Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

December 16, 2013

Living on the Cut Line

Writer Paul Shirley tells Gelf about the trials and tribulations of being one of top 500 basketball players in the world.

David Goldenberg

Paul Shirley has a problem with the eleventh hour. It's not just that most of his professional basketball career came down to deals made in that proverbial time slot (though they did), or that the phrase originates from the Bible, one of his least favorite books (though it does). Mainly, it's because the wording makes little sense. "Shouldn’t the cliché involve the twelfth hour?" he writes in his book Can I Keep My Jersey?: 11 Teams, 5 Countries, and 4 Years in My Life as a Basketball Vagabond. "The eleventh hour runs from ten to eleven, which makes it a lot less urgent and suspenseful and more just irrelevant."

Paul Shirley
"One should never underestimate the impact of one well-placed idiot."

Paul Shirley

How did Shirley have time to ponder such lexical minutiae as he traveled around the world playing a ridiculous schedule of one of the most physically demanding games there is? Well, when he wasn’t playing, he spent a lot of times on planes and in terrible hotel rooms, actively avoiding his teammates. And when he did make it to the NBA—which he did for the equivalent of several cups of coffee and a latte or two—he spent most of his time on the far side of the bench (and occasionally the floor) pretending to be interested by the game action while instead trying to remember whether he put his jersey on under his warm-ups.

While Shirley's basketball journey sounds miserable—in addition to the constant uncertainty about his career, Shirley also suffers nerve damage and a lacerated spleen—it was worth it just to have him recount it to us in his strangely engaging memoir. In the following interview, edited for clarity, Shirley tells Gelf about his wiseass nature, his unique writing style, and why most professional athletes are ridiculously boring.

Gelf Magazine: What's changed the most about the NBA since you wrote your book?

Paul Shirley: Maybe I'm getting old, but it seems faster and like it would be very difficult for a middling, 6'9" white guy to break into it. I have the sense that if I'd been born 10 years later, I never would have made the NBA. (Although, if I'd been born 20 years earlier, I probably would have had a 10-year-career. And a fused ankle.)

Gelf Magazine: Has European-style basketball invaded the NBA as you thought it would in 2007?

Paul Shirley: To some degree, yes—I think teams like the Golden State Warriors are showing that it is possible to utilize players in multiple positions/orientations and move the ball up the court as quickly as possible. Still, though, we 'Mericans love our stars, and we can't seem to let go of the Michael Jordan model—which dictates that games are advertised not with the teams involved, but with the stars of the teams involved.

Gelf Magazine: You wrote in the book that Tyson Chandler doesn’t know how to play basketball. Do you think more of his abilities these days?

Paul Shirley: I still don't think he knows how to play basketball; Chandler is the epitome of the NBA specialist who makes basketball dull. Try to get him to make a 17-footer.

Gelf Magazine: In the book and in blog posts, you regularly break the fourth wall to discuss your phrase usage and word choices with your readers, hopping in and out of meta-commentary. It's really strange but works well. How did you come up with that style?

Paul Shirley: This will get super-meta; me trying to dissect my meta-like style, but…I'd say it has something to do with not really writing until I was 23 or so, but having read A LOT prior to that. And, because I began writing for audiences that were also my friends (my writing "career" got its start when I would send out email updates to people while playing in Greece), I took a familiar tone.

Gelf Magazine: Has your writing style changed since you wrote the book?

Paul Shirley: I've done away with some of my tangential thinking, which would probably make David Foster Wallace sad, but which I think makes the writing a little easier to read. I now edit a website—FlipCollective—and an e-magazine—Cartel—and I'd like to think that having had to edit others for the past four years has made me better at editing myself, but I don't know that I can judge that.

Gelf Magazine: In 2010, you wrote a screed on FlipCollective about how Haitians need to practice better birth control and engineering in the wake of the earthquake there, prompting ESPN to publicly distance itself from your writing. What did you learn from that controversy?

Paul Shirley: After people donate their $10 via text message from the comfort of their McMansions, they would rather not think about the possibility that the $10 they donated from the comfort of their McMansions was a) possibly ill-spent, or b) done mostly to make them feel better about themselves, as opposed to helping earthquake victims.

Gelf Magazine: So you don’t regret anything about what you wrote about Haiti?

Paul Shirley: I have regrets about every piece I've ever written, so yes, I have regrets about that piece. There are things I wish I'd framed differently and phrased in other ways. But I was always going to piss off a large number of people at some point; it was almost inevitable. The problem, I guess, from my perspective, is that it was one piece among what is now probably approaching four, five, or six hundred that have been "published" or "posted" online. There are probably people who've read that one piece and have based their entire opinions of me on it and so, to them, that piece is an important snapshot of me. But I know that I've written all these other things and have all these other thoughts, feelings, and opinions. One piece about Haiti is very small fraction of that set.

Gelf Magazine: I've never seen a book that is so casually dismissive of religion and religiousness. Do you feel that hurt your audience for the book or your opportunities going forward?

Paul Shirley: I can't imagine it helped, especially in the Midwest. I am consistently surprised at how often people mention my take on religion in professional sports; I thought it was pretty obvious that most of these guys were saying one thing for the cameras and practicing another thing in the privacy of their hotel rooms. The gullibility of the average sports fan only continues to amaze me.

Gelf Magazine: Nowadays, we treat professional athletes with legitimate outside interests as, well, unicorns: Martellus Bennett, Connor Barwin, etc. Have pro sports gotten to be such factories that it's really that rare for interesting, intelligent people to be professional athletes?

Paul Shirley: It's becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: people assume that athletes have little else to contribute to the world at large, so they ignore whatever contributions they might make. Then it becomes even harder for the athletes to convince people they have anything to contribute, so they give up and become Tim Legler.

Gelf Magazine: On a similar note, why do you think athletes like you and Mark Titus have garnered such a following among, well, a specific readership?

Paul Shirley: Some of it is race-based; there aren't many ways for the average white male to relate to college and professional basketball. We serve(d) as liaisons.

Gelf Magazine: Did you Read Jack McCallum's Seven Seconds or Less? What did he get right and wrong about the Suns?

Paul Shirley: I read it, but it's been a long time. I felt like he captured the essence of that team fairly well. I will say, though, that in his book there's a certain sense that something special was happening with D'Antoni—a JFK/Lincoln kind of treatment. And honestly, I thought the same when I was in Phoenix. It's been sad and/or disheartening to learn that he's mortal, as coaches go.

Gelf Magazine: Is there really such a huge difference among the atmospheres/cultures of professional teams? I'd think that with players and coaches moving around all the time, there wouldn’t be the chemistry gaps you describe.

Paul Shirley: It surprised and continues to surprise me, too. But one should never underestimate the impact of one well-placed idiot. The Suns, for example, were a well-run, almost familial organization before Robert Sarver arrived on the scene. From everything I've gathered, their entire support system (ticketing, management, outreach) has been ravaged by attrition. People don't like working for blowhards, as it turns out.

Gelf Magazine: Is D'Antoni's failure to work well with the Lakers due to your one blowhard theory? And is that blowhard Kobe?

Paul Shirley: I think D'Antoni's system worked well in Phoenix because he had a willing lieutenant in Steve Nash, whose philosophy mirrored his own. In LA, Kobe Bryant is more like a rival general.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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