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 first essay in a monthly series for ChiSide. Read his previous & forthcoming essays, here.
I don’t spend much (if any) time poring over plays from my long basketball past. But last winter, when someone sent me a YouTube clip of a play from my college days, I couldn’t help but watch it—again and again and again.
I didn’t keep watching because I was interested in how high I jumped, or in how hard I slammed the ball through the hoop, or because I wanted to re-live one of my worst haircuts. I kept hitting Play because I was fascinated by how easily I recalled the feelings that coursed through me during plays such as that one, transporting me back in time.
In this particular play, my college teammate, Jamaal Tinsley, made into fools several members of the University of Colorado backcourt before throwing the ball to me for a one-handed dunk that might even be called ferocious, if you need an adjective. Tinsley’s ball-handling tricks served as the final sentence in a masterful short story; my dunk was the exclamation point. The crowd released its tension in an avalanche of happy noise.
For me, it was an incomparable rush; better than the most intense sexual encounter I’ve ever had. (Which might be an indictment of my sex life, but probably isn’t—sorry, no hyperlinks here.) Even as I watched the video more than a decade later, I felt something similar to sexual release: a chill down my spine, sagging shoulders, relaxation in my lower back.
I’ve never done cocaine. But that feeling—the sense that I had just brought about a palpable crescendo of enthusiasm in 14,000 people, most of whom were paying rapt attention to my every movement—is exactly what I imagine cocaine would be like: intense, immediate, and incredibly pleasurable.
And just as dangerous—because that feeling was one of the reasons I played basketball.
But that feeling wasn’t why I started playing basketball.
What changed? And why?
When I started playing basketball, I loved it like almost nothing else. Loved like I couldn’t live without it. Loved like it gave me peace, made me better, made me love myself.
But when a game you love becomes something that makes others love you—when it becomes a job and a claim to fame—something precious gets lost along the way. It did for me, anyway.
When people meet me and find out that I played professional basketball, they often assume that I did so because I’m tall–that I looked like a basketball player, so someone put a ball in my hands, and a career followed as naturally as a summer follows spring.
I started playing basketball when I was 12. I’d played baseball since I was 8; back then, I was sure I would play for the Royals someday. The problem with baseball, though, was that you needed other people to do it. And because I was rapidly developing the personality that has been with me ever since (prone to anxiety, depression, and general chaos of thought), I liked that I could go to a place where I could be alone and lose myself in the rhythm of dribble, dribble, shoot, chase (I practiced on a gravel driveway that caused plenty of errant bounces).
Basketball offered a calm, meditative place, a place where it didn’t matter if my parents were fighting, if Hannah Janson didn’t like me, and if I wasn’t all that excited about tomorrow’s algebra test.
It was my own world, not so different from the world inhabited by a musician, a dancer, or that kid you know who plays too much Call Of Duty. Inevitably, though, that world was joined by, merged with and perhaps spoiled by another world: the world of other people.
During my first basketball game—in some forgettable recreational tournament in Oskaloosa, Kan., with baskets only eight feet off the ground—my coach couldn’t understand why I was struggling to process his instructions. Finally, he walked onto the court and grabbed me by the shoulders.
“No,” he said, “between your man and the basket.”
Like Amare Stoudemire, it had never occurred to me to play defense.
In rec leagues, intramurals, and seventh-grade basketball, you wouldn’t have pegged me as someone who would someday play in the NBA, but I do recall an afternoon when a coach pulled me aside to say, with an exasperated sigh, that because my teammates were nearly worthless, he needed me to shoot more.
In eighth grade, my team won one game and lost twelve. But in that one win, when the coach finally installed me at point guard and I scored 23 points, I realized something: Team sports weren’t all bad; there was pleasure in victory and camaraderie that accompanies the pursuit of it.
There were boundaries and rules, too, but the variables within those boundaries and rules were infinite. There was no telling where players would go, no way to know whether Scott Schuler would make a three-pointer from the corner or dribble the ball off his shoe. In this chaos, patterns emerged, and I was better than most at seeing them. I liked solving the problems basketball threw at me.
I was small then. Well, maybe not small, but smaller. My first driver’s license (at 14, because this was Kansas) stated that I was 5-foot-11 and 120 pounds. Not bad if you’re a runway model, but not great for a power forward.
So I stayed at point guard, learning how the game worked by having the ball in my hands most of the time. I still wasn’t very good; I didn’t play varsity as a freshman. But I was getting better.
The guy who coached my eighth-grade team didn’t know much about basketball, but he knew something about motivation.
“How much you practice last night?” he’d ask.
Thirty minutes. A nod.
An hour. A smile.
An hour and a half. A slap on the back.
I wanted him to be proud of me. Why? He seemed cool, I guess. He’d played football in college.
I’d found my first guide, or maybe the first person I wanted to impress other than my parents.
When I was a freshman in high school, I started playing at the Topeka YMCA, a grim place with dim lights that made everything yellow. The Y league had better basketball than I was used to. There were black kids who could do things with the ball that I’d seen only on TV. But there were also kids who couldn’t play at all, who were only there because their parents paid $45 to get them on the court.
