Journal 55: Do I still want to keep my jersey?

Give that man a hand: Against long odds, Paul Shirley at 30 is still getting paid to play. For now. Joan Mercadal

MENORCA, Spain -- The paperback version of my book came out on March 25. If I hadn't written it, and if I were interested in reading it, the paperback is the version I would buy. I buy the hardcover only when a book meets one of two conditions:

1. It's the only English to be found in the store and I'm completely out of my-language stimulation.

2. It was written by one of the two Chucks: Palahniuk or Klosterman.

It would make sense for this column to be about my book. I could write about what the last year has been like (a lot like the others) or what I think about my book almost a year after its release (anytime I see anything from within, I get nauseated). But this column is not going to be about my book. At least, not completely.

The main theme of "Can I Keep My Jersey?" (or what I hoped would be divined as the main theme) was the idea that my life -- which in theory should more glamorous and high-profile than most -- has been a lot like everyone else's.

Now, as I get close to the end of my career, that theme makes even more sense.

Life comes at us in stages. Sometimes, those stages develop slowly: One doesn't become a doctor in three days. Other times, they sneak up on us like a sadistic bunkmate with a sock full of pennies. But most of the time, they fall somewhere in between.

We know ahead of time that we have to start middle school -- we just don't know how we'll react to locker combinations and dancing with girls.

I started playing basketball with some seriousness when I was about 13 or 14. So began a rather lengthy stage of my life, one in which I defined myself as a basketball player. While I lived that stage of my life, I didn't stop being a human. I read books, went to movies, watched TV, graduated from high school, got a college degree, made friends, dated girls, laughed, cried, worried, celebrated and pooped. But I did those things as a basketball player.

Now, I think I'm ready to move on.

There are a little more than 30 days left in my team's season. I'm now giving serious consideration to those being the last 30-odd days in my basketball career. The obvious question is, "Why, Paul, would you quit playing a game for money?"

It's a good question. It doesn't really make sense to stop allowing people to pay me fairly ludicrous sums of money to run around on a rectangle made of wood.

But here's the thing: I'm tired of being a basketball player.

When most people read the above line, their initial reaction will be one of disgust:

"Oh, poor baby. He doesn't want to play basketball anymore. He ought to come try my job down here at the Texaco."

As I've written before, I get that.

Another reaction comes easily to mind:

"Look, Paul. You can only play basketball while you're young. Once you stop, you can't go back. You'll regret it if you quit now."

I get that, too. I just think it's time.

I should mention, too, that my body has been telling me it's time for a while now. I had the same knee surgery twice last year. I might not have admitted that fact in this space because I didn't want to scare off potential employers. After one surgery, I clawed my way out of the anesthesia to find the face of my trusted orthopedist hovering above me. His first words were something like, "Paul, it might be time to start thinking about using that engineering degree."

There is no longer much cartilage keeping my femurs from rubbing up against the back of my patellas. Years of abuse and some questionable genetics in the cartilage department have left my knees in less than stellar shape. Which actually makes this a little bit easier.

I'm going to need a reason why I quit when I'm fighting off a case of the shakes this time next year. In my vision of the future, that will be about the time that I take up residence under a bridge somewhere, telling passersby about my glory days in the Russian SuperLeague in exchange for quarters and cups of coffee. The story will be easier to tell if I can say that I quit because my knees gave out.

So that's the I'm-getting-too-old-for-this side of the story. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Because, while all seemed lost when I woke up from surgery in Ames, Iowa, my body actually feels pretty good. And now that I'm finally shaking off the effects of last May's broken ankle, I feel like I'm 24 again. (Hooray for injuries that need an 11-month recovery.) In theory, I could probably play for another year. Maybe two.

But I don't think I want to. I think it's time to move on. Time to be defined by something else.

It's either really great or really tragic that I ended up on the island of Menorca for this entire season. This island could be one of the most boring places on the planet, which has crystallized the view I have of my life. There's nothing like some long winter nights spent alone to aid in self-actualization.

I should provide a caveat now. I'm writing this near the end of a grueling season spent in a place where I have few friends. It could be that, come August, I'll start missing screaming coaches, after-practice ice baths and shared hotel rooms.

I joke about it, but I suppose it's possible that I will miss a few things. While I rail about the personalities of most of the professional basketball players I've met over the years, I have come across some truly great people in my career. The problem is that they're rarely on my team.

This year, I've been struck by just how many people I know in the world of basketball. Almost every team we've played against employs someone with whom I have at least a passing acquaintance. I have a lot of respect for some of my fellow career-warriors, guys like Gabe Muoneke, Toby Bailey and Fred House -- players who have ridden the succeed/fail parabola and have come off the other end better for it. Friends like them are like lighthouses for a 19th-century whaler. For a few minutes -- a pregame coffee with Gabe or a half-court chat with Toby -- I feel like a human being again.

