Paul Shirley’s Road Ramblings

You know Paul Shirley. He's that tall, thin-looking lad you see in the lay-up line during pre-game warm-ups at AWA. The one that sits at the end of the bench cheering on all your favorite Suns and doling out high-fives during timeouts. Yes, he's got the best seat in the house, but Shirley's much more than your typical 12th man. He's now an up-and-coming author.

The 27-year-old forward -- who made the club's opening day roster, was cut before the opening game, but then re-signed in January -- kept an online diary for during the team's five-game road trip in mid-March. A diary that caused quite the stir among media members, who were equally surprised and entertained by his unique and honest insight into life in the NBA. Shirley's daily blog was mentioned on ESPN's "Cold Pizza" and on, and was covered in several newspapers around the country, including USA Today.

Posted by Paul Shirley: March 27, 2005, 7:30 p.m.

PHOENIX -- In the four years since my college career ended, I have played for no fewer than eleven professional basketball teams. Of those, I left on my terms in four cases, was either released or not asked back in six, and will know more this summer regarding the last. There are probably [think oldest profession in the world]’s (I’ll do the censoring myself) that have had fewer jobs over the same span. On one hand, the fact that I have been so nomadic has been priceless. I have gotten to travel to some amazing places and meet some really cool people. On the other, the transient lifestyle I lead has been less fun than some would imagine.

We won in Orlando last night, but only barely. Like always, Bo Outlaw evaluated our general enthusiasm prior to the game; we graded out low. It seemed that it would not matter, however, as we came out firing, jumping out to an early lead over the Magic, who looked awful. By midway through the first quarter, I was anticipating having a fine conclusion to this road trip journal—some anecdote from my first game action in weeks—but that turned out to be very premature thinking. In the end, we muddled our way to a win. I wonder sometimes if my teammates get bored on the court. At times it seems that the game almost comes so easily to some of them that they forget to concentrate and subconsciously allow the opponent back in the game just so they can have some competition.

At any rate, everyone was relatively happy in the locker room after the game. We had put together a solid road trip and were excited to go home. (I really felt like I had a stellar set of games. Min: 0, TP: 0, FG%: Undefined. Bravo.) I shared in the jubilation. Because I would, if there were such an option, fill in “Professional Basketball Player” on my insurance forms (as it is, I usually have to go with either “Self-Employed” or “Other”, which must raise eyebrows somewhere in the back room: “This guy must be either a drug-dealer or in the CIA.”), I do a fair amount of traveling. Consequently, I hate it. I like the idea of seeing new places; it’s the execution of the theory that is the hassle. So I, like everyone in the locker room, was anxious to get back to Phoenix. The hotels in which we stay are absurdly nice, but that does not change the fact that the beds have been used by countless other humans.

The flight home was lengthy, which gave us time for a battle royale over the poker table. I did relatively well, making $89 on the night, but felt like I had squandered some opportunities when it was over. When I finally made it back to my apartment at about 2:15 a.m., I was more than happy to pass out in my bed. I went to sleep happy, knowing I had an off day awaiting me in the morning.

I awoke to find my rental apartment, with its rented furnishings, entirely bereft of the raw materials I needed to fix myself some breakfast. (Read: the milk in the refrigerator was spoiled, making cereal a difficult proposition.) I considered my options quickly, not wanting to go from hungry/disoriented to hungry/mad at the world. I settled on a trip to IHOP; since it was already nearing noon, I thought I could eat one big meal that would take the place of both lunch and dinner. (Not a new concept for me. Most of my collegiate Sunday mornings were spent weighing the benefits of either getting out of bed relatively early so I could eat both breakfast and lunch or simply sleeping until noon and combining the two. Needless to say, I usually ate only two meals on Sunday.) I had a relatively pleasant breakfast with a bunch of post-church families and then went on my way, looking forward to a day consisting of very little that could be considered constructive.

I have been asked many times over the years if my life is a lonely one. It is most often a question asked by girls; we males tend to think, “Dude, you have the coolest life ever.” Which, for the most part, is true. I usually answer the loneliness question with a “No” because I can rarely say that I feel alone in my travels. It is not that difficult to form friendships in these places I go; most of the time there are souls in the same situation as I, and they too need someone to talk to. However, my relationships do often lack depth.

