Regular People Keep Challenging N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. Players

on Apr20
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Of the millions of people around the world who play basketball, fewer than 500 are in the N.B.A. at any given time. Fewer than 150 are in the W.N.B.A. Before retiring in 2012, Brian Scalabrine spent 11 seasons in the N.B.A., far more than the majority of players who have made it to that level. He won a championship as a reserve for the Boston Celtics in 2008. He is 6-foot-9 and roughly 250 pounds.

Yet strangers cannot seem to stop challenging Scalabrine to one-on-one games. Last month, a video that went viral showed Scalabrine being challenged at a gym by an overeager high schooler in Taunton, Mass. Scalabrine, playing the teenager for a pair of sneakers, beat him 11-0.

Scalabrine, who averaged 3.1 points per game for his career, said this happens to him regularly, and conversations with other unheralded former players revealed that it’s the same for them. By his own account, Scalabrine, 43, looked “pudgy on television compared to some of the best athletes in the world” and wasn’t known as much of a rebounder or scorer.

Even so, Scalabrine survived in the league by developing a reputation for rarely making mistakes, being versatile on defense and shooting the 3.

“Being a white N.B.A. player from the suburbs, I have to level up,” said Scalabrine, who is from Long Beach, Calif., and was often referred to as the White Mamba, a play on Kobe Bryant’s Black Mamba nickname.

“People don’t understand how a little bit nuts you have to be to sustain an N.B.A. career,” Scalabrine said. “Especially when you’re not that talented. You have to be ready. You have to be up for the fight. You have to be like that every day. And if you’re not, you lose your livelihood.”

Scalabrine has, to some degree, invited the ongoing challenges. Shortly after retiring, he took part in a Boston radio station’s “Scallenges” promotion in which top local players played him one on one. Scalabrine won every game by a large margin.

Of course, even the top players in the N.B.A. get challenged, often at youth camps they run. Those clips go viral as well, with the stars gleefully blocking shots of children and teenagers several feet shorter than them. Rarely, the challenger will win, as in 2003, when John Rogers, who was then the 45-year-old chief executive of an investment firm, beat the recently retired Michael Jordan in a game of one on one at Jordan’s camp after Jordan had beaten 20 other people in a row.

But for players who aren’t, or weren’t, the face of a franchise, they get challenged in a different way, as Michael Sweetney can attest. The former Knick, who played in the N.B.A. for four seasons from 2003 to 2007, said in an interview that he was challenged “all the time.” In fact, Sweetney, 38, said it happened just a few weeks ago by two former high school basketball players who happened to be at a gym in Florida where he was working out with children at a basketball camp.

“I guess they were thinking that since I was far removed and retired that, ‘Hey, I can probably challenge him,’” said Sweetney, who averaged 6.5 points a game in 233 games. “It was funny because they tried to catch me off guard.”

Sweetney added: “I was like: ‘I’m just letting you know, I’m not going to take it easy. You challenge me, it’s going to be competitive.’ It ended up being a situation like Scalabrine. I beat one like 11-2 and the other one was like 11-1.”

The two challengers were surprised, said Sweetney, who is now an assistant coach at Yeshiva University. It was another reminder: When a player makes the N.B.A., no matter for how long, he is, in that moment, one of the 500 best basketball players in the world.

“Yes, I’m removed,” Sweetney said. “I’m probably not in N.B.A. shape. But you still have talent and people just think if you’re not a superstar, they might have a chance against you.

“They don’t know that even the 15th guy on the bench is better than the average person walking down the street.”

Scalabrine, who is a television analyst for the Celtics, has taken pleasure in reminding the public of that. End-of-the-bench N.B.A. players may even have to work harder than stars to stay in the league because one missed assignment could be the difference between having a job or not.

“I can go into any gym right now and I can find some of the best players going through the motions sometimes,” Scalabrine said. “Can you imagine 15 straight years? Maybe even more like 17, 18 straight years of never going through the motions?”

He said professional athletes, even retired ones, have an extra gear that an average person cannot tap into. He referred to it as the “dark place.”

“I would always say things, like in a game, ‘If I miss this next shot, my kids are going to die,’” Scalabrine said. “I would say that to myself, just to get through, just to put the pressure so I can lock in and make the shot.”

Many W.N.B.A. teams bring in nonprofessional men to play against in practice, which Cheyenne Parker, a 28-year-old forward for the Atlanta Dream entering her seventh season, diplomatically described as “great competition” because “they are strong and fast.”

She added, with a laugh: “But skillwise? Yeah.”

Parker said she was challenged often — “especially being a tall woman.” She was playing pickup last month in Chicago, where she lives, when a cocky man started trash-talking her.

“We start the game and I get my first chance to touch the ball. I like to work on my moves during pickup so I do this nice little Kyrie move. I juked him real bad,” Parker said, referring to Kyrie Irving, the Nets star known for his ball-handling skills. “I scored it in his face. Everybody went, ‘Ohhh!’ It was funny.”

When asked why amateurs were so willing to challenge journeymen basketball players, Parker said: “The same reason why a guy that I would never, ever give a chance to, still has that confidence to come and approach me and ask for my number. You know? It’s the same type of confidence that these people have to even think that they can beat a professional.”

Adonal Foyle, who played in the N.B.A. from 1997 to 2009, mostly as a reserve for Golden State, said he has faced similar challenges in retirement when he goes home to the Caribbean. Basketball players are more likely to be challenged than other athletes, Foyle said, because they are more visible. They don’t wear masks while playing, and fans can sit courtside. But there’s also a misconception among amateurs that athleticism keeps players in the league, he said.

“Basketball players at the end of their career are like Chinese movies,” Foyle, 46, said. “You have this Silver Fox. He walks in and he looks like he’s the one from the grave. And then he starts doing karate. And you’re like: ‘Oh my goodness. I didn’t know he could do all that.’”

What Scalabrine referred to as “the dark place,” Foyle calls “the stupid gene” — the switch that professional athletes have when their competitiveness is tested.

“You go to the gym. You try to play with regular folks. You’re having a good time,” Foyle said. “Somebody tries to dunk over you. Immediately, you flip that switch of, ‘OK, you’re going down.’ To me, what I always worry about is not beating the other person. It is how much my body can take of this stupid gene.”

Foyle said he hasn’t played pickup basketball in seven years. Instead, he prefers racquetball, where he “gets beat by 75-year-olds who see themselves as geniuses.”

“Part of the reason for doing it is because I got hurt almost every time I went out and played pickup ball because of that stupid gene,” Foyle said. “You think you can do the things you did 15, 20 years ago and you can’t. You don’t get to turn that person off that has defined your life. I thought it was best not to enter the field.”

For Scalabrine, the reason he gets his skills continually questioned goes beyond the confidence of the challengers.

“Joakim Noah said it best,” Scalabrine said, referring to his former teammate on the Chicago Bulls. “He said, ‘Scal, you look like you suck, but you don’t suck.’”

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