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Journal 57: Sometimes, you walk away so you can still walk

MENORCA, Spain --
When I was about 13, the fiberglass backboard on the deck above my parents' driveway deteriorated to the point that the rim began to droop. One day, it was low enough that I could grab it. Soon after, the front had fallen to the point that I could dunk a ball, in a manner of speaking. I remember thinking at the time that once I could really dunk, I would never stop. It was the coolest thing I could imagine accomplishing. I figured I would be outside for hours, slamming the basketball through the hoop time after time.

With age, I grew and my muscles got stronger. Soon enough, I could dunk a basketball with relative ease. But once I could do it, the novelty quickly wore off. It's the same in life. We assume that when we can, we'll do [insert action here] with every waking minute.

For example, I used to say this about cereal:

"Boy, when I grow up, I'm going to eat as many bowls of cereal as I want -- and of whatever kind I want."

(My parents would never let me have a second bowl when I was a kid. Good parenting, I suppose, but frustrating when all you want is another serving of Honey Nut Cheerios.)

I don't eat that much cereal now. Maybe a little more than back then, but I certainly don't have an entire pantry devoted to General Mills, which is what I envisioned as a 7-year-old.

Most of us could say the same about many things in life: driving, drinking, sex with a particular person. We assume that, once we experience it, we'll never be able to get enough. But it never works that way -- we're easily spoiled.

I don't know why things work this way, but they seem to. I would guess it has something to do with that property they explained in Psychology 101 -- the one that allows us to get used to certain sensations. For example, when you first put on underwear in the morning, you think, "There is a mixture of cotton and Lycra pressed against my skin where only a moment ago was air and my gym shorts." But soon, you get used to your underwear and forget about the sensation. If you didn't, you'd go crazy. "Now I have underwear touching my skin, and that hair is touching my forehead and there's the sound of the fan and swallowing feels weird." Pretty soon you'd be the dude from the movie "Pi."

Professional sports are similar. Upon arrival, you forget how cool you thought it would be to get here. I'm not saying that's a good thing, or that I'm proud of it. That's just the way it is -- same as your forgetting about your underwear until the 90-minute drive home, when it's bound up like a sailor's knot in a typhoon.

All that to say that I understand when people wag their fingers and say, "You'll regret it if you quit now." I'd say the same thing, if I were them. They, on the other hand, cannot understand it when I say, "I'm not sure I will." (Regret it, that is.)

Of course, it remains true that I get paid to play a game. Regardless of the newness wearing off, or of a dampening of the luster of being a professional basketball player, I can feed myself doing this.

But there are other problems.

Playing basketball with other people is not like sharing the same floor of an office building with co-workers. Playing basketball with other humans is closer to dating those humans than it is to simply working with them. For starters, there's lots of physical contact. Simplistic, I know. But imagine coming into work, stripping down to your skivvies, and then rubbing your groin against the back of someone's leg. Sounds a little personal, doesn't it? Well, that's what we learned basketball types call playing defense in the post.

In addition, basketball, like most team sports, requires the participants to work as one unit. Their thoughts have to be synchronized on a very base level for anything to work correctly on the court. Such synchronization requires a certain degree of vulnerability: Players have to be willing to make mistakes in order for the group to go forward. These mistakes are not the type that can be covered up with a quick "I'm sorry, I misspoke." These are obvious, full-body mistakes that anyone in the gym can observe -- a missed shot, falling down, a foul. As such, they're potentially embarrassing. Vulnerability is nothing if not the willingness to open oneself up to embarrassment. And any basketball practice or game is fraught with potential embarrassment.

Additionally, there's traveling together, eating together, sharing rooms and -- not unimportantly -- sharing a shower.

Think about it: How personal is it … how vulnerable do you have to make yourself to, on a daily basis, shower with 10 other men?

When I write that I don't get along that well with most of my teammates, it is often dismissed. "Who cares?" the reader might say. "I don't like anyone I work with either." But, again, it's not like sitting in a staff meeting with 10 people you don't like. In fact, if we were to put the two on a spectrum, it's closer to an orgy with 10 people you don't like than it is to working at Caterpillar with 10 people you don't like.

But even that I can deal with. I have e-mail, an iPod and episodes of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" to get me through.

