Favorites of the fans

Updated: February 6, 2004, 10:04 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

You have All-Star starters selected by the fans. You have All-Star reserves chosen by the coaches. You have All-Star snubees who are passed over by the fans and coaches.

Then you have every ESPN analyst, from every different ESPN platform, telling you who should and shouldn't belong to each of those subsets.

So maybe it's time for a little break.

It seems a fine time to devote a little cyberspace to players who aren't All-Stars, whose names don't even appear on the All-Star ballot, but whose popularity -- in their cities, at least -- can't be debated.

This is a Stein Line that belongs to the league's Cult Heroes.

Guards

Walter McCarty
McCarty
Walter McCarty. I could try to explain the city of Boston's I Love Waltah phenomenon, but why settle for a second-hand interpretation when you can go directly to the legend responsible for McCarty's special slice of Celtics lore? "Why I got involved with Walter, to begin with he was such a breath of fresh air," Tommy Heinsohn recalls. "He just let it all hang out when he joined the Celtics. He brought a freshness and vitality to looking at the team. (Bob) Cousy, who is a purist, didn't take to Walter right away, (because) he's 6-(foot-)10 and a skinny guy, the whole bit. But Walter, up in Toronto, made a three to win the game, and we were doing the broadcast. Cousy says, 'I think I'm getting to love Walter.' I said: 'It's too late to join the Walter McCarty Fan Club right now. If you want to join, it's 25 dollars. Everyone else can get in for free, but you have to pay 25 dollars.' Well, all of a sudden, everyone starts e-mailing the station (and) asking how they can join the Walter McCarty Fan Club. So I get on the air a couple games down the road and say: 'Cousy is the only one who has to pay. Everybody else, all you've got to do, after every game, is throw open your window and yell, 'I Love Walter!' ' A couple weeks go by and they start getting e-mails from mothers in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire (that say), 'Will you please stop telling my kids to throw open the window and shout 'I Love Walter?' ' Kids were actually doing it. I go out and speak now the first thing I say is, 'I Love Walter!' Things have not always gone well for Walter here, but what I saw in Walter is this unbridled enthusiasm and energy. I compared him to the Energizer Bunny. It's not that he attained any greatness as a player per se, but he had the stuff of all the great Celtics. The attitude." In other words ... put Heinsohn at the top of the list of Bostonians who were relieved when Cleveland insisted on Kedrick Brown instead of Waltuh in the Ricky Davis trade.

Earl Boykins
Boykins
Earl Boykins. Six teams, eight contracts and one constant: Boykins is loved wherever he goes. It's one of the few advantages a 5-5 basketball player can claim. The other big one, in this case, is speed, which Boykins has married with a deadly shooting touch inside the 3-point arc. The additions of Carmelo Anthony and Andre Miller have unquestionably transformed the Denver Nuggets, but don't overlook Boykins, who's contending for the Sixth Man Award for the second straight season as a dangerous change-of-pace option off the Nuggets' suddenly productive bench. "Speed is the hardest thing to defend in any sport," Boykins said. "And teams can't prepare for it because most teams don't have anyone as fast as me. Speed and knowledge of the game, I think they go hand in hand." Which explains the biggest difference between the Boykins seen this season and last season in Golden State compared to the little novelty act who kept bouncing from team to team. Boykins used to overdribble, constantly searching for his own shot. He's playing a more sensible game now, using the speed to torment bigger defenders, mainly because he has a better feel for when to pass or stop abruptly for a mid-range jumper. As a result, Boykins recent clinched the security of a five-year contract with Denver worth nearly $14 million, finally setting him to approach the longevity -- and bask in the inevitable fan worship -- that belonged to predecessors Spud Webb (12 seasons built on athleticism that belied his 5-7 frame) and Muggsy Bogues (14 seasons as a trusty 5-3 floor general).

Forwards

Brian Cardinal
Cardinal
Brian Cardinal. The Custodian, as he is known, might be able to claim more satisfaction than anyone on this squad. In his first three NBA seasons, Cardinal logged a total of 184 minutes. He was the last player invited to Golden State's training camp. If not for a slew of frontcourt injuries, it's debatable whether Cardinal would have made the Warriors' Opening Night roster. Now look. He's averaging 9.4 points per game on 47-percent shooting, securing a rotation spot for the first time as a pro. "It's just nice to feel appreciated," Cardinal said. "It's just nice to feel welcomed. It's great to be on an NBA team. It's even better to be contributing. And it's icing on the cake for fans to enjoy you. I think a lot of fans kind of relate to me, being kind of a blue-collar guy. I think that's what fans want to see. And I think my teammates have bought in to what I bring to the table." Deep into his senior season at Purdue, where he was known as Citizen Pain for his collection of knee pads and floor burns, Cardinal wasn't even thinking about pro basketball. He attended a few job workshops and interviewed with two pharmaceutical companies. Cardinal then earned some 11th-hour notice at a couple pre-draft camps and wound up going to Detroit with the No. 44 overall pick in the 2000 draft. He barely played for the Pistons, but Cardinal didn't leave Motown with nothing. "Jerome Williams, after a practice, he said, 'BC, you've got to have a nickname, you've got to have something,' " Cardinal recalled. "Then he said: 'You know what, you're The Custodian. You're Brian The Custodian Cardinal.' It kind of died down after my first year, but this year I think somebody did a little research." There were indeed more than a few Who Is This Guy reactions in November, but not any more. You don't have to look him up anymore, because Cardinal is the most famous Custodian in sports.