I now have friends scattered all over the world. I will probably never see some of them again. That is not to say I don’t want to see them; any of these people, had we grown up together, or gone to college together, would probably be my absolute best friend in the world. It is just that it will be hard to reunite with them when they live in places like Australia, Singapore, or Izmir, Turkey. The same holds true for girls I have dated. Had the circumstances of our time together been slightly different, there is no telling what the future could have held (most likely: them growing quite tired of my cynical, judgmental, and sarcastic view of things and telling me to go to [think really hot and eternity]). It should be noted that I have met three girls I later dated on airplanes, and a fourth on a Greyhound bus. Probably not the best plan with regard to the future.

So, where is the problem? I am 27, have no children, no wife, and no serious girlfriend and, while I am no male model, am not going to make anyone’s All-Ugly Team anytime soon. (Incidentally, my version of this year’s team has two members from Minnesota, one from the Milwaukee Bucks, one from the Warriors and one from the Portland Trail Blazers. In the interest of not getting the [crap] kicked out of me, should I actually play in a game against one of these teams, I will keep the exact identities to myself.) While I am somewhat hard to be around at times, I can be moderately interesting, and have been known to relate an amusing tale once in a great while, so it is not that I doubt my ability to meet people, if need be. The only problem is that I do miss these people I already know. It is hard to return “home” and then realize that my “home” is scattered all over the world. It would be difficult, even, to call the place I own a house—Kansas City—a home, in the true sense of the word. I have lived there for two years, but when I am there, am only in residence for a few months before leaving again. Even there, I feel like a stranger sometimes.

People often ask me how long I will play basketball professionally. (It’s a very curious crowd, the one I hang around.) I never know what to say because there are so many variables. I could blow out a knee, fall in love with some girl that refuses to leave her native South Africa, or just lose interest. Really, though, I think I will quit when I have too many days like today, where I feel like a rootless Bedouin, chicken out, and hang it up. That time is certainly not now—I would not trade my life for anyone’s—and it is probably not a year, or even two years, from now. But it will happen someday.

That’s it from me. This probably was not the most fitting end for a journal of our road trip. A professional basketball player musing about his lot in life is not really what most people want to read. Ever. (Right now, some construction worker somewhere is saying to himself, “That [think progeny of a female canine] is complaining? I’d like to see him get himself up every morning and do my job.”) To that I would respond: Not yet.

Posted by Paul Shirley: March 26, 2005, 2:00 a.m.

ORLANDO -- At the outset, road trips such as the one in which we are currently embroiled seem rather daunting. Five cities in eight days sounds hectic, at least to me. But, once we get into the flow of the travel schedule, it goes relatively quickly. Unfortunately, the quick stops in each city do nothing for my already diminished sense of time and place. By this point, having just arrived in the final city of the trip, I could not tell a soul what happened in each city, and have almost no idea what day of the week it is. (If not for the fact that this computer program fills in the date for me, I probably could not have come up with much more than “Sometime between March 1 and April 20”.)

I am a bit absent-minded at times, so remembering things like where I parked my car, if I picked my credit card out of the little plastic sleeve attached to the restaurant bill, and other like activities can often be a challenge. As I spend more and more time around basketball players, my brain power continues to diminish, which is not helping. I have been on a slow burn since college, where I was at least encouraged to spend half the day around semi-studious (okay, in my case, uber-studious, with the whole engineering thing) types, and my brainpower probably benefited. After four years of professional basketball, with the expected level of intelligence seeming to drain from the ranks as the don’t-go-to-college-since-you-can-get-the-guaranteed-money-now trend has taken hold, my brain is a veritable mush. The only thing left up there are a few quotes from Tommy Boy and a dozen ways to cover a pick-and-roll.

Case in point: I cannot remember my room number as we change from city to city. Granted, anyone would be challenged (autistics with a gift for numbers excepted) to recollect one’s room number if he changed hotels night after night. However, the average person would learn from his mistakes and come up with a solution. Not me. I wandered down to breakfast recently, still bleary-eyed at 10:30 (probably the most underrated thing about my “job” — the fact that I rarely have to get up before 9 a.m.). We were in a new city (I think this went down in Miami), so I really had not had much time to get my bearings. Now, I have sauntered onto an elevator on my way to a room of whose location I had no idea before, but that encounter did not phase me, apparently. After a finely overpriced breakfast, I was faced with the bill. As I signed my name, I realized that the “Room Number” line was going to prove a stumper. I managed to put together that my number ended in 22; a few moments later, I had an “A-ha” (light bulb over my head, not the band) moment and felt pretty confident, probably 70% so, that I was on the 25th floor. I wrote down 2522 and went on my way. When I got to 2522, I noticed that its door handle was very bare of the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign I use to keep away groupies. (Ha. Actually, I leave it on at all times just so the maids do not come in and mess up the finely-crafted rumple I give my bed. With the slept-in look going, I can at least pretend that I am at home.) I went ahead and tried the key to no avail. I wandered dejectedly back to the elevator, wondering if I was going to have to make the walk of semi-shame to the front desk so that I could find out my room number. Thankfully, I had a back-up number in place, and 2322 turned out to, in fact, be my temporary home.

