Traveling Basketball Pro Tells His Tale Over the course of four years, Paul Shirley played for 11 professional basketball teams in five different countries. He discusses his life as a wandering basketball pro in his new book, Can I Keep My Jersey? My Life as a Basketball Vagabond.
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Traveling Basketball Pro Tells His Tale

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Traveling Basketball Pro Tells His Tale

Traveling Basketball Pro Tells His Tale

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Tonight, the Detroit Pistons host the Cleveland Cavaliers in game five of the Eastern Conference Final, a pivotal game in the NBA Playoffs with 20,000 people in attendance and millions more watching on cable TV. Paul Shirley played in some games where the crowd was counted in the low hundreds and he had to take a basketball back with him to the motel to use for warm ups the next day. Over six years, Shirley played in Greece, Russia and Spain for minor league teams in places like Yakima and Kansas City. He played exhibition games on a team sponsored by a video game company, and yes, he played in the big time - the NBA - as well.

He's written a book about his career as a professional basketball gypsy called "Can I Keep My Jersey?" If you have questions about hoop dreams and reality about race and religion in basketball or the life of a journeyman, our number is 800-989-8255. Or you can also send us email: Paul Shirley joins us now from the studios of member station KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. PAUL SHIRLEY (Author, "Can I Keep My Jersey?"; Professional Basketball Player): Thank you. I'm a little depressed after listening to you list of that laundry list of places I've been. I feel like I should be 45 by now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Sometimes, I suspect in the mornings, you feel like you're 45.

Mr. SHIRLEY: You're exactly right.

CONAN: You describe that there's a world of difference between the NBA and some of the scuffle along the leagues that you've played in, but not all that much difference in the talent and skills of the players.

Mr. SHIRLEY: Yeah. I think some people might assume that an NBA player is, say, three-times better a minor league player, but a lot of times it's maybe the NBA player is 10 percent better or something, and so that that has allowed him to then make $2 million a year instead of $200 a week. And that division is actually kind of amazing, if you think about it. It's just that may be that someone is two inches taller or can bench-press 20 extra pounds is making his income 10 times as much.

CONAN: Or that some NBA team made a mistake and drafting him and gave him a big contract, and he's continuing to get paid even though he's not so good.

Mr. SHIRLEY: Right. We have a few instances of those. That's true.

CONAN: And the odd thing is, you can be amongst the - what - the best 500 basketball players in the world and still make peanuts.

Mr. SHIRLEY: Right. Although, it is still getting paid to play a game, so I don't want to paint the picture that I'm too much of a misanthrope. It is fairly amazing that someone wants to pay me to put a ball in a basket.

CONAN: And now you just got back - as I understand it - from the Spanish island of Minorca, where you played for the local team there - described, I think, is the worst team in European basketball?

Mr. SHIRLEY: Well, that's somewhat inaccurate. It was the worst team in the Spanish league, and the Spanish league is actually the second best league in the world behind, of course, the NBA. We were - when I got there, the team was in last place. In European leagues, teams are relegated to the next division if they finish in one of the bottom two spots. So the goal was to finish in the highly mediocre place of third to last or better, and we actually accomplished that goal, which was the cause for much celebration. There were 5,000 Minorcans waiting for us when we got back from our last game. And we went up on the - in the plaza of the city center and - pontiff style - spoke to the audience.

CONAN: There's a fascinating description. You'd played in the Spanish league earlier in your career in Barcelona, and you described this - A, that the European game is much more fun to watch, much more fun to play in, and that fans and players are much more passionate about it.

Mr. SHIRLEY: They seem to be. I think when you did the intro to this section and you mentioned that there was an NBA game tonight, I think half of your listeners may have tuned you out because the NBA just doesn't seem to inspire very many people in the U.S. anymore. It does that in Spain or in Greece, sometimes to the detriment of my forehead and such. People are not afraid to…

CONAN: You've had a few things thrown at you, yeah.