And then I go back to my end of the court, where five Serbo-Croats are arguing about what number some dude I've never heard of wore in the 1987 World Championships.

Really, that's what it comes down to: I'm tired of basketball people. They're not bad people; they're not stupid people. I'm just not really like them. Don't get me wrong, there is a side of my personality that is a basketball person. I still occasionally check NBA scores. I might even have watched the Final Four, if it had been broadcast in Spain.

I had two formative summer jobs when I was in high school. The first was at a place called Skinner's Nursery, just off Silver Lake Road in North Topeka, Kan. I worked only about 20 hours a week, but they were by far the worst 20 hours of any weeks I had lived to that point in my life. My job consisted of standing in the boiling sun with a hose used to water plants or, sometimes, retiring to tiny greenhouses to pull weeds from plastic jars containing the very beginnings of flowers, shrubs or trees. I made minimum wage, which at the time was $4.25 an hour, and hated every minute I was there.

My other job, which lasted several summers, was at a place called Four Seasons Pools and Spas. I worked in the store, explaining to people how to best care for their pools. I learned how to test the pH in a sample of water, how to relieve a tractor trailer of its cargo of chemicals and how to spot an above-ground pool owner. (He is usually trailed by shirtless children, probably drives a truck and carries his water sample in a Mason jar that looks like it was used by his grandfather to serve moonshine.)

I made about the same amount of money and worked about the same amount of time at both jobs. But in contrast to the crippling dread I felt when I left my parents' house for Skinner's in the morning, I never minded going to work at the pool store. The reason: the people involved. My co-workers at Four Seasons were similarly fresh-faced high school or college kids who were generally like me. They were willing to work hard but they knew how to relax, how to laugh at the right times -- generally, they were normal human beings.

Contrast that with the detritus with which I shared the break room at the nursery. There were probably three high school diplomas shared among the eight employees, all of whom were much older (and much smellier) than I was. As one could imagine, these were not dudes with whom I could have conversations about this new band called Smashing Pumpkins, or guys who would understand my need to make some money so that I could take the girl who I thought was going to become my girlfriend to the movies once in a while.

(Side note: I based that assumption on the fact that a girl let me take her to the movies once. It was our only date. I'm not sure which was the bigger turnoff, the station wagon or the fact that I had thought of questions ahead of time in case the conversation gave out.)

The lesson I took from those summer jobs was that it didn't matter all that much what I was doing. What mattered was who I was doing it with. With a bunch of like-minded souls, a summer at the nursery could have been kind of fun. Likewise, if I had been surrounded by pinheads, a day at Four Seasons could have been like eight hours on the rack.

My career in professional basketball hasn't been completely like my summer at Skinner's Nursery. I've seen amazing places, met great people, and made more money than I should have (although not as much as people think), all while playing a game. I wouldn't change any of it.

I just think it's time to move on. It's time to find some Four Seasons people.

So what's next?

The simple answer is: I really don't know. In the immediate future, I'm not going to worry about it too much. I've saved enough money to survive for a while without having to think about a job. And I've noticed that in life, the next thing has a way of presenting itself at the right time.

I know I'll continue writing, but I hesitate to make predictions as to what direction that will take. I worked on some fiction this fall; after a summer of nothing, I hope to return to it in September. I don't really know what I'm doing when I write fiction, but I haven't really known what I was doing while I've been writing nonfiction either.

(Someone gagged when I wrote that I'm thinking of branching out into fiction. But fear not, ye of little faith. At heart, I'm nothing but a slightly neurotic bookworm. Which, as far as I can tell, is a good start on the path toward a career as a writer.)

And that's about as far as I've gotten on my plan. The set-myself-adrift mentality scares me to death, to be sure, but it also sounds wonderful, if that's possible.

I think there will come a day in September when I'll realize that I'm not about to head out for some place I really don't want to go. I think that day will bring with it a great calm. If it doesn't -- if I panic -- I can always call my agent Keith and tell him that I've made a huge mistake. He'll say he told me so, and I'll apologize. He'll tell me what my options are and I'll think about them. He'll ask me if I want to go to Ankara and that's when I'll realize that I was right before. Because Ankara will be one of those places I really don't want to go. I'll thank him for helping to clarify the situation. Then I'll settle back into my chair in my apartment in Barcelona, take a deep breath, and move on with my life.

(Photos courtesy of Joan Mercadal, whose work can be found at JoanMercadal.com.)

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.