Unfortunately, I do not think my 15-minute detour is going to prove to be sufficient negative reinforcement. When we checked out of the hotel, I examined my bill and found that only one of the two breakfasts I had eaten had actually been charged to my room. Since I was not that thrilled about the fact that I had paid $13.00 for a bare stack of truly awful pancakes anyway — not to mention the $6 orange juice, I did not call it to their attention and chalked the whole experience up as research for my post-basketball days, when my brain has completely failed me and I need to eat — since they won’t be at all suspicious of the bearded, 6’10” 40-year old wearing a faded Suns jersey at the Four Seasons. Wait...

So, we lost to Miami tonight. For coverage, see another source.

Before our game against the Heat, I had a wave of, well, something melodramatic and hokey, wash over me. It happened during our warm-up, immediately prior to the game. We had finished our half-assed lay-up line. (By the way, I gather that readership of this nonsense must have cracked double figures, because the censors are on the case. I don’t know that that last adjective will get through. Yesterday a whole chunk of my writing came up missing. It seems that references to the fact that Miami has a bit of a reputation as a narcotics haven are found to be offensive to the children and old people who might read this and get…none of what I am talking about anyway. And yes, I realize that I need to learn to collect my thoughts and use fewer parenthetical expressions.) I was sitting at half-court, stretching while the players who would actually be participating in the game in the near future took some shots. I looked around at all of the beautiful people filing in to the seats. I saw the ESPN guys preparing for their broadcast of the game. I looked down and saw my own warm-ups. Then, I panicked a little. I wondered if everyone around me was going to realize the fraud that I was. It does not seem all that long ago that my father was teaching me how to play the game on our gravel driveway, or that I was playing high school basketball in a town of 700 in Kansas. I thought to myself, “What am I doing? Who am I kidding? I could be about to play in this game between arguably the two best basketball teams in the world. I don’t belong here.” And then it passed. I got up, marched over to the basket, grabbed a bouncing ball, took a shot and melted right back in with my team. Identity crisis over.

Observations from our game vs. the Heat:

1. Dwyane (it kills me to have to write down a blatant typographical error on purpose) Wade is really good.

2. I played for the Kansas City Knights of the ABA (nearly-defunct minor league) for a while last year. This year, the Knights began the season with a promotion involving some “cheerleaders” and a pole. I am not going to suggest that the Miami Heat just went to some local [gentleman's] club and hired the whole roster as their dance team. Instead, I will simply say that I was impressed with their dancing abilities.

3. It must be a league-wide requirement — every NBA locker room is provided with fresh fruit prior to the game. The fresh fruit in Miami was easily the worst I have seen all year. Does that make sense?

4. Based on the crowd at the game, the use of silicone per capita in Miami has got to be the highest in the US. All in all, a good night for testing one’s ability to focus through distraction.

Posted by Paul Shirley: March 24, 2005, 9:30 p.m.

MIAMI -- We had today off, which is good news for my legs. Exhaustion is about to set in, what with all these 40+ minute nights I have been putting in…Wait…I somehow got confused and thought I was writing Shawn Marion’s journal entry. Sorry about that. Anyhoo, a day off is always a good idea, in my book. If I were a slightly more conscientious basketball player, I would have used the extra time to do some weightlifting or conditioning. Since I am not, I went to the beach.

I am a huge fan of the beach. I played for part of one year for a team in Barcelona, Spain, and developed a deep affinity for the sand and surf while there. My apartment was exactly a five minute walk from the Mediterranean Sea, so it should not be too surprising that I came to this opinion. The greatest thing about living near the water is that there is always something to do. Bored? Go to the beach. Can’t figure out what to do at the end of a first date? Go to the beach. Got a few knock-off sunglasses that need sold? Go to the beach. The only problem with my time in Spain was that the beach in Barcelona set the bar a bit high—because of the rampant toplessness. My compatriots in the sand today in Miami (the usuals—Mike Elliott, Erik Phillips, Aaron Nelson, Jay Gaspar—the trainers, etc. to whom I refer often) were quite impressed because we saw two girls sans bikini—in like three hours. In Spain, I became desensitized to the female form. It started to shock me to see girls with their tops on. Of course, this level of liberation has its drawbacks. Just as men see less wrong with walking around public locker rooms in the nude as they grow older, women seem to lose track of the correct age to begin covering up. It got pretty flabby out there some days.

