At some point, I need to recount (as in summarize, not count again) how it has happened that I have played for so many basketball teams in such a short professional career. That time is not now, but it will happen. I bring up my athletic sluttiness right now because I recently closed the books on yet another team.
(By the way, today's entry is being aided by Local H's album, "Pack Up the Cats." Seems like a fun little game, doesn't it? Maybe I'll continue it in the future.)
The story of my demise with Beijing Aoshen Olympian, the minor league basketball team in Los Angeles for which I had been playing, began on a recent Friday night in a game against a team called the SoCal Legends.
I reported to Azusa Pacific College for our game against the Legends knowing that, for a change, I would start. My team's Chinese owner had decided that we needed to win the game, but not for the usual motivation. We were a win behind that night's opponent; a victory would move us ahead of them in the standings. More importantly, however, a midseason first-place slot in our division would mean that my team's coaches would get to pick the All-Star team. The owner knew that there was no way he could guarantee any of his (read: Chinese) players a selection without his own coaches picking the team (with probably one exception, the Chinese players are not that good).
I was told this going into the game and inquired why he cared, because no one I know gives a rat's tuchus who plays in the ABA All-Star Game. I was told that he thought it would help his players in the eyes of NBA scouts. Obviously, he has a lot to learn about the scouting process.
I walked into the Azusa Pacific gym with a little bounce in my step. I was somewhat excited about getting to play in a basketball game that was not going to be hamstrung by the owner's whims and substitutions from the bleachers. If we were going to make an effort to win, I thought, there was no way he would go over the head of the American coach and randomly add players to the game's mix.
Two odd developments slightly sullied the opening of the game. I am not sure if they contributed to the, well, contributing factors leading to my eventual meltdown, but in the interest of full disclosure, I will include them.
I had done an appearance on ESPN2's "Cold Pizza" that morning. (As it happens, I've never seen this show, because it airs at 10 a.m., way before I like to rise for the day.)
When I got into the locker room, my coach asked about the show. He had not seen it, but a friend of his had. He was curious, firstly, as to why I was being interviewed on televised programs, so I was forced to explain what a "blog" is. Next, he cautioned me against being too forthright when I did interviews as the team was sensitive to any comments about the Chinese management. Because it seems that my one goal is to sabotage my own basketball career at every available turn, I had (of course) spoken at length about the bizarre nature of my employment by Beijing Aoshen.
As we finished our conversation/cautionary tale, I noticed a basketball player I had known from a previous career stop walk into the locker room. I sidled over and asked why he was there. He told me that he was going to try out for the team the next day. I thought that was strange as our quota of three Americans was filled at the time and so passed along my confusion to him. He informed me that the team had told him they thought I had a job lined up with the Toronto Raptors, and would be leaving them soon. I chuckled inwardly.
One of the saddest aspects of the minor leagues is the attention paid by the players to the potential of a visit from an NBA scout. A week earlier, my coach had relayed to me that someone from the Raptors had called inquiring about me and wanted to come watch us play. He seemed excited about the prospect; because he is new to the scene, I didn't want to tell him just how unlikely it was that such an event would ever come to pass.
Rumors of the attendance of scouts infect the minor leagues like mold in a high school locker room. A few random eyes might be watching over the course of the season, but in the case of Beijing Aoshen Olympian, that scenario would unfold only if the scout in question had a "Judgment Night"-type experience and found himself wandering through East L.A. on Slauson in the early evening. That is, it's unlikely.
Anyway, it was obvious that this piece of hearsay had grown over the course of a few days, to the point that I likely could have convinced someone that I was going to be boarding a helicopter immediately following our game with the SoCal Legends to be whisked to the Raptors' next destination, where a starting role would await me.
Beijing's GM had told me from the beginning of my stay that the team had been hesitant to sign me because they were afraid they would lose me to the NBA at some point. (Come on, it has happened three years in a row; the self-aggrandizement is not that much of a stretch.) I wondered if that meant that they generally tried to seek out American players who were kind of good -- but not quite good enough for the NBA.
Whatever the situation regarding either my candor or my possible replacement, I pushed it all to the back of my mind so I could concentrate on a high-level ABA basketball game. I started off fairly well, hitting a 3-pointer and another long jump shot before coming to the bench with around three minutes left in the first quarter. I returned to the action some time in the second quarter, only to be pulled soon after. This raised my hackles once again (see previous journal entries), but I resolved to stay calm and see what the second half would hold.
We were up two to begin the third, and since I was back in the action to start the second half, I marshaled some concentration so as to pretend I was actually a basketball player again. With about three minutes gone, I took a shot around the top of the key. As it clanged off the rim, I watched out of the corner of my eye as the Chinese owner sent one of his lieutenants down to the bench to find a substitute for me. At the next dead ball, I walked off the court in disbelief.
Let me be clear. I have never been pulled from a basketball game for missing a shot. Never, ever. First, it is generally not done, especially in reaction to one shot. If, in the NBA, a player whose only job it is to make shots has missed a few in a row and the coach realizes it just isn't going to come together for him that night, it could happen. And, as I mentioned in an earlier, egoistical (egotistical?) entry, I am pretty good for the ABA. I certainly do not expect to be forced to deal with such developments -- in the minor leagues.
I was absolutely seething when I got to the bench. A chance for retribution was just around the corner, though. The player who had replaced me quickly picked up his fourth foul, so I was sent back in. Undeterred by what had transpired just a few minutes before, it took me very little time to get in position to hoist up a 3. I was almost glad when it flew off the mark; a large part of me wanted to dare the owner to pull something ridiculous. He did not disappoint. I don't even think I had made it to half court in retreat before a kid who rarely plays was dispatched to the scorer's table.
