EDITOR’S NOTE: What does a pro athlete do when the cheering (or booing) stops? Paul Shirley, a former member of the Chicago Bulls, answers that question in his fourth essay in a monthly series for ChiSide. Read his previous essays, here.
When I signed my first contract to play professional basketball, my father had some advice:
“Don’t ever tell anyone how much you’re making.”
My father is from the Midwest. And in the Midwest, you don’t ask people how much they make, who they voted for, or if they went to church on Sunday. If someone does ask, you don’t answer. In the Midwest, we don’t like to engender resentment or jealousy or envy. Or pity, if that is the case.
In the early days of my pro career, I took my father’s words as gospel. When people would ask me how much I was making to play basketball, I usually shrugged and said, “Too much.” I was playing basketball for money, after all. Any amount seemed like too much, and I was not eager to inspire jealousy or outrage.
My reticence didn’t last long. It turned out that people usually wanted to know only because they really had no idea what sort of scale we were talking about, especially when we were talking about the world of a middling professional basketball player whose most significant contribution to NBA teams was the ability to sit still.
And so, I began telling people the truth.
Well, in part because the numbers weren’t great enough to inspire much jealousy.
But there was this, too: I didn’t care how much I was making.
Here goes: In 10 years as a professional basketball player, I went to training camp with five NBA teams. I played regular-season games for three NBA teams. I signed contracts with five European clubs, all of which competed in the best leagues in Europe.
In those 10 years, I took home a total of $787,000.
To put it another way: My average annual take-home was $78,700. 
I’m not complaining. Not at all. My so-called job for a decade was not as important as that of a teacher, nurse, firefighter, police officer, social worker, longshoreman, crossing guard, physician’s assistant, florist, or any of about 4,000 other professions.
In fact, there were times when I felt guilty—like I needed to justify my earnings. Like everyone else, I like to make light of the absurdity of professional athletes making as much as they do. On some level, it is preposterous that I made any money to play basketball, let alone $787,000.
But most people are not jealous or resentful when I tell them how much I made.
Most of the time, they’re disappointed. They think I should have made out better.
The truth is, I probably could have.
When I left college, professional basketball wasn’t my only option. I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in mechanical engineering. While I’m not sure I could have made a commensurate amount of money as an engineer in the 10 years I was playing basketball, it’s a distinct possibility.
More important, 10 years as an engineer would have served as a launch pad for the next 30 years of my career. Ten years as a basketball player, on the other hand, served only as a deserted field for the crash landing of my career. You can’t play basketball forever. And while you cannot be an engineer forever, either, you can be one for a really long time.
But when I was starting my sports career, I saw no real connection between basketball and money.
I won’t insult your intelligence by saying that I wasn’t aware that I was making quite a lot of money to play basketball, or that I didn’t appreciate that I was able to put a down payment on a house long before most of my peers. When summers came and I did the accounting on the season gone by, I was pleased that I didn’t have any debt, that I was already beginning to invest, and that I could afford to take my brothers to dinner.
But while I was playing basketball—whether in Barcelona, or Phoenix, or Kazan, Russia—the money was an afterthought.
During my career, I loved hearing the offers that might come my way after a good season. I was offered $300,000 once to play in Greece, and $550,000 to play in Russia. My agent presented me those offers after the 2004-05 season, when I’d played in nine games for the Phoenix Suns and averaged 1.3 points per game.
I turned down both jobs. Instead, that next year I earned $5,000 playing for a team in the ABA while making a failed television pilot for which I was paid a whopping $10,000.
The money itself didn’t matter, at least not to my reptilian basketball brain. What was important was hearing someone say that I was, potentially, worth somewhere between $300,000 and $550,000. It was the ego boost I liked.
Like many musicians, artists, writers, and singers, pro athletes consider money in the abstract. It comes their way because they are good at something they probably would have done for free. Which makes money important mostly in a relative sense: If I am making more now than I was two years ago, that must mean that I am better than I was two years ago.
I made some awful financial decisions in my basketball career. Had I stayed in Europe, and given up on the NBA, where I played only eighteen games over the course of three season, my $787,000 might have been closer to $3 million.
What an opportunity, you’re thinking. He could have been set for life, or at least close.
Or you might be thinking, What an unappreciative dickface!
But who hasn’t made dicey career choices? Who hasn’t passed up chances to make more money?
And what if I were set for life, now, at 34 years old? Would I be happier? I certainly wouldn’t be here, at my desk in my $700-a-month apartment in Los Angeles, writing a freelance story, and anticipating a $10 lunch with a friend.
For me, it never really mattered if I made $7,870, $78,700 or $787,000. It sounds trite, and possibly obnoxious, but what mattered to me was that I was putting everything I had into something I cared deeply about, and I was working hard to get better at it.
Which is what I’m doing now, by the way, as I tap at my keyboard, working on this essay.
For which—Dad, don’t get mad when I reveal this—I’m getting paid $50.
 I was tempted, when I wrote this, to figure this over a fifteen-year period. Because I contend that I was essentially a professional athlete in college, even if I wasn’t paid as such. Before you get your trousers in a twist, recall that I spent my first three years of college (I was there for five) on an academic scholarship. So even if we allow that I “made” $20,000 a year (tuition, room/board) for the last two, that pumps my career earnings to $827,000, and drops the average to $55,133 per year. But I felt like introducing the College Players Are Pros argument would only muddle this piece of writing.
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PAUL SHIRLEY played nine years of professional basketball for teams in the NBA and Europe. He wrote about his travels in a book, “Can I Keep My Jersey?: 11 Teams, 5 Countries, and 4 Years In My Life As A Basketball Vagabond” and has since written about basketball and music for Esquire, Slate, ESPN.com, and The Wall Street Journal. You can follow him on Twitter or send him an email.
STORY ART: Main image made in-house with photo courtesy Getty Images; in-story photos courtesy Paul Shirley.