Steve Nash and Leandro Barbosa joined us by the water after a while. They and the rest of the group spent some time in the ocean (gulf? My geography is not what it once was), while I looked on like the kid who did not get picked for the kickball game. I had made a grievous error with my wardrobe choice, donning khaki shorts with no auxiliary option when I left the hotel. Poor planning. I did manage to remember to buy some sunscreen at the hotel. I took care to apply it liberally. For those not familiar with my appearance, I may be, with the exception of Kirk Hinrich, the whitest player in the NBA, and was not keen on ruining the rest of the road trip with a blistering sunburn. (Upon further review, it would appear that my sunscreen application skills have grown rusty. A significant trapezoidal area of my back is angry with me for allowing so many of the Miami sun’s UV rays access to it. I guess I am going to have to work on this deficiency while poolside in Phoenix.) When my compatriots returned from the water, we listened to the most anal lifeguard to ever grace Miami Beach yell at people for having the nerve to play paddleball on the beach, decided we had had enough, and retired to the pavement for the rest of the afternoon.

This is my first trip to Miami. Neither of my partial-season stints prior to this one had brought me here, so my opinion of the place was a blank canvas this morning. After the trip to the beach, the frame was looking rather bright and colorful; by the end of the day, it was filled with grays and browns. Miami has the same problem as many cities famous for their nightlife — it is chock full of people trying way too hard to have a good time. Like New Orleans and Las Vegas, it is place that would be worth visiting once in a while, but I cannot imagine living here. I am sure that some would disagree, but the place, at least near the beach, has a very false feel to it. Almost everyone I saw today, be they muscle-bound [morons] with bad tattoos, or bleached-out, implanted girls, looked like their entire goal in life was to impress those watching them. (As an aside, I will now declare the tattoo trend dead. Not just over — that happened a couple of years ago. Dead. Is there anything more passé than the arm or shoulder tattoo on the male of our species or the symmetrical lower back tattoo on the female? On a further tangent, because this is how my brain works, Tom Gugliotta has the worst tattoo in the NBA. The barbed wire on the bicep is bad enough to put him in the running; the fact that it is the dreaded “I thought I could get away with not having it complete the circumference of my arm” type puts him over the top. It is like wearing a tie that is not only ugly, but is a clip-on to boot. Ugly is at least forgivable; the clip-on aspect makes it reprehensible.)

We gave the beachside area a good solid walk-through. My personal highlight was probably finding out that I was at one point walking a part of the A1A which, for some reason, brought some closure to my life. When I was about 11, as my younger brothers and I would jam to Vanilla Ice on my brother Dan’s tape player, I always wondered what A1A meant. Now I know that it is a highway that flows through Miami, slowing to become a choked street in South Beach. Hooray. Steve spent a good portion of his time being quite the ambassador for the NBA, stopping for pictures and handshakes with well-wishers. The rest of us watched the bizarre assortment of passersby, while Steve was assailed by a group of guys looking for photo opportunities. As we stood waiting for him, a youngish girl did a double-take as she passed the scene and asked me, “Is that a famous person?” There it is — Miami — worth measured not by one’s own recognition but instead by the recognition of others.

Posted by Paul Shirley: March 24, 2005, 1:00 a.m.

MIAMI -- Watching us play is an emotional roller-coaster, especially for me. My potential participation (or lack thereof) in a particular game depends a lot on some quickly evolving fits and starts throughout the night, so I have to pay attention to the trends. Tonight was like a lot of nights—an exercise in highs and lows.

We started off like a ball of fire, making up for our errant shots in Atlanta several fold. The Bobcats, on the other hand, were flailing away at the exact opposite end of the spectrum. They looked like a CBA team—fitting, since their arena and fans fit that mold. In the early going, Charlotte was nearly as inept as the Hawks were the night before. Jason Kapono started off on about a 1 for 10 tear and it appeared that the rout was on. I began considering the possibility that there could very well be a bit of playing time in the offing and started paying at least cursory attention to what was going on in timeouts, in case Coach D’Antoni said something like, “From now on tonight, everyone will be shooting with his left hand. Deviation from this plan of attack will result in castration immediately following the game.” I would really hate to miss one of those instructions, come out firing, and because of my own mental lapse, ruin the rest of my life. (That was an example of some unneeded verbosity. When I sign my book deal, someone will have to teach me how to actually write.)

By halftime, it was getting ugly. We were up 70-45 at the break and everyone was all smiles in the locker room. Little did they know, Mr. Hyde was waiting back on the court.

