I always forget what a pain in my ass this time of year is.
Right now, my daily routine begins with a visit to a Web site called HoopsHype, where can be found a collection of all the stories related to the NBA found in that day's major newspapers. I start most days with a perusal of the site, hoping to learn a little about the ebbs and flows of the professional basketball player job market.
Every few days, I read something that causes me to think, "Hmmm ... as I've long suspected, someone with [insert team name here] is insane. Because no non-Zoloft-addled brain would sign [insert player's name here] to a five-year contract."
I then briefly consider a different vocation, but quickly realize it is doubtful any other job would allow me to get up at 9:45 on a semi-regular basis. So I resign myself to my bowl of cereal and a trip to the gym.
My perusal of HoopsHype is probably not healthy. It causes me to revert to old habits. When I first got out of college, I was quick to criticize players above me on the proverbial food chain. I would watch games or hear about transactions, then would make snap statements comparing the relative merits of a particular player's skill set to mine. Some of the time, I was probably right. There were, and are, players undeserving of their contracts, of their places on their teams. (And probably of their wives. I've seen some really ugly basketball players with some really decent-looking mates.)
But that line of reasoning cuts both ways. There are certainly guys who deserve my spot who will never get the opportunities I've had.
Eventually, I learned that my bellyaching was not helping me to get a basketball job. (I learned this with the help of my family, who got really tired of hearing me complain. That I lived at home in the offseasons at the beginning of my career lends credence to the argument that I was unqualified for much self-aggrandizement.) I finally realized that there are a lot of dudes competing for only a few really, really good jobs, and that, unfortunately, some of those terrible clichés -- such as "timing is everything," "it's not what you know, but who you know" and "never get involved in a land war in Asia" -- are true.
This theory -- that much of my career is out of my control -- goes against everything in which I believe. As I have mentioned, I am just a dumb jock at heart. As such, I think my pay scale should be based purely on my ability to play basketball. My inner basketball player doesn't understand that other factors are at work -- the relationship my agent has with a team, the nationality of someone's director of player personnel, the loss of a GM's cell phone because of a touchy situation involving a stripper in Tijuana.
That inner basketball player doesn't know how to process those intricacies. He just wants to put the ball in the hoop.
Every other unsigned basketball player is a competitor in my marketplace. As such, when someone else signs a contract with a team, I take that news as rejection. I liken it to losing out on an acting job. Without saying it directly, someone intimated that I wasn't good enough for the part.
I got to know a fair number of actors while I was in L.A. I even tried to date one. Unfortunately, she turned out to be a little crazy. But I think they all are. Just like basketball players. In fact, we're kindred spirits. (Perhaps explaining my willingness to see through the crazy despite cautionary tales from ... pretty much every male in Los Angeles, including Barry Bostwick.)
I figured out that actors live a brutal life. They are constantly told no. Even the best are routinely rejected. And that rejection comes about because they failed at baring themselves sufficiently -- a rather violating pastime in the first place.
Basketball players aren't much different. We invest countless hours and mental energy toward getting as good as we can. (Well, I do. There are some guys who can just show up and dominate. I hate them.) We "audition" and, most of the time, are told no.
I've been told I wasn't good enough, either directly or indirectly, more than all my friends combined. (Except the actor friends. Who might not be my friends -- since they're actors. Note to self: further flaw in dating an actress -- especially a good one. It's quite possible she would be acting as though she likes me.)
Like most people, I don't like it when someone tells me I'm not good enough.
Every summer about this time, I engage in almost-daily mental battles as I read about contracts being handed out. I sometimes figure out that it doesn't help to think about it; obviously, my situation is not tops on the list of concerns of any team's general manager. While marquee free agents are courted and flown from city to city, I learn about potential jobs from the Internet and my agent.
The good news -- and the bad news -- is that I have something to worry about. In the end, my summer league stint in Las Vegas did me some good. I played pretty well. By the end of it all, I had put together two really good games and three OK games. I returned home to Kansas City to learn, via MRI, that my knee is going to be just fine. (Long story; suffice it to say someone is going to aspirate a Baker's cyst, which sounds gross ... because it is. But it's not a big deal.)
This is all bad news because I played well enough that I can question some of those players who undoubtedly will get contracts ahead of me. But, this year I will do my best to avoid comparisons to those signing the contracts, if only to prevent my father from saying things like, "Well, if you're so good, then why didn't you just sign a $15 million contract?" There really is no way to rebut that -- because it's a good point.
Not that I haven't tried.
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.