<
>

Journal 34: My name is Paul, and I have an addiction

Because I'm an insufferable elitist, I always have thought I was above needing basketball in my life.

I thought that the game had provided a ticket to a decent education, would help jump-start my financial well-being, and then would end when I either (A) blew out a knee or (B) grew tired of a life filled with stays in hotel rooms in strange cities.

(There was also an Option C. Option C involved me falling in love with some girl who wouldn't put up with my vagabond lifestyle and who would make me settle down. The ship that carried Option C sailed away a long time ago. Carrying a cargo of gunpowder and matches. Into a reef filled with aquatic gnomes with an affinity for lighting those matches. And a gnomish societal death wish.)

I was wrong about basketball's role in my life. After much analysis, I have realized that, at heart, I am nothing more than a basketball player.

It has taken a year quasi-away from basketball to make me realize how much I need the game. (This winter's Chinese ABA experiment hardly counts. That situation certainly did not cultivate any affinity for the sport.)

I should note how much it pains me to have written the phrase "need the game" at my age. While I was like many other Midwestern kids -- his existence tied to a game -- I thought I eventually would grow out of that seemingly immature world view. After all, the subject of my basal passion is the activity of traversing a wood floor while dribbling a ball and attempting to throw that ball through a metal hoop at one end of the court. It's nearly the most contrived pastime a person could conceive. I daresay that cow-tipping has a more logical basis for existence.

Nonetheless, it's what I do. Not only that -- it's what I do the best.

I've spent more time in my life playing basketball than doing any other activity besides sleeping. It's been my main focus since I was 14 years old. That dedication has resulted in some aptitude for the game. No matter how much I try to pooh-pooh that point through my own self-deprecation, I am a very good basketball player. At the very least, I'm better at basketball than I am at anything else. And we all like to do the things we are best at doing.

Part of my motivation to "put everything I had" or "go all out" or whatever terrible sports phrase fits with regard to the making of our television show was experimental in nature. I was trying out life without basketball. I was never planning a retirement at such a young age. As long as people are willing to pay me to play a game, I'm probably going to continue to play that game. However, here's the problem: I can't do it forever. No matter how hard I work or how much HGH I take (I'm joking), I can play basketball for only a (relative) few more years.

So I tried a little stability this year. I actually lived in the same place for five months. I had an office. I got to know my co-workers a little bit. I even tried to have a stable relationship with a girl. (It went up in flames, thanks for asking.) Unfortunately -- or fortunately, I'm not sure -- it wasn't enough.

Of course, as a snob, this pains me greatly. I never thought I would follow the footsteps of so many before me -- becoming a coach or announcer when my playing days were over -- because I thought I was too smart. But now I'm not so sure. Maybe I'm addicted. Perhaps basketball is my bathroom sink full of meth. Fortunately, those decisions don't have to be made yet. Because for now, I'm still a basketball player.

It's hard to admit such a weakness. As we all know by now, I'm a little cynical. I dislike the hokey, the sappy, and -- most of all -- the predictable. I should hate storybook endings where the underdog triumphs. And I do … except when they take place on a basketball court. Call it a chink in my intellectual armor.

Or call it the only thing that keeps me sane. Because here's the other problem: I think too much. (Shocker.) In fact, my over-processing brain hampers my basketball abilities. (I often wonder if I might be a better player while drunk. It seems like it would calm the overactive analysis glands. Check back for reports on the results of that experiment.) Nonetheless, the basketball court is the one place I can get away. It's my primal arena. When I play basketball, everything else takes on secondary importance. The feeling I experience after a good game, after a good practice, or even after a good weightlifting workout is akin to that during a good bout of drunkenness … or sex. I don't do well without it.

(It kills me to admit that. After all, I'm supposed to be the smart guy. The one with the grand future after basketball. That's why I got the engineering degree -- so I could get a respectable job.)

In order to provide myself with that elusive high, I've been killing myself in Kansas. (Not literally. Although a few more viewings of corn-fed girls by the pool and that sentence might take on new meaning. Topic of discussion for another time: Everyone in the Midwest gets married young. But the girls are generally worse-looking here. What's the rush to lock down the fat girl?) I've probably worked harder in the last month than in any other similar time period in the last two years.

Next stop: summer league in Las Vegas with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Which is nothing to get excited about; I'll be vying for the attention of GMs -- both NBA and foreign -- with nothing guaranteed and no reason to be particularly hopeful, just like I did when I was fresh out of college and making the same circuit.

So, after a few months away, it's back to basketball for me. Of course, I realize that by admitting my need to play, I'm opening myself up to extreme ridicule. So let the commentary begin between both of my fans.

I can't help that -- at heart -- I am no more than a dumb jock. I understand that I am best-known for not playing. I know that I have scored all of 33 points in my NBA career. I am aware that many of the desk jockeys who read this think they could probably beat me in a game of HORSE. That's OK. I can only try to do what makes me happy.

For now, it makes me happy to play basketball. Admitting that scares me greatly. I don't know what I will do when my career is over. I can't imagine that a few more years of career instability is going to contribute to any emotional stability. But, hopefully I can make enough now to pay for the Zoloft I'll need later.

Paul Shirley has played for 12 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams -- the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His journal appears regularly at ESPN.com. To e-mail Paul, click here.