The second half started innocently enough. We looked slightly uninspired, but that is to be expected, I suppose, when it feels like the opponents’ parents may be waiting outside in minivans to take them home for some rest before the late night AAU game that is still to come. Things began to unravel a bit, though. We missed some shots, and could not stop a reinvigorated Kapono and his backcourt mate Jason Hart. (Kudos to Kapono, by the way, for continuing to put it up after the horrendous start. It warms my gunning heart.) They kept making shots, we kept looking uninterested, and I allowed my concentration to wane a bit as my chances of playing time appeared to suffer. At the quarter break, the Bobcats had the deficit down to 13. Coach D’Antoni was fit to be tied.

My heart rate, on the other hand, decreased slightly (which is not to say it was that elevated; let’s face it, if I do get into a game, the fate of the season will probably not be on the line, so there is not much reason to get too excited). I went back to my usual pastimes and managed to track down the attractive girls in the stands. Both of them.

After a quick three and a Shawn Marion dunk, things were looking rosy for the Suns once more. I took note, and refocused my attention. Then, our car headed back down the hill. We took some forced shots to no avail, and the Bobcats responded in plucky fashion. Our lead dwindled to ten at some point, and I all but gave up on removing the Did Not Play—Coach’s Decision from next to my name in the box score.

We managed to hold off Charlotte. It looked a little dicey for a bit, but we really had too many weapons. The game was not truly sealed until there were about two minutes remaining. At that point, the festive halftime mood had died out and everyone was hoping only to get the game over, so my warm-up outfit was not removed. Jake Voskuhl and I did get to watch our fellow end-of-the-bench mate, Bo Outlaw, get into the game. He managed to fire up one of his patented “I can’t believe a professional basketball player shoots the ball that way” jump shots, but with limited success. He did get in the box score though.

When the game was over, I was fatigued, much like usual. It is difficult to explain, but it is exhausting to, over a two and a half hour period, keep oneself vaguely mentally prepared, yet relaxed enough to theoretically play basketball. Now, don’t get me wrong—it is not nearly as taxing as, say, playing 38 minutes and huffing and puffing up and down the court. There is, however, a little more to it than would first appear. Of course, as my dad would say, it still beats the hell out of digging ditches, so I won’t complain.

Posted by Paul Shirley: March 23, 2005, 1:20 a.m.

CHARLOTTE -- It is a good thing I have the trainers and other support staff around to keep me sane. I do not know what it says about me, but I have very few lifelong friends that are former teammates. On the other hand, my e-mail address list is riddled with the names of athletic trainers, strength coaches, and managers from my various stops along the way. I am not sure why; it could be because most basketball players have an inherent inability to laugh at themselves and are most of the time more worried about their appearance than most anything else.

After today’s shoot-around, I found my way to the weight room in our hotel and met Erik Phillips, our strength coach, so that he could make a futile attempt at sculpting my body to Olympiad standards. As we walked into the room, Erik pointed out that none other than one Magic Johnson was sharing our space. He was riding a stationary bike, listening to headphones and watching a television mounted on the wall in front of him. We did not really know what to do with this information, so we minded our business and got to the task at hand. Toward the end of the work-out, we were joined by assistant trainer Mike Elliott, who was in a self-improvement mode as well. Soon after Mike burst onto the scene, we changed the channel of the television nearest us to the same one being viewed by Big Earv. He was watching a program that was counting down the NBA’s greatest finishes, or something of the like. Just as we got the channel changed, things got interesting as they began recounting Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals. While I finished some lat pull downs, Magic hit the famous running hook that helped win the series for the Lakers. The three of us were struck by the strange situation in which we found ourselves. Mike, fortunately, came up with a suggestion. “Someone should go over there and say, ‘Hey Magic. Nice shot.’” Because the gauntlet had been thrown down, Erik was almost without recourse. It took him a couple of minutes, but he did it, and it was hilarious, just as we expected. See, these are my kind of people. Not afraid to make asses of themselves in the interest of low-brow comedy. (By the way, after Erik took one for the comedic team, we all wandered over and chatted with Mr. Johnson. He was gracious, kind, and charming, just like everyone says. I did notice that, when I introduced myself, he did not tell me his name. I, of course, know his name—the above paragraph would have been difficult to write without that knowledge. I do not know, however, what I am supposed to call him now. Magic? Seems a bit odd. Earvin? Seems a bit forced. It will be a dilemma that haunts me. Anyway, we talked for five minutes about nothing of consequence and then went our separate ways.)

We beat the Hawks tonight and now have our 50th win under our belt. Not bad. I would like to say the mark was set on a game filled with poetic basketball and a high level of play. But if I did, I would be lying, and would be betraying the very little credibility I do have. Saying the Hawks are a bad basketball team is like saying that living in Beirut would be exciting—true, but not really the whole story. The Hawks are really, really bad. Such a collection of mismatched players has rarely been foisted upon the NBA in recent years, methinks. It is almost as if someone picked the group completely at random. There were balls being bounced off teammates’ faces, passes thrown to no one in particular and, in general, very little coherent basketball at all. At one point, the Hawks actually entered an airball as their shot of choice on three straight possessions.

A couple of things stood out tonight, not the least of which was the usual raucous crowd in Atlanta. By raucous I mean, of course, almost nonexistent. How can a team in the fifth or sixth or seventh-largest city in the US (I need a fact-checker, 1:30 a.m. is not the time to be doing research) not ever fill the arena? I played very briefly for the Hawks two years ago—preseason and a 10-day contract during the year—and tonight was as full as I have ever seen it. There were maybe 6000 people in attendance. Jimmy Jackson said it best before the game. “Watch out,” he warned, “there are a bunch of fans dressed up like seats out there tonight.”

I had several [Are you kidding me?] Moments tonight — most of them caused by some bad nicknames. [Are you kidding me moments] are defined as points in my life when, [censors on the case] I would have to consider [censors on the case again] ending it all so as to avoid dealing with the further downward spiral of our culture. The first arrived with the announcement of the starting line-ups. Here’s the deal: When, after 60 games, the team being announced has a winning percentage hovering around the same area as most pitchers’ batting averages, it loses the right to a grand entrance. No more dance team, no more theme song, no more dimming the lights. The players just walk onto the court and play the game. That’s it. The Hawks did not agree to my deal. They had an over-produced introduction on the big screen, an actual hawk that flew down from the rafters, and even a catch-phrase—something like, “The Spirit Lies Within.” Make it stop.

My other [Are you kidding me? Moments] occurred each time either of the Hawks’ rookie Josh’s was announced for scoring a basket. Apparently, someone decided that saying Josh Smith or Josh Childress was just not going to be sufficient. So instead, each time Josh Smith scores, the crowd is treated to, “J-Smooth for two.” When it is Childress, out comes, “J-Chill with the assist.” An analysis of this situation that does not include profanity escapes me, so I will not even try. Good night.

Posted by Paul Shirley: March 22, 2005, 12:00 a.m.

ATLANTA -- I have been known to do my fair share of complaining. Sometimes, like when I am stuck in a frozen outpost like Kazan, Russia for two months, it is warranted. Most of the time, though, my complaints are about as necessary as mammary glands on male swine, as the expression (sort of) goes. This is one of those times.

Exactly one year ago today, I was in a hospital bed, beginning the long, slow recovery from the lacerated spleen and fractured kidney that had resulted from an Austin Croshere knee the night before. I was playing for the Chicago Bulls at the time. Because the Bulls were really bad, they were desperate for anyone who even looked like they remotely cared about winning, with a need for a high talent level taking a back seat. I fit that bill, so was actually playing quite a bit. Toward the end of the night in question, with us down by approximately 30 in Indiana, I, thinking I needed to continue to show my enthusiasm for the team’s cause, hustled across the lane to try to take a charge from a driving Croshere. The result was the aforementioned scrambling of my insides, a nine-day hospital stay, and a five-month moratorium on almost all activity. I gathered that I was relatively lucky that I did not need either organ removed.

Contrast that with my current situation. I play for (I use the term loosely; play for/cheer for—same thing) arguably the best basketball team in the world. My responsibilities include: 1. Showing up for buses, practices, games, etc. on time. 2. Refraining from causing undue stress to anyone by misbehaving on road trips or wading into the stands to attack fans. 3. Practicing hard when given the opportunity. 4. Entering games when my team is up by an insurmountable margin and attempting to break the shots-per-minute record. It is not a difficult job, really, and I can find very little to complain about, especially tonight.

Earlier this evening, I met a friend of mine from college for dinner. Upon our arrival, we decided that neither of us was particularly hungry, so ordered some iced tea and an appetizer with intentions of a lazy discussion of nothing in particular. After an hour or so, our waitress noticed that I was wearing an Interpol T-shirt (the band, not the international crime-fighting organization). She remarked, with a point in the direction of my shirt, “Hey, do y’all know that they are playing here in Atlanta tonight?” Interpol could very well be the second-best band in the world right now (the first being an outfit fronted by a man named Maynard), so my interest was piqued.

