Journal 45: When basketball is like sex ... and food

As I backpedaled my way down the court, I extended my arms and clapped my hands over my head. The raucous crowd of 5,000 Menorcans roared its approval. Chills ran through my body as I watched the clock count down to zero. ViveMenorca victory No. 8 on the year was in the books.

In a logical progression, my role in our win made me think about cooking.

If my game day ended with an exclamation point, it started with an upside-down question mark.

I had moved the day before into my team-financed apartment, which was an encouraging development. I had enjoyed my time in the hotel, but the sexual tension between me and the hotel restaurant's Russian Spanish-speaking waitress was becoming unbearable.

My apartment is nice. The doors are Hobbitish and the parking is hard to come by, but I can find few other faults. It has an ample kitchen, stone floors and three bedrooms, one of which has bunk beds -- good news, considering the litter of Gypsy children I fathered last time I played in Spain.

Its one glaring weakness, at least when viewed from my cold bed when I woke up after my first night there, was its lack of foodstuffs.

I moved in on Good Friday. Spain is a heavily Catholic country. Thus, my first day as a bona fide resident of Menorca passed without a trip to the supermarket.

Fortunately, the corner store was open on Saturday. I rousted myself from bed and marched down Carrer de Carlos III and threw open the gates to my newfound paradise of comestibles. (Read: I walked through the open door of a dimly lit, sparsely stocked minimarket.) Once inside, I gathered what I would need for a breakfast of eggs, toast and cereal, and hiked back to my apartment. I found the dials for the stove and set about waiting for the coils to heat up.

When, 10 minutes later, I felt nothing but cold air on the backside of my hand, I … tried the front side. Still no luck, even with extra nerve endings on the job. I took another look at the knobs.

My wiser-by-10-minutes self agreed with the dumber version of me: picture of little flame equals less heat; picture of big flame equals more heat; picture of dot equals off. I turned on the oven, thinking that there possibly existed a symbiotic relationship between the two.

After another few minutes of frustration, I noticed some markings on the top surface of the stove. They looked decidedly unrelated to the Franco-era oven's controls. To my feeble mind, they appeared to be touch-sensitive controls for each burner. I pushed what looked to be the main on-off button. Nothing. I tried each burner's button. Again, bupkis.

Stiff-arming the hunger-panic that was rising in my throat, I thought I would outsmart my stove. I checked the Internet, hoping for salvation in the form of an online instruction manual. Lo and behold, I found the manufacturer's Web site, and in English, no less. Sadly, the troubleshooting consisted of: Stove won't turn on? Check to make sure it is connected to a power source.

Genius-level work there, old chap. (It was www.something.uk. Then again, I suppose I shouldn't have expected much. The English aren't exactly churning out technological marvels these days. They do use electric guitars, but Muse doesn't count.)

I went back into the kitchen and glared at my stove. I pressed the buttons a few more times and then … voila! When I held my thumb on the power button for a few seconds: magic. The right side of the stove lit up like a trailer park during "American Idol."

A few more minutes of Hardy Boys-ery and I was ready to cook, a scant 40 minutes after I had begun. Living in Europe: to the persistent go the … scrambled eggs.

After breakfast, I returned to the grocery store. Since I knew I had a working stove at my disposal, I thought I'd be greedy and prepare a nice big pregame meal. And I did. I knocked out a magnificent salad with some pasta and meat sauce. (From scratch. The sauce, not the pasta. That would be absurd.)

I took a quick nap and then reported to the gym, ready to put in a concerted effort to beat our opponent, the mighty Fuenlabrada … Fuenlabradans?

(I was recently asked why European teams don't have nicknames. I don't know the answer. I'm guessing that there isn't enough syllabic room for a city, a sponsor, and a team nickname. For example, if Fuenlabrada used, say, a tree frog as its nickname/mascot, the team's name would be El Alta Gestion Fuenlabrada Ranas de Arboles. Which would be a bit much.)

In the week leading up to the game, I had felt some pressure to justify my existence. My team brought me to this underpopulated island to help win games. I don't have many chances to do so; when I arrived, there were eight remaining. And apparently we don't win on the road much. The home game against Fuenlabrada would be one of our better opportunities.

Fortunately for my own sanity, I did play well. Really well. And we won. I wasn't the reason we won, but I was definitely a reason we won.

I made a couple of 3-pointers, I blocked a couple of shots, but more importantly, I played like I am capable of playing. Which was a relief. A relief that manifested itself in a few overhead handclaps and a spate of goose bumps at the end of the game.

Actually, I understate how I felt.

Warning, anyone who is fond of my cynical nature will be disappointed by the next passage.

When Chris Moss laid in our last basket and it was clear that we were going to beat Fuenlabrada, I felt like I had just experienced a massage, six pieces of black licorice and a bout of the best sex of my life -- all at once.

This orgasmic feeling came as something of a shock. I had forgotten what it's like to play well while being cheered to victory by several thousand fans. I hadn't played a leading role in a meaningful, team-oriented basketball game in two years.
My last experience with such a circumstance was in Russia. And because I was there for only two months, and on the active roster for one, I played in only five games. Before that, there was a game or two when I played for the Chicago Bulls, almost a year prior to the Russian experience.

In fact, over the course of the last three years, due to injury, status as a benchwarmer, and a foray into the entertainment industry, I've experienced that set of stimuli -- key role, big crowd, important win -- maybe … three times? In three years. And I'm a professional basketball player. It's no wonder I've had to fill my hours with the odd writing gig now and then.

That feeling reminded me why I've spent so much time working out the past few years. Often, it seemed futile. I would diligently arrive to an appointment with one of my vastly underpaid workout gurus in Kansas City, and Scott Wedman or Doug Edwards or Matt Condon would teach me something I should have learned when I was 19. (Thank you, NCAA. Using athletes for the benefit of a $6 billion television contract and then getting rid of them. Noble.)

Much like my attempt to cook breakfast on game day, my basketball career had become an exercise in frustration. My inert stove dials were trips to summer league, a stint with a Chinese team in the ABA, or a reminder that Vin Baker, Eddie Griffin and Mark Madsen are irreplaceable parts in a well-oiled basketball machine.

Which means that my somewhat soggy scrambled eggs were the chills down my spine.

I don't want to get too carried away. My basketball career has not yet been fully resurrected. My team remains in last place. And I haven't made eye contact with a single cheerleader. But our last game was a nice step in the process -- it reminded me why I play basketball, just when I was beginning to wonder.

As for why I make scrambled eggs, even if it takes an hour and a half? Well, because they're delicious, that's why.

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.