Journal 56: Taking that shot

On relegation day, Paul figured he should relegate his fears and make one last leap of faith. Courtesy Joan Mercadal

MENORCA, Spain --
The final game of ViveMenorca's glorious 2007-2008 campaign carried with it a fair amount of pressure. Personally, there was the obvious -- possible last game ever, blah, blah, blah. But from the team's viewpoint, the game was probably even more important; it would determine whether ViveMenorca would remain in the Spanish first division next season.

As I've mentioned before, the teams that finish in the last two places in the standings are relegated to the second division. This isn't exactly what anyone begins the season hoping to do. Imagine if the Kansas City Royals were demoted to the minor leagues. Besides the loss in revenue, etc., such a demotion brings about humiliation on the level of having one's pants pulled down during the presentation of the award for outstanding achievement in second-year French.

I've maintained an apathetic feeling toward my team's games this year. Oddly enough, my blasé approach hasn't been detrimental toward my own play. When I care, I tend to tense up. Sometimes, that's OK -- I try harder, play harder. Other times, it isn't. Shooting, for example, is not best done under mental duress.

I found myself caring about this game, though. I suppose the fact that it could have been my personal finale contributed to my newfound sense of responsibility. But I do remain somewhat competitive -- I didn't want to be known as the guy who helped submarine a first-division team.

Our fate was in the hands of four teams. If any of three teams -- Estudiantes, Valladolid or Granada -- lost, we would be fine. Or, if we won our home game against a team from Gran Canaria, salvation would be ours. Sounds easy enough. Unfortunately, it was expected by the Spanish punditry that the other three teams would win. Each of them was playing for something; the teams they played against were not. The good news for us: our opponent, Gran Canaria, also had nothing to play for. They were out of the playoff hunt, but were in no danger of relegation.

I'll spare the reader a full Marv Albert on the game. The short(ish) version is this: At halftime, we were ahead by four or five, but not playing particularly well. I had played most of the first half. While I hadn't taken a shot -- not a surprise considering that I had touched the ball on offense about three times -- I had played OK. I had done most of that playing in a sort of weird fog. I was trying to soak up everything I could, in case this was, indeed, my last game ever.

Fast forward ...

The fourth quarter was something of a microcosm of my basketball career. I started the period on the court but was removed with seven minutes to go after a boneheaded turnover. I feared that I wouldn't get back in. I began envisioning a final buzzer that found me on the bench, having scored two points in a losing effort for a relegated team. It wasn't exactly how I wanted to go out.

In fact, in one of my more mainstream moments, the song "I Ain't Going Out Like That" by the illustrious Cypress Hill popped into my head. Yeah, I know. Gawd.

Fortunately, our coach, the island's only Gargamel lookalike, found mercy somewhere in his soul and returned me to the fray with about five minutes to go. Things were pretty grim. We had found out at halftime that two of the teams we needed to lose were not losing but were, in fact, carrying comfortable leads. In our own gym, life was no rosier. We were down seven and Gran Canaria was showing no signs of a mercy laydown.

As I sat near the scorer's table, I caught the eye of a particular blonde girl in the stands, smiled, and resolved to relax and do my best. Once inside the wooden rectangle, I scampered up and down the court, getting both a steal and a block during my first minute. Then I made a 3-pointer. And then -- even though we were still down three points -- the crowd lost its collective mind. For a second, I thought they were just being particularly basketball-savvy. Maybe they knew we needed a boost, I thought. But then I realized that something must have happened in one of the other games -- something ViveMenorca-friendly.

It turned out that Valladolid lost, leaving us in the clear and rendering our game meaningless -- something I learned sometime after our backup point guard made a 3-pointer to send our game into overtime.

Those five minutes of overtime proved anticlimactic. We lost by two after a questionable call on the same point guard with 2.5 seconds to go. I'm confident the referees just wanted to have a shower. But since I'm not writing on behalf of the entire team, I have to get back to why this was a microcosm of my career.

As I mentioned, when I went back into the game for the final time, I wasn't thrilled with how my second half had gone. My turnover had been one of timidity; if there's anything I've learned over the years, it is that indecision and cowardice never lead to good feelings, whether in basketball or in approaching strange girls.

Thus, the 3-pointer facing me soon after I re-entered the game was an important one. I missed one badly earlier in the game and was yanked soon after. An earlier version of me would have passed the ball, afraid of another failure. But I didn't. So, really, that I made it wasn't that important -- it was the shot that was important.

Beyond that, though, another play stands out. In the overtime, I caught a ball in a similar situation to the one that led to the costly turnover earlier in the game. But this time, I moved to the basket without hesitation. I took two dribbles and, though there was a large man in my way, jumped without regard to the consequences.

And, boy, did I jump. Later, my teammates said things like, "You jumped really high. But then you just kept going." (This was in Spanish, so I'm paraphrasing, from both words and gestures.)

In midair, I found myself chest-to-chest with the other team's leading shot-blocker. Except that my hand was a foot higher than his. When my arm made contact with the rim as I slammed the ball toward the basket, I noticed that the point of impact was closer to my elbow than to my wrist. I hadn't jumped like that in three years.

But this is why the play is a microcosm of my career: I missed the dunk. I was right there but I slammed it off the back of the rim. I might have missed it because I was higher than I expected to be. Or I might have missed it because I wasn't concentrating. Or I might have missed it because I winked at my girlfriend a few plays before. I'll never know. But I missed it.

It could have been an amazing career-ending play. The dunk of a lifetime. But it wasn't. That would have been too easy. Just as the retirement that I once envisioned -- the one that involved a standing ovation at Boston Garden -- would have been too easy.

Life rarely goes like we plan it. I'm both aware of that fact and constantly battling against it. I worry about my future. I always did. I'm trying to get better -- I'm trying to understand that worrying about it won't help. But it isn't easy.

I want so badly to know what's next, even while my brain screams, "IT DOESN'T MATTER, PAUL. IT WILL ALL WORK OUT." Just like my basketball career has worked out. I didn't make the dunk, but that's not important. What's important is that I tried it.

And, remember, I did make the 3-pointer.

I'm writing this the day after. Maybe it's the day after my basketball career, or maybe it's just the day after another season. So much of me wants to know which, but the better part -- the part that's learning -- knows it will get figured out, and that worrying about it probably won't help.

All I really know is this: Soon, I'm going to pack up and get on a plane for Barcelona. Maybe an escape from AlcaMenorca will bring an itch to return to basketball in the fall. Or maybe not. For now, I'm glad I won't be getting any calls about practice at 6.

After that … well …

The people close to me are probably tired of the sentence I'm about to use. I say it, write it, think it a lot. But in my life, it's a useful sentence.

That sentence being …

We'll see.

What's next for my basketball career? We'll see.

What am I going to do this summer? We'll see.

What's the grand, all-encompassing, master plan for my life? We'll see.

Am I going to replay the missed dunk in my head a few more times?

Um … probably.

(Photo 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.