,” Gorman says.

Scalabrine grew up talking a fierce amount of smack in the gym, and he’s not about to stop now. His on-air relationship with studio anchor Kyle Draper often lapses into comic put-downs.

“Kyle is incredible at keeping the train moving,” he says. “He handles it brilliantly. I can make fun of him left and right, and he can give it back and still keep the show on track.”

Scalabrine grabs a rebound against Cuttino Mobley during Big3 three-on-three basketball league play in Duluth, Georgia.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Scalabrine grabs a rebound against Cuttino Mobley during Big3 three-on-three basketball league play in Duluth, Georgia.

For all of his bluster, Scalabrine appears genuinely interested in everyone he meets. At the Saturday morning game, he praises a young man he’s just played against for the first time, a former player from Division 3 Endicott College named Stephen Basden.

Scalabrine invites him to join another weekly pickup game, where the competition is top shelf. “My Monday night league is legit,” he says, loudly. “I lost the other night!”

Says Gorman: “You have to be in a room with Scal to truly understand the kind of magnetism he has.

“When he meets people, he looks them in the eye. He understands there’s this persona who is ‘Scal.’ It’s almost like the bigger the crowd gets, the bigger ‘Scal’ becomes.”

No true Celtics fan is in a hurry to see Heinsohn replaced. “I hope Tommy shows up until he’s 100,” says Gorman. “He’s going on something like 60 years with the same franchise, which is crazy.”

For now, Scalabrine is happy to take a seat down the bench from one of the all-time greats.

James Sullivan is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.