SCOTT HASTINGS LEAVES US LAUGHING

I never got to say good-bye to Scott Hastings. Neither did anyone else around here. He was traded a few weeks ago, to Denver of all places. Jack McCloskey, who moves the pieces on the Pistons’ board, made the deal, then telephoned Hastings in Atlanta, where he lives in the off-season. “Hello, Scott?” Jack said, and Hastings acted surprised, like he was hearing from an old college buddy. “Hey! Jack! What’s up?” And Jack chuckled and said, “Come on. You know what’s up.”

So even in the worst moment, Hastings got a laugh. And that seems fitting. In his two years with the Pistons, Hastings, 31, laughed just about everywhere he went, on the court, on the bench, at the airport, in a Boston bar at 1 a.m.

I ran into him there, during the playoffs. Hastings was all sweaty. He was not drunk. He was leading a karaoke singing contest.

“Hey!” he croaked when he saw me, running over with a microphone in his hand, “you gotta come up here! We just did Elvis’ ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’ Awesome!”

That was Hastings. If there was a weird place, or a strange crowd, he found it. He had fun. He laughed. He never seemed to mind that he was last on the totem pole, the 12th man on a 12- man basketball team. “My job,” he would say, deadpan, “is basically to get stiff for two hours. And I understand that.”

And no one ever got stiff like Scott Hastings. Instead of whining about playing time or demanding a trade, he invented games to make the idle time pass. He would trick fans into buying him popcorn during the game, then hide it under the bench. He and David Greenwood wore rubber bands on their wrists,

so that, during slow moments, they could snap each other’s elastic and yell
“WAKE UP!” During 20-second time-outs, Hastings and Greenwood would quickly circle their teammates, tap each of them on the butt, then return to their seats and grin.

It was a race. He was a running gag

I remember the night Hastings spoke at a charity roast of his coach, Chuck Daly. He began by saying there was someone in the room he’d always wanted to meet, and, if the crowd didn’t mind, it would only take second. Then he turned to Daly, held out his hand and said, “Chuck? My name’s Scott Hastings. Damn glad to meet you.”

He joked so much about his playing time — or lack thereof — that it became a citywide chuckle. Fans would roar when he pulled off his sweats. The rare times he actually got in a game, his benchmates would yell, “Get the ball to Scottie!” then urge him to shoot before the buzzer. Of course, this was usually when the Pistons were ahead by 30 points.

It was funny. It was cute. But no one ever thought about how hard it was for Hastings. Remember, for every 12th man in the NBA, there is a 13th and 14th and 15th man who didn’t make the cut. And hundreds beyond them, and thousands beyond them. The fact is, every fellow like Hastings who sits on an NBA bench is still an amazing player, certainly the biggest star in his high school, and most likely in his college. Can you imagine reaching the top of your profession — the top one percent of your field — and being seen, mostly, as a joke?

“I guess I’m the player the average fan can relate to,” Hastings said when I called him this week. “They’ll put that on my tombstone: ‘Scott Hastings. We Could Relate To Him.’ ” Tough to be 12th

I asked whether people appreciated the difficulty of being the last guy on the bench.

“Well,” he said, “people do forget only a select few ever make the NBA, let alone play for years. In that respect I guess I’ve done something OK.

“Personally, I feel there’s some value to being a 12th man. I mean, a 12th man can destroy the chemistry of a team as easily as a star. If I’m the general manager I want to be sure my 12th man doesn’t have a bad attitude.

“I always felt if I was taking a paycheck, then I owed the team something. Work hard in practice. Cheerlead for the starters. I never rooted for the starters to foul out, because my biggest fear was that they’d put Vinnie Johnson in at power forward before me.”

Hastings said he had a good time here, and now, hopefully, he will have a good time in Denver. This will be his fifth team in nine years, but he looked at the trade this way: It wasn’t that the Pistons didn’t want him, but that some other team did.

I asked whether he had any regrets.

“Regrets?” he said, and then he began to sing, “I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mennntion . . . “

As a sports writer, you’re not supposed to like the athletes. Keep a distance. Stay professional. Sometimes, that just doesn’t work. I thought about the popcorn, the rubber bands, that night in Boston, Hastings running over with the microphone, and I listened to him sing now on the phone. I told him I would miss him, and for once, he didn’t laugh. I thought that was nice.

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