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The Worst NBA Player Is Way Better Than You

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 22, 2021

Last month, a video of a high school kid challenging former NBA player Brian Scalabrine to a game of 1-on-1 went viral. Scalabrine, of course, won easily: 11-0. As this Sports Illustrated article about the video put it: “Even NBA benchwarmers are ungodly basketball players.”

The video is a reminder of just how much better pro athletes are than regular Joes. Scalabrine was not a good NBA player. Considering that he played 11 years in the league, it might not be fair to call him a bad NBA player, but he was certainly one of the least productive players in the league during his career. But even almost a decade removed from his last NBA season, he’s still capable of schooling (almost) any person who hasn’t played at least college basketball. Don’t be fooled by the red hair and the fact that he tucked his hoodie into his sweatpants.

Sopan Deb interviewed Scalabrine and a couple of other NBA & WNBA players to find out if these challenges are common, why they happen, and why they almost always end the same way.

“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 told another challenger years ago: “I’m closer to LeBron than you are to me”.

Gene Demby’s thread about the Scalabrine video is full of stories and videos of other former elite athletes easily besting all comers. This is a favorite:

I had a friend in high school who was at a camp & David Robinson showed up. My friend was feeling cocky after dunking on the Admiral twice. The Admiral told him he’d give him $1000 if he did it again. My friend walked away with a story about how he dunked on David Robinson twice.

A few years ago, WNBA player Devereaux Peters wrote about how these types of challenges are different when you’re a woman.

I’m a tall woman at 6-foot-2, and almost everywhere I go, people notice me. The first question is: Do you play basketball? When they find out I’m a professional player, some are just impressed and want to know more about the life of a pro athlete. Most of the men I talk to, though, ask me to play one-on-one.

If you’ve ever had that impulse, let me stop you here. I’m not going to play you one-on-one. I’m never going to play you one-on-one. I have been playing basketball my entire life, and for just as long I have been challenged by men who think they are better than me. I had to prove my skill in middle school against the boys who thought girls couldn’t play basketball. I had to prove my skill in high school when the guys’ egos were hurt because the girls basketball team was more successful and more popular than theirs. I had to prove it in college when grown men started challenging me to one-on-one games because there was no way this college woman was better than they were. Time and time again, I have trounced men — far too many to count. Now I have nothing to prove.

My kids and I have been discussing a related question recently: in which sport would it be easiest for a normal person with some athletic skills to score against or produce some kind of positive result against a professional player. For example: get a hit off of a major league pitcher, beat Steph Curry player 1-on-1, win a set (or even a point) against Serena, score a penalty shot in hockey, or score a rushing touchdown (or even survive the day) from the 5-yard line against an NFL team. That last one may not even be the right scenario, but you get the idea. The best answer we’ve come up with so far is scoring a penalty kick against a goalkeeper — I think if you gave a person who played soccer in high school 12-15 years ago 10 chances against a world-class keeper, I suspect they would score a few. Or perhaps that’s too easy of a challenge — after all, most penalty kicks succeed. Maybe the appropriate challenge would be to stop penalty shots from someone like Messi or Alex Morgan, surely a nearly impossible task.

Update: In 2018, BuzzFeed invited some normal folks to try scoring from the spot against MLS goalkeeper Tyler Miller. Admittedly Miller is not one of the best keepers in the world and who knows how hard he was really trying, but a few shots did get past him.

In Europe, where you’re much more likely to find folks on the street who grew up living & breathing soccer and can put the ball in the corners with some pace, I suspect the success rate would be higher, even against the likes of ter Stegen, Alisson, or Navas.