In a part of my life I would rather forget, I would most likely have passed on the Interpol concert tonight. I would have overanalyzed the situation and thought to myself, “Well, the Hawks are pretty bad, so there’s a good chance you’ll get to play some tomorrow. Is a concert that may keep you out a little late worth jeopardizing that opportunity?” The answer probably would have been, “No, it is not worth it.” Fortunately, I no longer live by those rules. Instead, I now take a more Zorba the Greek-like approach, which is that life is way too short to pass up such opportunities.

I checked the situation with my brother via cell phone. He confirmed that the fuzzed-out rock kings of New York were in Atlanta, would be playing at a place called The Tabernacle, and were, of course, sold out. Unfazed, we paid our bill at the restaurant, thanked our waitress for the timely information, and hustled out. We had gathered that the show started at 8:00 p.m. It was 7:30. We realized that our lack of guaranteed entry did present something of a problem; when we left I put our chances of finding a scalper at 40%.

Thankfully, our hotel was close to the venue. We were there by 7:45 and had been assailed with a, “You all need tickets?” by 7:48. I hustled over and, given an opening bid of $120 for two, quickly countered with, “How about $100?” Face value was $23 each, but the show was sold out, and I was in no mood for haggling with events about to commence. He quickly accepted my offer, in his mind mocking me for being such a sucker, I am sure. We snatched up our goods and headed for the door. Shockingly, our tickets passed the scanner’s muster. (I was moderately concerned that we had been sold fake tickets. Even though our world is filled with nothing but trustworthy, responsible citizens, apparently sometimes people have the nerve to pass off things like fake concert tickets as the real thing. It is shocking, I know.) We were in.

Interpol was great. The opener, Blonde Redhead, was only fair. But I am not complaining. As the night wound down, I realized what a great life it is I lead. It would stand alone, of course, but because of my recent reflection on my plight last year at this time, it seems all the sweeter. Now all I have to do is hope the ringing in my ears subsides before someone expects me to catch my balance and make a jump shot tomorrow. But, even if that does not happen, and I am a complete disaster on the court, it was worth it.

Posted by Paul Shirley: March 20, 2005, 9:30 p.m.

ATLANTA -- Since I do not play much, I have some time on the bench to think about the things that are going on around me. By the end of any game, I will usually have scouted the crowd for the most outlandish outfit being perpetrated upon those in attendance, rated the looks of each member of the dance team, and come up with life stories for half of the first row. Today’s game was no different. Three random observations from this afternoon:

The Grizzlies may very well have the best announcer in the NBA. He has a knack for making everyone’s name sound intimidating. I wonder what he could do for a guy that has a girl’s first name as his last name?

While the audio presentation at FedEx Forum is strong, the visual side is a little shaky. I will just say this: The Suns’ dance team is much better…-looking; I am not really qualified to judge dancing ability.

I am afraid Memphis may get kicked out of the league. I could be mistaken, but I think they started three white guys— three American white guys at that. I am pretty sure there is a rule against that somewhere—some kind of quota, I think. Maybe I am wrong. I guess we will find out soon, when they have to bring back the Cincinnati Royals to fill the void the Grizzlies leave behind.

As I watched our game today, I realized that I was observing a Good vs. Evil match-up of sorts. I grew up watching the Boston Celtics and Larry Bird. (Not surprising, given the fact that my first basketball experiences came while honing my skills on a gravel driveway in rural Kansas.) When my father and I could watch an NBA game, we would watch the Celtics. Without knowing why, I loved the way Bird and his teammates played the game. At the time, I only knew that they were fun to watch. Now I understand why I was drawn to them. The Celtics, along with other teams of the era, played the game the right way. They played with reckless abandon, not caring whether they looked cool doing it. Unfortunately, that style of play quickly faded.

We are something of a test-case for a return to the 1980’s-Celtics-and-Lakers style of basketball. A test case because no one knows if that kind of game can still be played or, more importantly, succeed. At some point after the Bird-Johnson era, something changed in NBA basketball. Whatever it was alienated most of the people I know. No one in Kansas watches professional basketball. They first grew disillusioned with the me-first, style-before-substance attitude, but that was not really the reason they stopped watching. They stopped watching because the game itself was no fun. Coaches had tightened their grip, and basketball had become a slugfest. The emphasis switched to defense as the powers-that-be realized that anyone, no matter how limited in ability, could win if they stopped the other team from scoring. Consequently, players were taught that it was more important to learn how to play defense than to learn how to shoot a basketball. By the late 1990’s I, and most everyone I know, could hardly sit through an entire NBA game.

