Pro Leagues

Sideline Hustler: The Story of an NBA benchwarmer

The NBA runs on the star power of individuals. Like Beyonce or Madonna, the greats earn their way to a first-name basis with the rest of the world; Kobe, LeBron, Magic. But what about the rest of the league? Jimmy Ness talks to Laker fan favourite Robert Sacre about the pressure, and the pleasure, that comes with sitting on the other end of the bench.

We know all about the life of NBA stars. The elite flourish through sneaker deals, blank cheques and viral Tik-Toks. But what about the low-key lane? The career unseen by Netflix and not canonized by championship rings. There are 450 ballers in a season; they can’t all be Lebron. Every star needs support. Every team needs a bench. Being the 15th man ain’t easy. You gotta withstand critics, the disrespect, the struggle for your five minutes of game time. Sometimes an NBA trajectory is less rocket; more helicopter. You’ve hit the competitive ceiling, now you gotta fight to stay there. 

Former Laker Robert Sacre knows the struggle. Despite audience “MVP” chants at the free-throw line, Sacre was never an NBA Champion. There was no parade when he quit, no bronze statue cast, no jersey retired. Robert had limited minutes, never averaged over six points and was in the starting line-up just once during his final year. 

Surprisingly, Bobby’s grateful for his good fortune. Think about it. Being an NBA bench-sitter is still the best job in the world. A million dollars to train with the basketball pantheon? Sign me up. During four seasons, Robert even developed a “cool relationship” with Kobe (RIP.) He’s a lucky guy. It didn’t come easy though. 

Despite a lifetime of training, the lofty center barely skirted through. He was chosen 60th in the 2012 draft. You’d think a national star plus the son of an NFL player and a college basketballer, would be a shoo-in. But Sacre’s cognizant of how rare it is to ball with the greats. 

“Man, I’m blessed,” he stresses. “You’ve gotta have that mindset, no matter what. I learned a lot going in the NBA, even though I wasn’t always playing, just talking with hall-of-famers.”

“I had Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace, Steve Blake, Carlos Boozer, I could go on about guys I’ve played with. All these guys and I’m just thinking to myself, what an opportunity. What a great time to learn stuff about basketball. Ed Davis, another one that I learned a lot from; he’s still playing and he’s just a great mentor in the league. I look at all of that and I’m happy to say I had a great experience in my career.” 

Rob’s admittedly a different breed. He’s a glass half-full guy. His stats should be measured in morale, not triple-doubles. Fans have created YouTube tributes to his celebratory range. Anytime a player scored, he’d catch the holy-ghost like a Mississippi preacher. Sacre would flail his 7ft anatomy, finger-gun the entire Staples Centre or scream his vocal cords into dust. You have to admire his enthusiasm. Now 30, Bobby’s still a people magnet. He’s not sure why, but he appreciates the credit. 

“It was cool that I got love like that, you know. No matter what, I don’t know what it is, but I always get it. It always comes to me. I don’t know why, I don’t ask for it, it just falls in my lap and I’ll run with it.”

It’s not all high-fives and handshakes though; being a cool dude doesn’t fully divert criticism. After all, Sacre was enlisted into a top 5 franchise. You gotta earn that purple and yellow. 

In a 2013 interview, DJ Big Boy quips: “you spent so much time sitting down; I barely recognized you standing up.” Sacre barely hears the shade. He’s weathered years of scrutiny. 

“[The comments on] social media and all that? That shit is trash. I get it, it’s a part of the lifestyle now of where we’re at and everything, but at the same time I had to delete my Twitter and Instagram sometimes, just to be normal again.” 

“If I’m going to take shit personally, then who am I? The whole thing is, you can look for a positive and there’s only two ways of looking at anything.”  

We perceive the pros in extremes. You’re either the GOAT or trash. We’ve all imagined dropping dimes on lowly practice players. Gym court grinders think they can step to the salaried at a hat-drop. Robert welcomes any challenge. “Let’s put a thousand on it,” he asserts. 

Sacre’s easy smile obscures mental focus. The Gonzaga college alumni broke his foot twice during his sophomore year, leaving his career on a cliff-edge. Robert earned his first NBA stripes carrying team-mate luggage. He was demoted to the G League thrice during his first season. The pressure shadowed every NBA performance. Bobby has compared the psyche of an elite team to a prison mindset. You’ve gotta sweat for your position, or you’ll get trampled. 

“The biggest book I read that really got me turning the gears in my head was The Power of Now by Ekhart Tolle. That really put me in the perspective of; okay, as of right now I don’t know what’s happening but all I can control is this moment. If I can just control this, and work hard and bring positive energy, whatever else is around it will get better, Robert muses. 

“Obviously, it can be frustrating as a competitor, there are times where your human nature wants to kick in and you’ve really gotta fight that. You’ve got to fight that desire to be bitchy, and complain all the time.”  

A lot of what bench players do isn’t promoted. It doesn’t make for sexy highlights or sponsorships. There’s no trophy for sacrificing personal glory, nailing defensive strategy or increasing player rotation. Famed locker-room antics aside, Sacre took his role seriously. When he struggled on-court, he fixated on being a good teammate. A quote from icon Bill Russell comes to mind. “I always thought that the most important measure of how good a game I played was how much better I made my teammates play.”

Sacre advises others to think the same. His time with the Lakers were some of their roughest years. They lost a lot. Kobe and Steve Nash were near retirement, Dwight Howard wasn’t a particularly good fit. 

“That was the hardest part, trying to be positive, especially for teammates. I’m not playing, so I’m going to have to be positive for somebody else,” he affirms. 

“It’s harder to be a 15th man on a losing team, than a 15th man on a winning team. If you’re the 15th man on a losing team, it’s about stats and numbers and trying to get yours [because scouts are looking at you]. A 15th man on a winning team… what you do can contribute to winning a championship. You’re going into the game and maybe scoring two points, you’re doing a good job on defence in the playoffs, and that’s all that matters.”  

The NBA bench isn’t a free courtside seat. Athletes are constantly primed to prove themselves. Role players match minutes in the gym, but not on the court. They share in team pressure, but receive little of the prestige. Injuries, bad luck, chemistry, it can all derail a career. These are the stakes when you’re in the 1% of college players to hit the big time. 

An average NBA career is 4.5 years with multiple placements. Bobby did his quarter on one roster. He credits his upbeat nature for keeping him in Laker-land. A consummate teammate, Sacre’s kinetic outbursts were genuine; not for clout. 

Robert peaced out in 2016 and played three seasons in Japan where he was again a fan favourite. On his retirement, the press release read “Sacre, who thought about the team more than anyone, and who cherished all the people related to Sunrockers Shibuya … has made a careful decision. We at the Sunrockers were lucky.” 

A top underdog, you gotta love him.