At those Y games, I heard rumblings of a secret league—one that took place in the summer at a Topeka high school. And so, after a YMCA league game, still sweaty in a red cotton jersey, I walked up to Lloyd Murphy, the league’s de facto commissioner, and asked him about the mystery league.
I thought you’d never ask, he said, and he gave me Jim Gilbert’s phone number.
Jim Gilbert looked like Buddha, round in the middle and bald on top. He had a pointed beard and smelled like menthol and seemed like he was 50. Probably, he was only 38. He invited me to play.
I left Gilbert’s first practice in tears. My mother was with me, which made things worse. I needed her there to comfort me, but I didn’t want to need her there to comfort me.
I’d had my shot blocked something like a million times.
I can’t do this, I said.
Yes you can, she said.
My team was made up of juniors and seniors from Topeka area high schools. I was just finishing my freshman year. I assumed most of them would eventually play in college. Only one of them did. Two of them got shot, one of them dead. There’s a park in Topeka named after him.
That first summer was like a glimpse of the NBA for me. The players were too fast, the lights too bright. I stayed as far as I could from the basket, shooting if I was open, passing and ducking if I wasn’t.
I can’t imagine why Jim Gilbert kept me around. Maybe he was just glad to have one player whose parents were paying. Whatever the reason, his confidence inspired me.
A subtle shift was taking place in me now. I wasn’t playing entirely for myself anymore, but for the approval of my coaches, too. There’s nothing wrong with that. These were good men helping me become a better player and possibly even a better person. But this is where it begins, I think, as you go from doing something because you love it to doing it, at least in part, because others love to see you doing it.
I got better, of course, or I wouldn’t be telling this story. How? Why? Because I was lucky, and I was blessed with better-than-average hand-eye coordination. And because I was a little crazy. No matter your height, you don’t make it from a tiny town in Kansas to the NBA if you don’t at least border on obsessive-compulsive.
One summer day, ashamed that I couldn’t shoot a left-handed layup as well as a right-handed one, I stayed on the left side of the basket until I could. Twenty minutes later, and voila, my left hand was fine.
I was 6-foot-4 as a sophomore, 6-7 as a junior, and 6-8 as a senior. Point guard became small forward, and small forward became center, because when your high school class only has 55 people, there aren’t a lot of other options.
Basketball was still an escape. I could let it all out on the court—whatever I had inside, whether it was confusion or rage or good, old-fashioned rampant teenaged testosterone. When I stepped over the thick, black line that marked the basketball court at Jefferson West High, I could be whoever I wanted to be.
But it wasn’t that simple anymore. Now, I wanted to be good for other people, as well as myself; for that eighth grade coach, for Jim Gilbert, the college coaches who had started coming around, the parents of friends, who thought I was special because I had scholarship offers, the girls (even though I skipped prom because there was an AAU tournament the next morning).
In college it got even more complicated. I was a big man on campus, someone important. I was playing—starting, even—at a nationally-ranked Division I school.
Yet my senior year at Iowa State was miserable. Most of my teammates were mercenaries who cared as much for the game of basketball as they did the sorority girls they threw away, one after another. This wasn’t why I’d started playing.
At one point I told my mother I was sick of basketball, that even though a professional career looked possible, I’d never play again when the year was done. But after graduation, I took a week-long deep breath and played in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament. And maybe because I was away from the expectations of campus life, or maybe because I reminded myself of why I started playing in the first place, the game was fun again.
Then came the pros—the NBA, Greece, Spain, Russia.
Now the game I loved was also a job.
Basketball had become like a wife to me, and I was getting paid to stay in the relationship.
It didn’t have a chance.
When I found basketball as a skinny twelve-year old on a gravel driveway, it was simple and clean: me and the ball and an iron ring.
No one was watching. I was good because I said so, not because other people did.
But I wanted more. I wanted to be special. I wanted other people to think I was different, better, desirable. And they did. When Jim Gilbert patted me on the back, or when I dunked that night in Ames, or when I took the floor in warm-ups for the Phoenix Suns, or when I helped my team win a game in Greece, I felt like a king.
Did my need for approval make me a better player? Probably.
Probably, my own competitive drive and love for the game wasn’t enough.
Probably, I wouldn’t have gotten as good as I did if I wasn’t prone to worrying about what other people thought.
Probably, the thing that made me love basketball was the thing that changed basketball.
As I watched that YouTube clip of my dunk against Colorado, I couldn’t help but despair.
I saw someone who should have been thrilled that he’d achieved his goals, made his dreams come true, someone who was happy with himself.
But I didn’t. I saw someone who was only happy because other people were happy with him.
All of us lose our innocence as we grow up. But not all of us do it with crowds chanting their approval and roaring in delight. Not all of us allow ourselves to get carried away by the opinions of others.
Not all of us take something we love and twist it into something we don’t.
* * * * *
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 Paul Shirley (all photos from Shirley.)