I considered my options. Reason, and the fact that I was playing in the ABA, won out, and I kept my cool. I decided that no one really cared if I made a big deal out of my mistreatment anyway, and a felony battery charge was certainly not going to help any of my potential future careers. So I tried to laugh inwardly at the absurdity of the situation and sat back to watch my team eventually lose by 31.
One of the more annoying aspects of the experience of knowing me is my constant need to talk about anything that is bothering me. It's a somewhat girlish trait; apparently the common "man" bottles his feelings, later turning to regular beatings of his wife as an outlet for his angst. Not me -- I have to get everything out in the open, often to my own detriment.
To this end, I called the coach aside after the game and gave him a State of the Me address. I told him that I realized his hands were tied in the situation, but that I had never been so insulted in my entire basketball career and that I would not tolerate the situation much longer. (I'm such a badass.) He urged me to remain professional and not do anything rash. He felt that if I quashed my own pride for a while, I would be happy with the team in the end.
We had a game the next day. I didn't really know what to expect because of the previous evening's events. I thought there was a good chance I would not play at all while they tested the contingency plan they had on hand in case of my departure. To that end, I seriously considered having a beer before the game but, again, reason won out and true rock bottom eluded me once more.
I reported to Maywood Recreational Center on edge. Truth be told, I was looking for the slightest opportunity to get angry. I was in a phenomenal mental state for participation in a basketball game.
The game started innocuously enough. I began the night on the bench, but that was not shocking. It seemed that the owner thought his countrymen would be able to handle the opponent, the Los Angeles Aftershock, without much help. I was a little surprised when I was called into action with only six minutes gone but not as surprised as I was when I got the hook after a whopping 1:10 of game action.
This time, I hadn't even gotten off a shot. As I paced around the bench area, I tried to catch the owner's eye so that I could give him, at the very least, a quizzical look. It was not to be. Since I am, it seems, indecisive in my moments of rage, I did not overturn the Gatorade cooler at the end of the bench. I did take a seat next to said cooler and sulked like a petulant child denied his afternoon snack.
But then, lo and behold, I heard my name called out a few minutes later. The coach, who had not noticed the billboard-sized look of disgust I was carrying around (or had ignored it), put me back in. As if I was returning to the bedroom of a girl who had repeatedly mistreated me, I was hopeful -- even as the logical part of my brain told me that the situation was not going to end well.
I made it a minute and a half. Again, I didn't even have time to take a shot. I couldn't see a reason for displeasure with my play but it would seem that I must have done something wrong. And so, I mournfully returned to the bench one last time.
I survived halftime without making a scene. I observed the second half only because of my peripheral vision; my stare was fixed on a point on the wall across the gym from me. I knew I had no choice but to quit. The team had left me with no other options. (I mean, there's always the Molotov cocktail option, I suppose.)
After the game, but before my shower, I walked out of the locker room and found the team's general manager (who is American, by the way). He seemed surprised when I told him that I was done with his team. He asked me why I had made such a decision, which amazed me. (Then I noted his height again and realized that he had probably never actually played the game and so would have little idea about what I was going to say next.)
I told him that there was no way I could exist under the conditions that had developed since my first two games. I related that I needed to actually play in the games. I am not in a position to sit around and do spot-relief for this team at this point in my career. While I may be a veteran of sorts, I am not old enough to watch minor league basketball, even if the check that comes my way for doing it is much greater than the one I could expect from any other minor-league team.
When I finished with my uninspired soliloquy, the GM said, "Well, OK." He asked about my uniforms; I promised to be available in the coming days so that one of his lackeys could come to the hotel and retrieve them. I returned to the locker room, showered, and, with relief, left the Maywood Recreational Center for the last time.
When I was a shy 12-year-old boy shooting baskets in the gravel driveway outside my parents' house in rural Kansas, I had no idea I would grow up to be such a malcontent. Somewhere between then and now, I lost the ability to quietly nod my head in assent and (gasp) started thinking. I won't go into a long analysis of my own psyche here; suffice it say, though, that I would have been a much better candidate for the armed forces then than now.
Professional team No. 12 is now in my past. (I think it's 12 anyway -- I'm beginning to lose track.) I survived only 19 days, and six games, with Beijing Aoshen Olympian.
On one hand, my short stint is alarming. But truth be told, I am somewhat proud of myself for quitting. (I actually like to call it "resigning my position with the team." It sounds much more refined.) Sometimes, it takes much more fortitude to quit something than it does to maintain the party line and "stick it out."
Quick story, and then I promise to end this. (Just this story, not my own existence. It would be an impressive suicide note though, huh?)
When I was a freshman in high school, I played for my school's baseball team. I had grown up loving the game; it was my first love. It was rapidly becoming apparent to all who watched, though, that my future was probably not on the diamond, but on the basketball court. About four weeks into baseball season, I realized that I was not going to get to play that year. The only thing I had to look forward to each day was a four-hour period of monotony after school each day. I hated it.
But I didn't quit. I thought quitting was a cowardly move. I had learned over the years that "sticking it out" is the accepted response to adversity.
My continued participation was a mistake. I survived the year, and even played (practiced) through another year after that. But I didn't enjoy it. And in what was perhaps a karmic event, I had my face rearranged by a baseball that fateful sophomore year. (Fortunately, I was never going to be a model anyway. That being said, I never have liked my wider, surgically reconstructed nose much.)
My high school baseball experience taught me that enduring something terrible does not necessarily lead to one's happiness, enlightenment, or toughness. Additionally, it may cause one to get hit in the face by a pitched baseball, resulting in a broken nose and a dinner plate-sized pool of blood in the immediate vicinity of home plate in Ozawkie, Kansas.
I can't believe I didn't quit the mighty Beijing squad earlier.
Paul Shirley has played for 12 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams -- the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His journal will appear regularly at ESPN.com. To e-mail Paul, click here.