Paul Shirley encapsulated our interests because he told it like it was. He was just another guy, but one who happened to be at the end of an NBA bench, observing all the craziness that is the league, then having the forum and willingness to write about it. Sure, he happened to have decent enough basketball skills that most of us don’t, but it was that extra insight outside of the game that intrigued a growing readership.
From his first diaries for Suns.com to his book “Can I Keep My Jersey?” to his ESPN blog My So-Called Career, Shirley brought the average dude into the NBA. Despite a cold shoulder from ESPN following his comments about the Haitian relief efforts in early 2010, Shirley has been working on writing for his website, FlipCollective, as well as contributing to Yahoo!’s ThePostGame.com blog and Spanish newspaper El PaÃs.
I caught up with Shirley to chat about just about everything, including a failed TV pilot based on his life, playing with Steve Nash and how he’s doing after calling it a basketball career.
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Dime: What have you been doing? Obviously you’ve been writing a lot, and basketball is kind of in the past, I guess?
Paul Shirley: What I tell people is that I thought of myself as a basketball player as recently as a year ago. I accepted a job in Italy. It was going to be what I had always thought would be the dream end-of-career job; it was in Verona, Italy, second division, so the pressure would be a little bit less. I thought it was going to work out well for a sort of cap of the career. As is often the case in basketball careers, it fell apart at the last second, which was probably OK. I had to have surgery on my ankle. I’m not sure playing another year on a bad ankle was a good idea.
Most people have sort of lost track of my career. I played another couple of years in Spain, got injured in a fairly catastrophic ankle break that led to three surgeries on that ankle that came after a surgery on each knee. My career went the way lots of basketball careers went. My body just started to decide that it had enough.
Dime: Do you miss it? What’s it like, just being able to look at it like, “I can’t play anymore?” That type of deal.
PS: I don’t miss it at all actually. It’s strange for me in that I don’t know that it’d feel this way if my career had ended solely because I had chosen to end it. Now I associate basketball with a lot of pain. It just makes me think of being in agony. It’s not that hard to walk away from it when the only thing that comes to mind is my body hurting.
Dime: Are you living in Kansas right now?
PS: I split my time between Kansas City and L.A. As you said, I hesitate to say I’m writing for a living and that’s a lot of fun. I don’t know that will be the way forward. I am coming to terms with the fact that I had this really sometimes positive, sometimes destructive relationship with basketball for fifteen years. It’s a lot like getting out of a divorce, a marriage that consumes your life. It takes a while to come down from that. I’m fine to all the time say to people, I don’t know what’s next or who I am just yet. I spent so much time wrapped up in basketball.
Dime: I saw the Flip Collective (website). And is it Yahoo you’re writing for?
PS: I’m writing for The Post Game which is a Yahoo!Sports online magazine.
Dime: Any other jobs or do you have any projects going on?
PS: I actually write for El PaÃs, which is a Spanish newspaper, for the NBA, which is a really cool job because I have so many contacts in Spain and have something of a following there. That’s cool, helps pays the bills a little bit. I’ve been at work on a second book, which I won’t say is done but a draft of it is in the hands of my literary agent. So we’ll see where that goes.
Dime: The first book, I read it a long time ago. How’d that process come up and how’d you get that gig? That was (when you were) relatively still kind of on the rise as far as your writing wasn’t it?
PS: I signed that book deal when I was probably 26 or 27 I guess. I was still in the midst of my career. I didn’t realize I’d be done as quickly as I was. It came about because of the Suns blog and Random House calling my basketball agent and saying, “Does this guy want to write a book, ever?” I’d always planned to do that but thought it’d come after my career. It’d be a folly to turn down Random House calling you.
I moved to LA and made a television show, a pilot based on all of this, which failed. But it was quite the learning experience. And then I launched back into the basketball career and went to camp with the Timberwolves and went to play in Spain. I had that weird little interim stage in my career where I worked hard on the book, which was a compilation really of old stuff. A lot of that stuff was written when I was 23, 24, 25. As with basketball, it’s fun to see the progression.
Dime: The forward (for Can I Keep My Jersey?) was written by (Chuck) Klosterman. Even Bill Simmons, when you were writing for the Suns, he said he checks this out.