Brian Scalabrine
Scalabrine
Brian Scalabrine. An unlikely Jersey legend was born during the 2001-02 season, when Scalabrine was a rookie. Mike O'Koren, then a Nets assistant, was having dinner at an Italian restaurant and ordered veal scallopine. Starting the next day at practice, after O'Koren's light-bulb moment, the first-year forward from the University of Southern California would be known as Veal Scalabrine. "The players started out calling me 'Veal Chop,' because when I first started I kind of played reckless -- and fouled people with a chop," Scalabrine said. "I'm not Veal Chop anymore. I'm just Veal." He's also even more popular with folks who can claim to be regular visitors to Continental Airlines Arena, where it's not uncommon to hear a SCAL-UH-BREE-KNEE chant if the Nets are up big and the big redhead isn't in the game. "It could have been a lot worse," Scalabrine said. "They could have been booing me." Even more satisfying for Scalabrine, in his third season now, is that he's more than a garbage-time specialist throw-in to appease the chanting masses in a blowout. He has played in 37 of the Nets' 46 games and has worked his way up to a 14-minute average off the bench. "I don't feel like I'm the fan favorite who never gets to play," he said. "... (But) it's a lot of pressure. Staying (popular) is hard." Of course, the curly red locks make it a little easier, judging by the masses who beg for Scalabrine's autograph on the night we spoke, about an hour before the Nets beat Miami on Wednesday. Right, Veal? Is it the hair? "Maybe," he said with a smile.

Center

Luke Walton
Walton
Luke Walton. He's a center in family name only, true, but space had to be made on the squad for this cult up-and-comer. One of the shocks of Laker training camp, at least to me as a courtside spectator at the University of Hawaii, was how this Walton could consistently generate a "LUUUUUUUKE" roar just by catching the ball. Fans embraced him instantly and often begged LUUUUUUUKE to SHOOOOOOOT more. Walton's growing fan base now includes Shaquille O'Neal, which is no small feat given Shaq's occasionally contentious history with Walton's father, Bill. But that's how good a passer Luke is, and that ability to move the ball cushioned the disappointment he felt after slipping to the second round of last June's draft. Landing with the Lakers, in Phil Jackson's triangle offense, couldn't have been more ideal. Which O'Neal confirmed the other night when he said, in a new spin on Shaq's longstanding complaints about not getting enough touches: "Some of the guys on our team need to learn from Luke."

Sixth Man

Mark Madsen
Madsen
Mark Madsen. Let's face it. There are two reasons why lots of neutrals would love to see the Minnesota Timberwolves go on a playoff run. Besides the fact you can't help but root for the end of Kevin Garnett's suffering, you can also admit, deep down, that you're curious to see what kind of dance Madsen will bust out if the Wolves finally reach Round 2. Or beyond. Leaving the Lakers, incidentally, hasn't hurt Madsen's status as a man of the people. He's proving just as well-liked in the Twin Cities, where Madsen combines with Gary Trent, Fred "The Mayor" Hoiberg and recent signee Oliver Miller to give the Wolves maybe the best bench they've ever had. It's certainly the most energetic bench, and the contributions Madsen and Co. (don't forget stopper Trenton Hassell, either) have helped Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell survive the long-term injury absences of Wally Szczerbiak, Troy Hudson and Michael Olowokandi.

Honorable mention

In alphabetical order ...
  • Rafer Alston. Better known by his And 1 street handle of Skip To My Lou. Yet even though his mom has taken to calling him Skip, Alston is trying to re-establish himself as Rafer. The challenge there, obviously, is sticking in the NBA as a backup point guard, and Alston (in Miami) is on his third team.

  • Chris Andersen. His presence in the dunk contest speaks to his cult popularity.

  • Manu Ginobili. A little too mainstream for this group, but you have to like the way Chuckster Barkley screams "GIN-OH-BLEE" every Thursday night.

  • Eddie Najera. Injuries have rendered Dallas' lone grit guy mostly inactive this season, but he's loved to the point in Big D that Mavericks coach Don Nelson speaks of him like a son. The proof: Nelson became a devotee of Tejano music after Najera joined the club.

  • Moochie Norris. Before the trade to New York, when his hair was everywhere, you'd have struggled to find a Rocket more popular. That includes Steve Francis and Yao Ming, who have both been voted in as All-Star starters for two years running.

    Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

    Marc Stein | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN.com
    • Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
    • Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
    • Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics