Last weekend I finished reading “Can I Keep My Jersey”, by NBA journeyman Paul Shirley. For the last four or five years, Shirley has been bouncing around the NBA, ABA, CBA, the European Leagues, and possibly the Tokyo Underworld trying to make a career out of playing professional basketball. During a stop in Phoenix, a member of the Suns staff discovered he could write (quite well, actually), and several blog entries and ESPN.com columns later, Shirley produced the aforementioned book.
“Can I Keep My Jersey” chronicles the first four years of Paul’s professional adventures. The dust jacket blurb tells us that reading the contents would be like finding out what it would be like if one of our best friends were in the NBA.
I disagree. Reading “Can I Keep My Jersey” was more like reading a journal I would have written had I been in the NBA. If I were 6’10” and still had hair, anyway. Reading Shirley’s voice is like reading a kindred spirit at worst, and the little voice in my head at…well, I guess that’s kind of bad, too.
The best thing about this book is that you really don’t have to be a pro basketball fan to understand or enjoy it. In fact, one of the constant themes throughout the text is Shirley’s inability to really immerse himself in an environment he finds so bizarre and often repulsive. Materialistic, uneducated teammates are frequently highlighted (though not always named—probably a good idea considering the guy hasn’t retired yet). False management sincerity is deconstructed. (“…while paying me the absolute lowest possible salary allowed by the NBA would be frivolous, paying Shawn Marion enough that he can sit around on the team’s chartered 737 wearing earrings that cost $25,000 each is a sound financial decision.”) In that way, this book is the perfect antidote for the disgruntled fan that loves the pure game but just doesn’t get the culture.
Not only that, but the book is funny. Very funny. The self-depreciating humor and sarcasm is pretty constant, but the true highlights are the rare views into the strange alternate realities professional athletes often reside in, especially in the foreign leagues. Case in point: the outlandish Christmas party Shirley attends with his teammates in Russia that for some reason features male strippers.
I was actually surprised at how much I related to in the book (and what I didn’t relate to, like Shirley’s elaborate description of getting a catheder). For one, he roomed with Alex Jensen in Yakima, Washington. Alex and I graduated from high school together in 1994. Not that he knew me or anything. For one thing, he was a foot taller than me and probably never saw me. For another, I pretty much hated all of his friends.
For another, he also knew Marc Ivaroni. I never knew Marc Ivaroni, but I always enjoyed watching him start Jazz games in the late 80’s, get two fouls in the first five minutes, then watch Thurl Bailey play the rest of the game.
Strangest of all, however, was reading Shirley’s description of playing in Kazan, Russia, which would have been a vivid description by itself—he compares it to the Planet Hoth on “Empire Strikes Back”—without reading it only days after Andrei Kirilenko claimed to want to forfeit his $63 million dollar contract to go play there. Either Andrei is truly insane or Jerry Sloan is the Anti-Christ. Possibly both.
The sad thing is that guys like Shirley would kill for the opportunities many players toss aside so leisurely. In spite of his cynicism and black sense of humor, that is what continues to make Shirley an endearing voice. You’d much rather see him succeed than the guy standing over him at practice screaming at him after he’d blocked his shot (see his Introduction). Shirley mentions that it would have been nice to have a kindred spirit on the sidelines to crack jokes with. I would have been happy to oblige.