Mr. SHIRLEY: …yes, chuck coins at players. When I was in Spain, as you mentioned, at one point in warm ups, a man I noticed whispering to his eight-year-old daughter's ear and then she came sprinting down to the court in order to go double obscene gesture to me, which I felt was a little inappropriate for an eight year old.

CONAN: There's also a passion by owners - you describe a game you played in Mexico, I think, you were a part of a - was this the American Basketball Association at the time?

Mr. SHIRLEY: Yeah, it's the erstwhile ABA, not the famous ABA of Julius Erving, but the infamous ABA of Tijuana and Juarez, et cetera.

CONAN: And you noticed a bunch of phantom calls by the referee. Fouls called on you and other players on your team that just didn't happen. And it turned out the referee came up to you guys after the game and said, look, I had to make some bad calls because I was getting death threats.

Mr. SHIRLEY: Right, which normally I wouldn't believe. If somebody told me that story, I'd say, hey, that's wrong. You're making that up just to sound interesting. But this man was visibly shaken in the hotel in Juarez and actually did go about getting out of the country that night because he feared for his life.

CONAN: We're talking with basketball player Paul Shirley. If you'd like to join the conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Email is His book is called "Can I Keep My Jersey?" And, Paul, that goes back to an incident, I guess, in your first tryout camp, just after you graduated from Iowa State and you were in tryout camp for the Lakers.

Mr. SHIRLEY: Right. And after being dutifully kicked to the curb because I really had no chance to make the team, I marched into the equipment manager's office and put on my best sad face and said, okay, well, so now that I am going home, I assume that I can take my jersey with me, because I don't know what you're going to do with the Lakers jersey with 45 and Shirley on the back.

And the man there said, no, we're not a club that does that. And I burst into tears. Not really. I marched out and stole a pair of shoes to get back at the Lakers.

CONAN: Were they your size shoes?

Mr. SHIRLEY: Yes. In fact, I think I may have taken two, which to me seemed like a huge victory. But I'm sure the Lakers didn't miss them at all.

CONAN: Here's an email question from John in Urbandale, Iowa. How many jerseys do you actually have?

Mr. SHIRLEY: I think I'm up to, having played for 14 professional teams, and I have every jersey except for the Yakima Sun Kings - probably because they couldn't afford to give it to me - and the aforementioned Lakers.

CONAN: Couldn't you get one made up?

Mr. SHIRLEY: I should do that, but then I wouldn't have the story, so it wouldn't be worthwhile.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: The Yakima Sun Kings. Now that was an interesting story. This is in the Continental Basketball Association, also erstwhile.

Mr. SHIRLEY: Well, it's, yes, somewhat maligned, however, slightly more historic. It's been around for 50 years, before Isiah Thomas ran it in the ground before then running the Toronto Raptors in the ground.

CONAN: And the New York Knicks.

Mr. SHIRLEY: New York Knicks. Right. Exactly.


Mr. SHIRLEY: But yes, the Continental Basketball Association is the long-time minor league. It has now been supplanted by the NBA Developmental League, but the CBA is actually had kind of roaring success in these bizarre cities like Yakima, Washington and Bismarck, North Dakota, probably because there's not a lot else to do there.

CONAN: And you describe with some passion the difficulty of people who are 6' 10" draping themselves across the seats of a bus for a long drive across the prairie.

Mr. SHIRLEY: Right. I was always disappointed by the scheduling abilities of the CBA office because we'd have to play back-to-back games. But those back-to-back games, one might be in Bismarck and then the next in Sioux Falls. And for people who are not familiar with the upper Midwest, those two cities are not close to one another.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Brett. Brett is with us from Norman, Oklahoma.

BRETT (Caller): Hi, gentlemen. How are you today?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

BRETT: Good. Paul, I just love all the (Unintelligible) blogs. And I actually discovered you do The Sports Guy column on And I just want to know what your future plans for writing were?

