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 fifth essay in a monthly series for ChiSide. Read his previous essays, here.
It was time.
The jerseys from my basketball career had been hanging in closets for too long. Thanks to plastic hangers and 9.8 m/s2, they were stretching like the skin on an old man’s face.
So I bought two giant plastic boxes, a pack of tissue paper, and a few dozen cedar balls, and I went to work putting them away.
I laid them out on the futon in the tiny den in my basement. The purple Phoenix Suns jersey. The Hornets. The Timberwolves. The Bulls. Panionios, from Greece. Joventut and Unicaja and ViveMenorca, from Spain. The bright green UNICS Kazan jersey – the one with my name spelled in Cyrillic.
And then, at the bottom of the pile, a jersey that isn’t really a jersey—just a mesh tank top used for practice, from summer league with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
During my career, people often said something like, “You’re lucky—you get to play a game and get paid for it. I’ll bet you wouldn’t trade that for anything!”
I learned to say things like, “Yup, you’re right!” and “So lucky!”
But the truth was that basketball stopped being a game when it stopped being fun. And basketball stopped being fun when I left high school.
Don’t get me wrong. Basketball was still rewarding. But there’s a big difference between fun and rewarding.
When I was in high school and my coach was generally interested in my well-being and I was averaging 25 points a game and my teammates trusted me and rooted for me and mostly weren’t criminals…then, basketball was fun.
When I was in college and the pros and my coaches weren’t particularly interested in my well-being and I was averaging anywhere between three and 12 points a game and my teammates couldn’t have cared less whether I was there or not and some of them were criminals…then, basketball was rewarding.
Rewarding because I was overcoming expectations. Rewarding because I’d sat in Roy Williams’ office at the University of Kansas and had him look me in the eyes and say, “Son, you’re not good enough to play in the Big 12; you need to go somewhere small.”
Rewarding because, after high school, I played mostly out of fear. I was afraid that someone—maybe Marcus Fizer, or maybe Shareef Abdur-Rahim, or maybe Tyson Chandler–would find out I didn’t belong.
The summer after fourth grade, my parents sent me to Science Camp at Rock Springs Ranch near Fort Riley, Kan. It was my first camp experience, my first trip away from home. I thought, on Monday morning, when my mother dropped me at the camp’s entrance, that I was going to love it. Other kids my age, cabins, horses, swimming pools, no responsibilities for an entire week. I cheerfully bade my mother farewell and reported to my cabin.
There, something dawned on me. Everyone else was buddying up, ready to conquer the week. They all seemed so filled with confidence, with the chumminess of people who’ve been there, done that.
I took a deep breath, unpacked my bag, made up my bed. I went to orientation, and then we all ate dinner. Afterward, we had the evening to ourselves. I tried to read—a “Hardy Boys” book, probably—and that was OK, until it got dark, when I realized that I wasn’t in my own bed, that I was really, really far (60 miles!) from my parents and my brothers, and that I was scared.
Then, I had an idea: I’ll call home!
I walked to the camp’s registration building in search of a pay phone. When I finally found one, it occurred to me that I had no idea how to use it. (It wasn’t a farm, where I grew up, but we had chickens and cows and the gravel roads that surrounded our house weren’t exactly urban. I’d never used a pay phone.)
I mustered the courage to ask a counselor for help.
“Get a dime,” he said. “Drop it in, and make your call.”
Which procedure I tried, and which procedure failed. Because, of course, this was a long-distance call.
“Deposit one dollar and 35 cents to complete this call,” a robotic voice said.
How in the hell was I supposed to come up with $1.35 in change?
Then I remembered: my parents had taught me how to make a collect call before I’d left home. I took the tiny piece of paper on which my father had written instructions out of my neon green, Velcro wallet, and dialed zero.
“How may I help you?” the operator said.
Relief was at hand.
“I wanna make a collect call.”
I recited my home phone number.
“One moment, please.”
