The top Spanish basketball league, like most leagues in Europe, punishes cellar-dwelling by relegating to a lower division the two teams that finish at the bottom of the standings.
When I arrived in Menorca, my new team was in last place with eight games remaining. It is the fervent hope of everyone on the island that ViveMenorca will not be demoted -- so much so that old men sometimes approach me on the street and, while staring deeply into my eyes, beg me to play hard and restore glory to the club.
At least I think that's what they're saying. They might be trying to sell me lottery tickets. I really should make more of an effort to learn passable Spanish.
After four games in the Paul Shirley Epoch, we had managed two wins. The second was a massive victory at the home of the European powerhouse called Unicaja, in Malaga. We followed that esteem-building triumph with a disappointing loss to Lagun Aro Bilbao, which is led by my college teammate Martin Rancik and my college rival Luke Recker.
Next on the schedule was a trip to San Sebastian for a battle with the team we had leapfrogged in the standings -- CB Bruesa.
As I've mentioned before, I really like to win the basketball games in which I play. It's sort of the point.
But I think winning should be done the right way. It may sound archaic; our shorts don't have belts, and very few of us wear handlebar mustaches, but we do obey certain rules. We don't pay the refs. We don't slash tires on the team bus. We don't pee in the other team's Gatorade.
And, perhaps most importantly, we don't try to hurt each other.
I've played against several "dirty" players in my career. Invariably, the man in question was less talented than everyone else on the court -- he probably couldn't shoot, was likely slow of foot, and usually did something weird with his hair. Often, he was old -- the game had passed him by. With a few exceptions, the faces of those unscrupulous players melded together into one distasteful vision of elbow-throwing, jersey-grabbing, and genital-punching.
But I'm not going to forget the player I was charged with guarding in the Bruesa game. He took the term "dirty" to a new level. Sure, the usual hallmarks were there -- the attempts to get his feet tangled in mine, the forearm that seemed to consistently find its way into my temple -- but there was another aspect to his method. In addition to employing the usual tactics of the dirty player, he took the term to a new level. He made it literal.
In a perverse way, I respected his dedication. Sure, each time I got within six feet of him, I was assailed by the smell of hot garbage lying in a puddle of stale cat urine. But he was committed. He had decided that it wasn't enough for his style of play to be vomit-inducing. He needed more. So he didn't shower ... for what smelled like three weeks.
I was assigned the job of guarding Pepe LeSmellslikeatoilet. It was good exercise for my olfactory nerves, like weightlifting is good for muscles. Now they'll more thoroughly appreciate the next opportunity to smell something more fragrant. Like dead fish.
As the game started, I didn't have much cause for concern. He hadn't worked himself into a thorough lather, and I was playing well. After making two 3-pointers and a random layup in the first six minutes, I thought my problems would lie only in the calculation of my scoring total at game's end. I vanquished my concern about Pig Pen to the back of my mind.
But as the game wore on and my 3-for-4 start became a 3-for-4 finish -- even as I played a game-high 31 minutes -- I had to worry more and more about the Stinkbomb.
He kept hitting me. He blocked out with his elbows held high, giving me ample opportunity for facial bruises. (And armpit sniffs.) He jabbed me in the shoulder, in the stomach, in the back. One time, he somehow managed to push me to the ground, where I fell awkwardly, narrowly avoiding breaking my hand.
When I politely asked the referee to pay attention to the assault of shin bones and forearms to which I was being subjected, he snarled that I should "play basketball." (As would be expected, the Spanish referees are none too fond of foreigners.)
I maintained my calm disposition for a long time. Eventually, though, Stinky wore me down. He got under my skin. Or he got past those little hairs in my nose.
Either way, I lost my cool and resorted to his tactics, picking up three quick fouls in the third quarter. Left to stew on the bench for a few minutes, I wiped my jersey of his odor-infested sweat, and wiped my mind of my childish ways. When my American teammate was brutalized near the basket and responded with a hard foul of his own, I was sent back into the fray.
I calmly played out the fourth quarter. I made two free throws, got a few rebounds and, eventually, figured out how to win my own little battle with Señor Ducha Sin Jabon. My solution was presented in a few defensive stops by us, a few missed shots by Bruesa and our celebration at midcourt of Bruesa's 10,000-seat indoor bullfighting ring-cum-basketball arena. (Seriously.)
This time, the gentlemanly way won out. Such won't always be the case. For every nine players who play basketball with some concept of class, there will be one Stinky McStinkerton of CB Bruesa. (I'm running out of nicknames.)
He'll be on the winning side just enough to think that what he's playing is actually basketball. He may even keep a job longer than me, as age will have no bearing on his skill set of not jumping, running awkwardly, and skipping deodorant.
And that's fine with me. Because while he'll still be getting paid to "play basketball" long after my knees fail me, I'll be able to respect the way I played.
And I'll never have been called "Stinky McStinkerton" in an international media outlet. Perhaps my biggest win of all.
Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams -- the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. Paul can be found at myspace.com/paulshirley. His book, "Can I Keep My Jersey?", can be found here.