There is one thing, though, that distractions will not help me overcome. Namely, the condition of my body. I remarked recently, to several people I know, that I feel better now than I have in years. Let's do a quick timeline:

2004-05 Season: The year I played with the Suns. As is often the case in my life, no one cared that I made the Phoenix Suns opening day roster -- my first such achievement -- six months after I NEARLY DIED because Austin Croshere put a knee in my side, fracturing my left kidney and rupturing my spleen. I was in the hospital for nine days, couldn't stay upright for more than 30 minutes at a time for two weeks after and didn't even start running until a few weeks before training camp.

2005-06 Season: Made a TV show. Stayed fairly healthy.

2006-07 Season: Suffered through NBA summer league with Minnesota with unknown knee injury. Returned to Kansas, had arthroscopic knee surgery. Rehabilitated in time for training camp with Minnesota. Suffered through training camp with similar injury in other knee. Was released. Had arthroscopic knee surgery on other knee. Rehabilitated. Played two months in Spain on two newly repaired legs. Survived, until I broke my ankle on the last play of the last game of the year.

2007-08 Season: Played while recovering from aforementioned massive ankle injury that resulted in ankle surgery performed by the orthopedist of one Rafael Nadal. In Menorca, Spain, of all places.

Now, finally, I am healed. Except for one pesky problem. When I had the knee surgeries, my doctor was somewhat dismayed regarding the condition of the cartilage in those knees. Long story short: There's no way to predict how much longer that cartilage will last.

Some might ask, "Why would you write that? Shouldn't you be worried that teams won't want to sign you -- you're admitting that your knees aren't in great shape?" It's not a bad point, except that many, many players are playing with knees that are far worse than mine. There is little danger that the condition of my knees would impact how I would play this year.

But it might impact how I will walk when I'm 50. Or, whether I'll be ABLE to walk when I'm 50. Call me crazy, but that's what I'm more worried about. Because it is quite likely that I could play another year or two. Or even three. But each time I come down from one of my gravity-defying leaps, there is the danger that my quadriceps and gluteus might not fire correctly, and yet another chip of cartilage will be removed from the posterior side of my patella. Do that enough times, and age 50 might find me watching "The Price Is Right" hoping to see the Power Chair commercial.

Mix all of this together, throw in a dash of foreign-country fatigue and a splash of the understanding that there is currency in youth … in all professions, and so I might want to get started on the next thing …

Stir …

What do you get?

A guy like me, who's probably like you -- a guy who doesn't have the answers and who thinks that each day only brings more questions. But also a guy who is realizing that life is like that, and that it wouldn't be any fun if it weren't.

Will I play basketball next year?

I don't know.

If I do, will that result in a knee replacement when I'm 45?

I don't know.

If I don't play, will I regret it?

I don't know. But I don't think so.

Regret seems to be a common thread when people talk about making decisions. They're often afraid that they'll regret a decision to quit a job or to break up with a girlfriend. But regret doesn't make much sense. There's nothing to be done to change history. Much like there is little to be done to change the future. I will get offered basketball jobs for the fall and winter. I will either choose to take one or I won't. But I only get to make the decision once. So, as far as I can tell, I will have made the right decision 100 percent of the time, since I don't get to do it twice.

So whether I play more basketball or I don't, I plan to avoid that particularly foul emotion called regret.

Knee pain? I might have some of that. Regret? No. Or at least, I hope not.

To the casual observer, the decision of whether to continue playing basketball seems like an easy one. I don't have to work that much, I get to see the world, I get paid more than I should, and -- most of all -- it's a game. But if I had a chance to sit down with that casual observer, I would hope that I would be able to explain that he's right, but that the specific characteristics of my life don't change the fact that I'm a human just like he is, and that -- just like he must -- I have to make decisions about my future without all the information.

In all reality, it's very possible that I'll play basketball next year. Not because I'm afraid of what will happen if I don't, but because I still think there's a chance that I'll be happy with what will happen if I do. Basketball has led to some extraordinary things in my life, and I'm not sure it's done yet.

Now, if you'll excuse me, my underwear is in all the wrong places.

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, now in paperback, "Can I Keep My Jersey?" can be found here.