Nothing could stop me now. I would talk to my mom for a few minutes, and then I’d hang up, and then I’d go back to the cabin, and then the rest of the week would go great.
I heard my mother’s voice.
“Will you accept a collect call from….sir, your name?”
“Paul Shirley,” I said, bravely, I thought.
“Thank you for using Southwestern Bell.”
“Paul?” she said.
And then, again, “Paul?”
And then, “Are you there?”
My mother kept saying those things because, while she was talking, I was crying. The only sound I’d been able muster after she said my name was something between “Errt” and the sound a kitten makes when you step on its tail.
When I graduated from Iowa State and after I’d surprised people (including my future agent, Keith Glass) by playing well at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, there was some chatter out of the Cleveland Cavaliers. They might draft me in the second round, they said.
They didn’t; instead, they took some guy named Carlos Boozer. But they invited me to summer league in Salt Lake City.
Leading up to camp, I worked out in the high school gym in my tiny hometown of Meriden, Kan. I took jump shots, I ran, I lifted weights. Then, on the day I was to report to summer league, I got in a car with my mother, and she drove me to the Kansas City airport.
I was 23 and in the best shape of my life. I should have been brash, cocky, ready to conquer the world, or at least the NBA. The truth, though, is that I was terrified. I couldn’t imagine how this could go well. Who was I to think that I could compete with these pros, these men?
Despite the fear roiling my stomach at every practice, summer league with the Cavaliers went better than I expected. Keith told me that an Italian team was interested, and the Cavs were probably going to invite me to training camp in the fall.
When summer league was over, I took the practice jersey home—clung to it, really. It was a scalp—a totem of what I’d been through. I’d gone to Salt Lake City, and I’d shown those bastards. That just because I was a little skinny, a little undersized, a little white, that didn’t mean I couldn’t play.
I spent the next nine years collecting more jerseys, more scalps.
I put the mesh Cavs jersey in the box, a layer of tissue on top. Then another. Then another. A ball of cedar here, a ball of cedar there. But mostly jersey after jersey after jersey. When you count up home and away, practice and game, there were dozens of them.
Phoenix Suns: into the box.
Joventut from Spain: into the box.
Atlanta Hawks: into—Wait, what was I doing?
Why had I been so intent on keeping all these jerseys, if I was going to put them in boxes?
I held the Hawks jersey to my face, giving it a long, hard inhale. Musty, a little; had it even gotten washed before I put it in a closet, all those years ago? Maybe I should give it a run through the machine or at least a spritzing of, what, Febreze?
And then it hit me.
My basketball career was a war with myself. I’d been scared all along—on my first night in Russia, when I couldn’t sleep and I would have given anything to go home; in Barcelona, lying on the floor, alone, screaming because my brachial plexus nerve had just been yanked out of place; or in a Hilton Garden Inn in El Segundo the morning before a tryout with the Lakers, when I couldn’t get a piece of cantaloupe to stay down any more than a wish can stop the rain.
I probably wasn’t meant to play in the NBA. I was too weird, too different, too much of a pansy.
And this—holding my jerseys in my hands, thinking about the past, remembering what it was like the first time I put on this Hawks jersey, or that Suns jersey, or that first one, that Cavaliers practice jersey.
This was why I’d kept them.
To help me remember all I’d been through.
To help me remember all I’d overcome.
To help me remember that even though that 10-year-old boy had never been far away, I hadn’t let him define my life.
I gave the Hawks jersey another rub—feeling the two layers of material that had shocked me in their heaviness the first time I’d put on an NBA jersey.
Then I took a deep breath and set it in the box. I tossed another layer of tissue paper on top. I closed the lid, and I got out a Sharpie and some masking tape. I wrote “Paul—Bball jerseys” on the tape and smoothed it onto the side of the box. I lifted the box and I put it on a shelf in a closet.
I took one last look—at the boxes, at the jerseys, at the memories.
I smiled. I walked away. And I closed the door.
* * * * *
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.