PS: That was really the tipping point, when he linked from his column to the stuff I was writing. That was when it really caught the national attention that led to whatever stories in the Wall Street Journal and this book deal and everything.
Dime: Have you thought about reaching out to those guys and maybe writing for Grantland or anything?
PS: I think I’ve been blackballed by ESPN.
Dime: Even if Simmons put in a good word for you?
PS: I dunno, maybe. We get along OK. I’ve hung out with him a couple of times. There’s a sense, I think, that I’m trying to like … with writers a lot of the time, there’s a certain insecurity that this guy is going to take my shtick. I think with Bill Simmons, he was happy to help me out when I sort of knew my place. Now that I’m trying to write as a job, he doesn’t seem to stay in touch.
Dime: I’m actually from Phoenix, so I think I read all of your Suns stuff back then when I was really young. Can you talk about that 2004-05 team?
PS: The good one?
Dime: Yeah, the good one. Was there a different dynamic in the locker room and all that compared to other teams that you’ve been on that haven’t been successful? That was, obviously, a successful team and with the way they played …
PS: Right. I attribute that to Steve Nash having the alpha personality and also having the alpha work ethic. I was in San Antonio once and talking to somebody in the San Antonio management – I can’t remember who because everyone moves around so much – this person was talking about how they’ve always been lucky because Tim Duncan was their best player and hardest worker. That’s maybe not true now because he’s aging a little bit. But that applies to the Suns. The team’s best player was also the best worker, the nicest guy, the best role model, and I think that helped to keep the team together.
Like, Amar’e Stoudemire, great basketball player, not a terrible human being, but not a particularly hard worker. So if he sees Steve Nash take a day off, he will think to himself, “I can do what I want” because our quote-on-quote leader is slacking off. When that leader is so committed every day to doing everything right – that doesn’t mean he doesn’t makes mistakes, but showing up on time, working hard, listening to the coach, all those things – everything else falls in line because they respect that ability of the best.
Dime: Yeah, and I know you’ve written a lot about how you saw KG and Kobe up close. How different is Nash because he’s obviously not the, you know, the intimidating type of guys they are? Is he completely different in that regard?
PS: There’s all kinds of leaders, of course. He’s more of the by-example sort. He’s not afraid to say what he thought, talk about what needs to be changed. I think that’s probably the flaw with Kobe Bryant and what people see with his personality on the court. They can just tell people will follow him only so far because he doesn’t treat them very well. Like, Nash is not only going to tell you, “Hey, I need you to do this,” he’ll come back and say “Thank you for doing that, I appreciate it.” Bryant is apt to roll his eyes when a teammate misses a shot. Garnett, from my limited experience, is more like Nash. He just seems to get it as good leaders of men do. He knows when to push and pull, and give a little bit of encouragement and come back around with criticism. That’s hard in all walks of life, whether it’s basketball player or president of the United States.
Dime: I was wondering something, because you were labeled embedded journalism in a way. Ever since the Internet has blown up, especially with Twitter and stuff like that, how do you see journalism from a traditional standpoint. The objectivity is kind of taken with Twitter, the players are straight up tweeting what they see. You were kind of a middle-ground for that. Where do you see that going?
PS: I think the sense is, well, this will make sports journalism obsolete. The problem I see is from a team’s perspective, most of the time we think as fans, “We want more access. That’s only good for us.” Because leagues and teams are so insecure, it seems to me the trend will be toward locking down on that. It seems like we’re in this weird nether region where people don’t really understand where it’s going to go. It’s a fun little universe for a while, but just like when radio came out, now everyone’s going to start their own radio station or whatever. Eventually it gets fizzled down to some control. Not controlling like mind control, but there are pacemakers and outlets that tell you what’s happening. That’s kind of how I see it happening.
Dime: Going back to the pilot episode that you did that was for Fox, did you just decide one day you wanted to do this? How was that process? Were you scripting or were you throwing ideas out at other writers that put it together?
