Near the end of the book Can I Keep My Jersey?, the author, Paul Shirley, has just been released from the Phoenix Suns for the second time and has no idea what he will do next. "I have been asked several times how I deal with this level of ignorance regarding my own future," Shirley writes. "I don't really have an answer, except to say that I am getting used to it."
That seemed to indicate Shirley might have finally had enough of schlepping around the world in search of marginal opportunities to play basketball. Yet, when I spoke to him by phone last week, Shirley was in his apartment in Kansas City preparing to schlep back to Spain for a second tour of duty with a team based on the island of Menorca. "I leave for Spain in two days, and I'm in the middle of having my kitchen redone," he told me. "I'm in complete chaos all the time."
If you didn't include Can I Keep My Jersey? on your summer reading list, I encourage you to add it immediately. The book is a journal/travelogue recounting three years in Shirley's life, during which time he enjoyed brief stints with five NBA teams while suffering through longer periods with teams from Greece, Spain and Russia, not to mention obscure American outposts like Yakima, Wash. (Of that assignment Shirley writes, "Plan A: making the team with the [Atlanta] Hawks. On through Plan J, which was to play basketball anywhere other than Yakima, Wash. I think Plan L might be to take up goat herding.")
Shirley's book is hilarious -- I laughed out loud about every third page -- but it's about much more than just basketball. "I know there's a giant basketball and a lot of jerseys on the cover, but it's really about my introduction to the world," he says. Shirley's writing skills are especially impressive considering he is a 29-year-old jock who majored in mechanical engineering at Iowa State. The book grew out of lengthy emails Shirley began writing to friends and family as he embarked upon his professional career. When biding his time at the end of the Suns' bench during the 2004-05 season, one of the team's media reps asked Shirley if he would be willing to write a blog for the Suns' Web site. "I don't think they had any idea I had already built up this shtick," he says. "It was easy for me. I could do it in 45 minutes compared to the monstrosities I was spewing forth to my friends."
Shirley's missives quickly developed a cult following on the web, and they caught the eye of an editor at Random House. Without knowing of Shirley's previous writing, the editor contacted Shirley's agent and asked if Shirley had any interest in doing a book. After signing for an advance of $85,000, Shirley spent a year reworking the stuff he had already written, then holed himself up in a hotel room in Los Angeles for three weeks to crank out a final draft. The book was published in May, and though it hasn't hit any best-seller lists Shirley said it is already in its sixth printing.
The tone of the book is so self-deprecating that it borders on self-loathing, so it's no surprise Shirley downplays his obvious writing talents. "I kind of get an 'out' because I'm a basketball player. It's impressive to people that this guy who should be a moron can churn out a book," he says. "In fact, I feel like something of a hack because I'm not one of those people who as a kid would sit down and write stories. I used to read a lot, but it never occurred to me to write anything down, which is really a credit to our public education system."
Such drollery colors Shirley's stories throughout the book. There are brushes with famous players like Kobe Bryant (who spews profanity when he rejects Shirley's shot attempt during training camp), Baron Davis (who once went through an entire practice with his shoes untied) and Shawn Kemp (who looks so huge in his Orlando Magic uniform that Shirley, noting that Kemp is listed at 280 pounds in the media guide, guesses that "they weighed him on the moon.")
Along the way Shirley also battles language barriers in Spain, snow storms in Russia and fraud in Greece. The funniest (and most discomfiting) passage details his nine-day hospital stay in Chicago after he suffered a fractured kidney and ruptured spleen in a Bulls' game -- an ordeal that included repeated (and often botched) catheterizations. I say it was funny, of course, because it happened to Shirley and not me.
Through it all, Shirley constantly bemoans his unstable life, limited gifts and sparse opportunities. Yet, despite all that pessimism, Shirley keeps on playing. The reason for that became apparent to him last year when he played in Spain. "Menorca isn't a happening cultural spot like Berlin or Madrid, but I kept going back to how much fun I had playing 30 minutes a game and being an integral part of a team," he says. "I'm starting to understand what makes me happy in basketball, and that's to actually play and try to regain some of that joy in being a part of a team."
The lack of playing time is only one reason Shirley felt unfulfilled in the NBA. He also found it difficult, if not impossible, to relate to most of his teammates. That's why his e-mail list is filled with trainers, equipment managers and assistant coaches as opposed to other NBA players. "It's not that they're bad people," he says. "They're just not adjusted to dealing with normal people." Then again, it's obvious Shirley isn't all that normal.
Another outgrowth of Shirley's Suns blog was a deal with Fox studios to develop a TV show based on his life. He was paid all of $10,000, and his production team shot a pilot in March 2006. When they submitted it that spring, the show was not picked up by the studio, but, says Shirley, "The cool thing is I have this 26-minute pilot for the rest of my life. When I have grandkids someday, I'll be able to show this to them."
Of course, the notion of having grandchildren implies that someday Shirley will have to stay in one place for longer than a few months, develop a healthy relationship with a member of the opposite sex (his love life remains "a complete disaster") and, most likely, make a living by doing something other than playing basketball. He guesses that if his body holds up, he could play for four or five more years, which would make him around 34 when he retires.
Shirley isn't sure what he would do then, but that uncertainty shouldn't be confused with an ignorance regarding his future. He plans to continue to pursue writing, first by keeping up his electronic journals overseas (if you want to check them out, go to myspace.com/paulshirley) and hopes to take a stab at fiction at some point. ("I'd assume I can only be self-obsessed for so long," he says.) Should he exhaust his writing options, he could go to grad school. Either way, Shirley's experiences have helped show him that there is a world outside of basketball, even if that world is crazy, unstable and full of rejection. "If I had just toed the party line and kept my head down and not written what I've written, I'd be panicked about the idea of basketball ending," he says. "Now I know there's something I can go forward and do."