<
>

Journal 36: When scoring just four points is OK

Tragically, I am entirely too hard on myself. I write the word "tragically" because my criticisms of my own actions -- whether on the basketball court, the keyboard or the toilet -- are not helpful to my continual quest for some semblance of emotional stability.

My first game with the Minnesota Timberwolves' summer league team was relatively unremarkable. I scored all of four points in something like 20 minutes of game action.

Strangely, I was not nearly as critical of the performance as I once would have been. Perhaps I am making Zen-like progress. Or maybe I'm just getting soft. Whatever the reason, I didn't silently berate myself as I am often wont to do. Even though I shot the ball like a blind man. On a bender. With vertigo.

I won't bore the reader with anything resembling a play-by-play from our game against the Sacramento Kings. I probably would if I had the ability. However, my attempts to describe basketball plays come out like ... damn it, I was going to make an obscure reference to the books about sports I read as a child. I think one of them was "Shortstop From Tokyo." Author ... hmmm... Matt Christopher, perhaps? (Hopefully that was a fun trip through the methodology of my thought process.)

I will note that I did not start our first summer league game on the court, which does not bode well for my chances of making the team. Not starting in an NBA summer league game is similar to having the afternoon shift at a topless club somewhere off the Strip. Sure, the boss will justify it -- "The ones who come to see you at 2 p.m. are just as pathetic and hopeless as the ones who come at midnight" -- but his actions speak loudly.

The good news is that I was the first sub into the game.

For some reason, I was nervous. Perhaps my body realized what my mind had conveniently forgotten -- I hadn't played a "real" game at such a high level in a very long time; I'm not sure any of my games with the Chinese players in Los Angeles were played at anything remotely approaching a "high" level. And while those games were real, if that score was kept and referees were present, their significance was pretty low in the Paul Shirley Career Hierarchy.

I played like I was nervous, throwing together the impressive, aforementioned stat line. But since it was my first game back, I can justify my meager stat line ... to myself.

Unfortunately, I don't get the benefit of a sit-down with the Timberwolves' coaching staff. I'm sure they were not wowed by my work on the court. They might say they were, but I've learned over the years that, while coaches preach about aspects of the game like "team work" and "defense" and "remembering the plays," they actually remember "shot-making" and "impressive dunks." (There was no need for those last sets of quotation marks. I'm attempting to set a new record for unnecessary-quotation marks usage.) Sad to say, I participated in few from either category (making shots and dunking, that is; I've used plenty of quotation marks).

Summer league is a remarkably high-pressure experience. At least, it is for guys like me.

For someone like Randy Foye, the Timberwolves' first-round draft pick and owner of a convenient two-year guaranteed contract, it probably feels like a set of glorified pickup games. But I get only five games to prove that I am worthy of someone's interest.

And while I can write about the moral victory that was overcoming a few early jitters to play a tolerable basketball game, four points in 21 minutes is not going to induce a flock of contracts into my mailbox in Kansas City.

The reaction to most of the above should be: "Who cares?" The answer: Almost no one. I'm the only one perseverating about what I thought to be a subpar basketball performance. The coaches and scouts don't care; they'll just find someone else if I can't do the job. In fact, most of them probably made up their minds about me when they heard my name announced and thought to themselves, "Isn't that the guy who writes? I'm sure he's terrible."

Such is the mental battle to which I subject myself in these situations. It's all very logical and intelligent. I'm sure I will look back and be thoroughly impressed with my ability to keep the events of my life in perspective.

But, until then, I'll probably keep overanalyzing the minutiae of my every move on the basketball court. I mean, it's worked so well up till now. (Remember: four points in 21 minutes.)

Fortunately for everyone even remotely attached to me, I'm not nearly as hard on my performances as I once was. It could be that such leniency is a sign of my own decline. But I don't think so. My methods of self-criticism used to border on the masochistic; any movement in the opposite direction is probably a good one. With that in mind, it was on to the next game, confident in the knowledge that I had been so bad in the first one, improvement was virtually the only option.

Does that count as optimism?

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.