Mr. SHIRLEY: A fine question. The book has actually done better than Random House expected. They, like everyone else, think that all jocks are idiots. And I'm here to try to prove them wrong.

I think someday I'd love to continue to pursue this. I don't know what opportunities I'll be given, because it'll be hard to convince people that I can write about something besides basketball. But hopefully there will be that chance someday.

CONAN: For those unfamiliar with The Sports Guy or ESPN, you started keeping journals on paper when you were playing in a league in Greece, I guess your first year in professional basketball, and that's evolved into a blog where you chronicle your efforts.

Mr. SHIRLEY: Right. When I first got to Greece, I didn't have very much Internet access, so each week I would sit down and merrily type out my journals or diaries on my laptop and then send then home when I felt like I could splurge and spend 10 euros to go to the Internet cafe.

And so that continued over the next four years. And then when I was playing for the Phoenix Suns in 2004-2005, they asked me to do a blog without knowing that I had actually done this and kind of built up my own shtick, as it were, before.

That garnered a little attention from ESPN, who then asked me to write a blog full time. Random House called, asked me if I wanted to write a book. I said, why not? And here we are.

CONAN: And here we are. Brett, thanks very much for the call.

BRETT: Thank you, gentlemen.

CONAN: Now you mentioned you were playing for the Phoenix Suns, you got to play - that team went pretty deep into the playoffs and you were the 12th man.

Mr. SHIRLEY: Right, right. Which is a lot better than not being on the team at all, right? People are quick to dismiss the 12th man, but it's a lot better than being the 13th man. That joke being that there are only 12 guys on a team, so it's better to be on a team and not playing than not on a team.

CONAN: It must be difficult, though, when you're the 12th man, just to keep in shape. You hardly ever get into the game unless your team is either way ahead or way behind.

Mr. SHIRLEY: Right. It was always depressing in Phoenix after games. Other players who hadn't played, like myself and I, would go down to the practice court and run sprints after the game, which is not exactly the glory that people expect out of the NBA.

While everyone else is celebrating in the locker room with the reporters around, we're down in the subterranean parts of America West Arena running wind sprints.

CONAN: Though, like everybody who's been in the minor league - I heard this mostly from baseball players - when they get to the big league, the one thing that they expressed most amazement about is that they no longer have to carry their own bags.

Mr. SHIRLEY: Oh, it's unbelievable. The cosmic shift from riding in buses around the Dakotas to flying in chartered planes and staying in Ritz Carltons and having someone cart your bags around is remarkable.

CONAN: We're talking with Paul Shirley. His book is "Can I Keep My Jersey?: 11 Teams, 5 Countries and My So-called Career as a Professional Basketball Player." 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us. Email

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Steven on the line. Steven is with us from Santa Rosa in California.

STEVEN (Caller): Hey, I have a quick question. I'm 43 years old, I've been playing basketball 25 years. I love it. But now my knowledge of the game is starting to outpace the capabilities of my body. What do I do to keep playing another 10 years or 15 years?

Mr. SHIRLEY: Well, I'm only 29, so while I do feel slightly aged, I don't know how much help I'm going to be. My encouragement, though, is to never sink into the temptation to be the old, dirty guy on the court, nobody likes to play with the guy who just takes out the other players. So when you can't do it anymore, walk away gracefully and find golf.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEVE: Okay, thanks.

CONAN: Fore, Steven. And I have to ask you, one of your more recent blogs was playing against the dirtiest player in history.

Mr. SHIRLEY: By the way, you are so well researched it's amazing to me. I'm used to dealing with, like, sports radio guys who have no idea what's going on.

CONAN: I aspire to sports radio.

Mr. SHIRLEY: It's impressive. Yes. I did talk about a guy in Spain who was dirty in the conventional sense, in the basketball sense, in that he was sort of not afraid to throw elbows around.