PS: I wish I could say that it was something I conceived of on my own. I was, at the time, clueless as to how one even signs a book deal. My aunt and uncle lived next to an agent from William Morris, so I said to them, “Can you help me find an entertainment agent?” So going through him, I found my literary agent but in the process he said, “Why don’t you come up for an idea for a TV show?” I said, OK how about this. How about a guy is on the end of the bench for an NBA team or a team like an NBA team, and we talk about how it’s not like what people think it’s like. He’s like, “Alright gold. Let’s go sell it.” We pitched it to Fox and were kind of downloading ideas to the guy who became the writer. He went off and wrote the actual script, I was just a producer on the show.
I moved to LA and whatever, spent nine months there spending $3.6 million of Fox’s money and got to see how these show ideas get ruined. I thought it was actually a really cool idea, but as it progressed and more people got involved or attached to it, it just got really watered down and was no longer that same voice that had sort of made me popular, which was sort of that anti-NBA culture. People wanted it more to be like Entourage. I was constantly saying, “No, that’s not what we want this to be.” I think what people have always related to in my writing is it’s the every-man doing it. People want in, like, they want to think, “I could do that too,” or “this is how I would behave.” The show got away from that.
Dime: So they’re trying to put it more like, “I’m an NBA player, I’m trying to make it?” Every other NBA person’s story?
PS: They wanted more of the flash and the glitz attached to it. They built this entire mock-up of a team plane, which was ridiculous because we used it for about 12 seconds. And people were like, let’s stock the bar and have a hot waitress and I was like, “No.” That might be fun to watch, but that’s not what we’re going for because that’s not realistic. What we’re trying to do is tell people that this is a life a lot like everyone else’s life, but it’s blown out of proportion because it’s on television. It would probably be funnier, or more relatable, if guys were cramped into seats that were too small or whatever.
Dime: You mentioned being the anti-NBA type of NBA player. Was it more isolating being in NBA locker rooms or overseas, when guys were from different cultures, didn’t speak English?
PS: It was eerily similar. It’s a good corollary actually. You would think in the NBA I’d have plenty of things to talk about. The English was mitigated by a lack of knowledge of anything besides basketball. I’d be overseas and all these guys who travel who can’t express those ideas. In both cases, I was pretty lost. I hate to always romanticize the European angle because a lot of those guys are fairly one-dimensional as well. It’s not perfect over there. I usually got along better with the Americans. There’s a certain type of guy that can handle being in Europe.
Dime: For you, you write and you don’t hold a lot back. I’m sure that has a lot to do with ESPN blackballing you, but did that hurt you in any way just when you’re either with the Suns or ESPN, when you’re trying to find jobs? Did anything ever come back to bite you?
PS: It did not help. It was a pretty naive view of mine to hold, I always thought – when I was doing this for the Suns especially – if I continue to do my job and then also maybe add a little bit of content, if I bring some value to the team by writing about it, maybe that gives me a better chance to make the next (team). They might say, this guy might not be playing but at least he’s got interest and fans or whatever. That was decidedly not the case. Most of the time, the NBA and most professional sports are like a circus – they don’t want people to know what’s going on behind the scenes. That’s not really a world I want to live in. I can protest it all I want, it’s not going to change it. I, through my agent, got people saying, “Why does he have to write these things? Why doesn’t he want to shut up?”
I don’t want to paint myself as some anti-authority hero. It’s just that never made sense to me. Before I could put the breaks on it, it was already too late. I already had burned all those bridges. I’m sure, even European teams were a little more gun-shy. These things only make it more human and more relatable, but they did not agree with me.
Dime: So now you’re just splitting time, trying to find yourself, I guess?
PS: Yeah, trying to Ricky Williams or Dirk Nowitzki it; I’m thinking about moving to Australia for six months. No, but I’m working really hard on writing. This website takes up a lot of my time, and trying to figure out of there’s an audience for me. Yeah, there’s a lot of like, unraveling that’s going on. It’s just this weird relationship with basketball. Even though I was the first to say, “I don’t care that much, whatever,” I was the stereotypical gym rat, white kid from Kansas who devoted everything I had to being really good at basketball. My self-esteem was attached to that, and I’m figuring out how that is not healthy, and trying to kind of unwind from it a little bit.
What do you think? Do you agree with his opinion of Amar’e, Kobe, KG & Nash?
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