Let’s face facts here. Professional athletes are not generally known for their wit or candor. Not only does being sped through school for your athletic process not generally allow for the development of any kind of analytical thinking (or the social skills required to be funny), but no one wants to mess up their next endorsement check by saying anything that might be potentially inflammatory. So, we sports fans nowadays are stuck with either entitled idiots (like, for example, Terrell Owens) or people with no personality whatsoever (the Manning brothers, Derek Jeter). Oh, and people who get arrested a lot (oh my God, where do we begin?).
Basketball’s been my favorite sport ever since my stepdad took me to see a Celtics/Pistons playoff game back in ’87. While I’ve read more than my share of basketball biographies over the years, very few of them have provided much more than basic biographical information that I can now get off of sites like Wikipedia. Occasionally, someone like Charles Barkley or Dennis Rodman will leave us with a tasty tidbit via a press quote or, in both cases, best-selling books. However, those guys are in the minority (and Rodman has gone from someone I once had a lot of respect for to kind of a skeeve). At any rate, the heyday of both players was 15 years ago, and I’d imagine David Stern wants to try his best to keep his charges from saying, doing or writing (or having someone ghostwrite) anything controversial.
Enter Paul Shirley. Not exactly a household name in the NBA. Actually, I’d never heard of the guy until he stopped playing basketball and started blogging for ESPN and other sites. You’ve probably never heard of him either, unless you got wind of an absolutely idiotic blog entry he wrote following the Haiti earthquake (SIDEBAR ALERT), a blog entry that leaves me scratching my head a bit. If what he wrote (the contents of which can be easily found by Googling “Paul Shirley”) was serious, then he’s majorly deluded. If he was being sarcastic, then he should work on his timing and maybe be a little more sensitive to the suffering of others. The blog entry in question has nothing to do with this review, so I won’t mention it again, other than to say that what he wrote was insensitive and ignorant. There, I’m done. Anyway, where was I? Yes, so why haven’t you heard of this guy? Because he’s the textbook definition of “journeyman”. He’s also the stereotypical white guy that’s practically tethered to the bench on every NBA team-you know, the guy that white fans scream for every time they come on the court and touch the basketball because the fans are so happy to see someone on the court that looks like them? Shirley’s book, “Can I Keep My Jersey?: 11 Teams, 5 Countries and 4 Years in My Life as a Basketball Vagabond” is easily the best basketball-related book I’ve read in a decade, if only because it’s not reverential towards the NBA or David Stern. Well, it’s also the best basketball-related book I’ve read in a decade because it isn’t full of inspirational platitudes and vague comments about how fucking great everyone is. Even if some of the things Shirley writes give me pause, it’s refreshing to hear someone honestly and intelligently writing about the things happening around him (and not hiding behind a pseudonym-or a screen name like 95% of the internet does whenever they feel like writing something inflammatory).
Why do I like Shirley’s writing style so much? Well, I guess because it reminds me a bit of mine (did I just big myself up by comparing myself to a published writer?). There’s a fair amount of self-analysis going on, topped off by a healthy serving of sarcasm. Unlike the uber-confident image that most athletes project (until they get busted cheating on their partners or get caught for drugs), Shirley’s not afraid to admit that he questions his own ability as a basketball player (especially when he gets cut from a team-which happens fairly often). It gives “Can I Keep My Jersey” an element of humanity, of regular-guyness that most sports bios don’t have.There’s no stories about big games (for him, anyway), no stories about banging copious amounts of chicks Wilt Chamberlain-style, and (a rarity for a sports bio) no Lazarus-like tale of reaching the depths of personal or professional despair-unless you count a pretty serious injury to his innards that occurred in a game against the Indiana Pacers- and leading his team to victory. It’s very much a guy talking about his life-and that guy happens to be an NBA player. And a CBA player. And an ABA player. And a basketball player in Spain. And a basketball player in Russia. Can you imagine the frequent flyer miles this dude has accumulated over the years?
His wry observations on life (and religion, and other NBA players, and NBA management-types) were equal parts humorous and sobering. One topic that recurs fairly often over the course of the book is Shirley’s aversion to religion, more explicitly, Christianity. Without going into a religious sidebar (you’re welcome), I will say that Shirley very correctly points out a few instances of hypocrisy amidst the ranks of his supposedly spiritually-aligned NBA brethren. As someone who has found his faith tested many times over the years and currently has one foot in the agnostic camp and another foot in the “Christian guilt” camp, I can certainly relate.
What struck me more than anything else was his disdain for most fellow NBA players. I have to admit that there were a couple of things Paul said in the book that touched my “he’s a racist” button. Then I really had to step back and think about what was written and figure out what the context was. He disses singer Lou Rawls for butchering the National Anthem in one passage. Is that racist? No. I’m assuming he’s never heard of Rawls before (he makes that explicitly clear in the book, actually) and, considering Rawls passed away within a year or two of that performance, I wonder how good his version of the anthem really was. Considering the NBA is 80% black (his estimation-and I’m assuming that’s just the players, not the coaches and front-office execs), is the fact that he seems to have a particular disdain for most players racist? While it’s easy to come to that conclusion, I’m making my way through my mental Rolodex of current NBA players and (obviously based on media portrayals and not personal interaction) can’t think of anyone I’d want to have a beer with, either-or anyone that would bother to have a beer with me, since I’m a garden-variety dude as opposed to another celebrity or a hot chick. Let’s face it, most professional athletes live a very privileged existence, which generally results in a demeanor that can charitably be described as “haughty”. I certainly can’t relate.
“Can I Keep My Jersey?” was an interesting read not only because Shirley’s a pretty good writer, but because his perspective is unique if not singular. He’s an outsider and an insider at the same time-a position I find myself occupying in more ways than I can count. I tend to relate better to things-movies, books, music-I can find some kind of relativity with, but even if you can’t relate, I think you’ll find “Can I Keep My Jersey?” to be a rare thing in a sports-related biography-funny, personable, and disarmingly honest.