But he also was literal about it, in that I don't think he had showered in about two weeks, which was quite disgusting when he was ramming his armpits into my nose.

CONAN: One of the things that I found interesting about your book is that you, for the most part, named names when you described Shareef Abdur Raheem throwing away this huge parcel of fan mail that he received. And you were shocked that he, you know, people took the effort to write you and you're throwing away - that you're not even looking at them much (Unintelligible). And you named names. Has this been a problem for you in your career as a 12th man?

Mr. SHIRLEY: Well, we'll see. I don't know that Shareef Abdur Raheem, for example, is a very intelligent guy, well-read and all that, so he may know how to use the Internet. But I don't know if that's true for everyone in the NBA, so it's not been a problem to this point. I don't know that I - to use a basketball euphemism, I suppose - I've not thrown that many people under the bus. I didn't go after people.

But I do believe that these things happen, so it's not like I can undo them from the cosmic record as it were. If I say that it happened, then that doesn't change that it actually did. So I haven't felt really to many qualms about telling the truth.

CONAN: Yet, I don't suspect you're going to be invited over to Kobe Bryant's house for dinner anytime soon.

Mr. SHIRLEY: Probably not. But I don't think many people in the NBA are.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Nicole, Nicole with us from San Francisco. Nicole, are you there?

NICOLE (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

NICOLE: Hi there. I have a question for Paul. I played soccer, and I played in college and I played internationally for a bit. But I want to know, like, from my experience you kind of always left wanting more. So in your experiences was there ever a point where you felt, I'm a success or I've made it, or this is as far as I, you know, as far as I could go? Or are you still wanting more and wanting more?

Mr. SHIRLEY: That is an astute question. I think for me growing up as a small town kid who idolized Larry Bird, my only goal was to play in the NBA. And, of course, at some point I did that, which was amazing. I was in a hotel in Boise, Idaho, and got the call that I was going to get to play for the Atlanta Hawks and I can never minimize just how phenomenal that experience was.

But you're right. Once I achieved that of actually playing in the NBA, I had to decide now what motivates me. And as hokey as it sounds, I guess for me it's always just to know that I am putting everything I can into this to be as good as I can at basketball.

And, obviously, I am much more well known for being the guy who doesn't play. But it does remain a driving force just to be as good as I can at this game, whatever that is for me.


CONAN: Okay.

NICOLE: Thank you. Thanks.

CONAN: Thanks, Nicole. But just a follow-up on what she was asking, once you're the 12th man, that's no longer good enough? You really want to be a starter?

Mr. SHIRLEY: Well, of course, I don't know that anyone can be satisfied. And I - my 12th-man status was only while I played for the Phoenix Suns. While I played for the Bulls, for example, I was actually part of the rotation. And it just so happened that when I got to Phoenix it worked out that I wasn't going to play very much.

I think good basketball players understand their role, but they also are constantly - they're going to be competitive and they're always going to want to play more. That's a natural instinct. No one's ever going to be satisfied with not playing, but he can maybe make the best of it while he's there and write a blog that gets turned into a book.

CONAN: One last question before we let you go. You're 29 years old, when will you know when you're done?

Mr. SHIRLEY: That's a great question. I've always assumed that I would blow out a knee or fall in love with some girl from Greece and that would be the end of it. But I think I will have to find a point that I am happy with my body of work and move on. And so if you have any suggestions, feel free to send them my way.

CONAN: I'm sure there's a league in Patagonia that could use you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHIRLEY: Right. I figure I should hit all seven continents before I quit.

CONAN: Paul Shirley, thanks very much for your time and good luck with your book.

Mr. SHIRLEY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Paul Shirley's book is called "Can I Keep My Jersey?" He joined us today from the studios of member station KCUR in Kansas City. If you'd like to read an excerpt from the book, you can go to our Web site,

Ira Flatow will be here tomorrow on SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll see you on Monday. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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