Which brings us back to today’s game. The Grizzlies are a fine basketball team, to be sure. But, they are limited. They do not have the offensive firepower that we do. They rely on making the game ugly with the hopes that they can pull it out at the end. We have players who are multidimensional. Nearly everyone on the court is a threat at any given time—which is how it should be. I think every one of our games should be televised nationally, if only so people can see how much fun the game can be when we play it. Basketball is not meant to be like football. It is a game of reaction, not planning. It is not supposed to look like two guys slogging it out in the lane while eight stand around watching. We are what it is supposed to look like—players moving, sharing the ball, shooting when they are open and, most importantly, playing together. It has taken some time for this brand to re-emerge (call it the Nowitzki-Stojakovic Effect), but when it does, and the game takes this form, it is fun to watch.

Because I had a three-month break from the Suns, I have a unique perspective from which to analyze. I was very excited about this team after training camp. Even after I was kicked to the curb, I was rooting for my former teammates to succeed, because I loved that I had been a part of such an explosive, high-powered team that seemed to be truly excited about playing the game together. Two months into my second stint of the season, I see much of the same. However, I also see a team going through the same struggles as any team that is new to success, especially one with such young personnel. I see players who might be starting to believe what they read about themselves and who are beginning to become convinced of their own importance. It is a little scary because I have high hopes for this team and want to see it succeed. (And, really, what is more important than making me happy?)

It is no secret that we are not playing our best basketball at the moment. Because we are getting close to the end of the regular season, I believe that this puts us at a crossroads of sorts. I do not want our team to go in the more negative of the two possible directions as the season winds down. Fortunately, we have some smart people at the helm, and I think they have an eye on the road ahead. Plus, things are looking up—Good triumphed over Evil today, 97-91.

Posted by Paul Shirley: March 19, 2005, 4:30 p.m.

MEMPHIS -- I suppose I play poker for the same reason as everyone else. There is a thrill that comes from playing a particular hand the right way, be it using some intricate betting to narrow my opponent’s possible options or throwing out a massive stack of chips when I am holding nothing, knowing full well that a “call” will be my demise. On today’s plane ride to Memphis, those thrills were few and far between for me.

I started off strong, but got cocky. Early on I was wheeling and dealing but, before I knew what happened, I lost most of my early winnings. Like an amateur, I panicked at the sight of my shortened stack and, instead of remaining patient—the mark of some semblance of ability in the game—I tried to make up my losses all at once. (Warning: Poker lingo ahead.) My Ace-Jack of spades did not hold up against Tim Kempton’s pocket Kings, and my chip rack was wanting for residents. I bought back in (read: donated another $20). It was an unwise move. I should have known it was not my day on the poker table.

Our little plane ride poker game has become a road trip fixture. The usual participants are the aforementioned Tim Kempton (radio for the Suns), Kevin Tucker (security and/or social coordination for the players), Mike Elliott (assistant trainer), Amaré Stoudemire (All-Star power forward), and myself (obscure Suns player and narrator of this poor attempt at embedded journalism). We get occasional cameos from the likes of Eddie Johnson and Dan Majerle, when they find a few days between tee times and make a road trip for TV, but the core usually remains the same.

Today’s big winner was Kempton. (And, when I say big winner, I mean, like ahead around $200 for the day—which is a lot of money in our games.) Tim has a rather ruddy complexion naturally; poker does it no favors. Normally, this means that, as he loses and his blood pressure rises, it shows in his face. It is relatively easy to judge how much he has lost based on the degree of redness in his face. The lesson gleaned from today’s game is that the redness goes both ways because at the end of today’s game his face was as rosy as ever. His face is our very own poker canary, because either way things probably are not going to be good for the rest of us in the game.

The poker games started way back in the preseason. I think I had the idea while Casey Jacobson had the chips. I probably got to play in about six games (poker, not basketball) before I was sent packing, released just days into the regular season. The fact that I am here and available for poker games on the Phoenix Suns’ charter plane (along with being theoretically available to play in basketball games) is a little remarkable. All it took was my return from a two-month hiatus in Russia, a trade by the Suns that sent away Casey and two others, and the Suns’ subsequent need for a warm body to keep the bench from tipping toward the coaches. Without those events, I would be a lot less happy with my life right now. On the other hand, had all of this not happened, I would be $40 richer right now. But I think we can all agree that it was a small price to pay.

Supposedly, I will be journaling the five-city, eight-day road trip upon which we just embarked for (That is, if the website can handle that much inane nonsense all in one week.) Stay tuned, it might get interesting…and if it doesn’t, I’ll make something up.