Interview: former NBA pro Paul Shirley

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The NBA bench-warmer and author can't get fired again from ESPN, but tries in our interview.

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Dave Hartley | October 3, 2012

Paul Shirley

Paul Shirley playing European pro ball

Dave Hartley plays bass in The War on Drugs. He shares the tragic and inspiring stories of life beyond the NBA for Impose in his column, Death Dunk.

Paul Shirley has been on my radar for a while now—outspoken, musically-minded former pro basketball players are rare—but when I came across his funny and well-written piece on The War on Drugs, I knew I wanted to pick his brain. Shirley was a self-described “hustle player” who matriculated at Iowa State and played professionally all over Europe and with the Phoenix Suns, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks. He's a writer [author of "My So-Called Career" blog on ESPN and the book Can I Keep My Jersey? via Random House] and has a candor rarely seen in former athletes—if there is a “code of discretion” among pro ballers he either doesn't know or doesn't care.

DH: In your time in the NBA and playing professionally in Europe, did you feel like an outsider?

PS: Yes.

I was going to leave it there like a dick, but that wouldn’t be very nice, would it? Especially not for a first question.

I always felt like an outsider in basketball, which is curious because one of the reasons I played basketball, I’m quite sure, was because I wanted to be accepted by humans in general. It turned out that the people I needed to endure to gain that larger acceptance, though, were, shall we say, difficult to deal with.

Do you mean your teammates and coaches or the management structure of the teams you played for?

Mostly the teammates I had along the way. After high school, that ideal I held in my head – of playing with a bunch of guys who had similar goals as I – pretty much dissolved. That’s not to say that everyone I met was difficult to deal with, though, but it is to say that in college, for example, I was playing with guys who had no interest in going to class, certainly didn’t want to talk about reading books, and in some cases, were bona fide criminals. The pros were a little better, but only because everything became so antiseptic; most of the guys were their own tiny corporations. It was not what I envisioned, which was something closer to, say, your band: dudes struggling to make it and then celebrating with each other when they did.

What kinds of injuries did you deal with in your career?

Oh, nothing more than…

Stress fractures in my ischium, pelvic bone, and tibia. Two broken noses, three concussions, more stitches than I can count or remember. A broken left foot. Arthroscopic surgery on both knees. A blown-out brachial plexus nerve that left my right arm useless for two months and that left the musculature on the right side of my torso (deltoid, trapezius, biceps, triceps) whittled down to a Machinist-like level. Dislocated fingers, hyperextended thumbs, a staph infection in my elbow that resulted in three days in the hospital. A lacerated kidney and ruptured spleen thanks to an Austin Croshere knee. And the injury that more or less ended my career: a broken ankle that required three separate surgeries, the last of which was two years ago.

How much does the average professional baller deal with injuries over the course of a season? Is everyone injured? I’ve always speculated that players are downplaying their physical maladies, perhaps to keep their opponents guessing or to increase their chances of securing a long-term contract—does this reflect your experiences?

As you can guess from the above, yes. Even when I wasn’t “injured,” I was almost always “hurt.” In college, I was on a steady diet of anti-inflammatories (specifically Vioxx, which has since been taken off the market) and sometimes opiates (Oxycontin and Ultram) just to get through the proverbial day. One of the joys of NOT playing basketball anymore is that I don’t ache every day when I get out of bed.

You’re right to think that it does not behoove the average basketball player to talk much about his injuries. I did a lot of creative explaining when it came to my state of physical being!

Did your academic proclivities help you on the court? Are “academic smarts” and “basketball IQ” mutually exclusive?

I think they could, theoretically, help but my brain generally worked against me “on” the court. I’m prone to being a little OCD and/or prone to anxiety; both of these can be the death knell to staying in the so-called moment, which is sort of important when 15,000 people are screaming at you or you’re fighting for your job in training camp.

They did help me off the court, in the sense that I was more aware than most of my weaknesses and how I could overcome them when I was playing. (Or what I needed to do to shore up said weaknesses.)

This seems like a good time to ask: do you think general smarts help when you’re playing music? Or do they get in the way of Letting Go?

Interestingly I’d say my academic proclivities do probably get in the way of ‘Letting Go,’ as you so eloquently put it. Let’s be honest, in performance-based careers like basketball and live music, an exaggerated sense of awareness isn’t necessarily a good thing in the moment. I think what is truly needed is an exaggerated (unrealistic? Irrational?) degree of self-confidence. What takes place on stage (and I imagine what takes place on the court) isn’t governed by analysis but by great instincts. So when someone says Larry Bird had an amazing ‘basketball IQ’ I think what that means is that he had preternatural performance instincts—its more synthesis than analysis, I’d argue. Improvisational talent.

Having said that, I’d also totally agree that a little bit of intelligence can help so much in making records and going through the other steps that it takes to build a music career. For one, I figured out a long time ago that there were hardly any true bass players kicking around (people who were primarily bass craftsmen and not merely former guitarists who got demoted) and if I practiced enough I’d always be employed.

Ha! I was somewhat similar in my plan for adaptability: I learned early in college that the best way to get on the court was to play harder than everyone else. Later (like, after having my kidney & spleen rearranged), I realized that that wasn’t a long-term solution, however.

What was your most memorable NBA experience?

I will never forget the disembodied feeling that came about…the first time I saw Amare Stoudemire’s penis in the shower.

Just kidding! (Although I probably won’t forget that either.) Truth is that I can still flash back to the feeling I had when my first NBA basket went in: the United Center in Chicago, top of the key, 19 feet out, nothing but the bottom of the net. The challenge then being that I had to run back on defense like I’d always assumed this would happen.

What was your most memorable European basketball experience?

Honestly, it was, unfortunately, an injury: the aforementioned brachial plexus catastrophe happened in Barcelona, when I had just joined my second European team, DKV Joventut (home to Rudy Fernandez and Ricky Rubio). I was thrilled with having arrived in such a beautiful city and was loving the fact that the team was actually paying me and treating me like a person. (My previous European stop, in Greece, had been the exact opposite.) Then I caught the ball in the lane, put my head into Zan Tabak’s chest, and it felt like someone was pouring magma down my spine. I could not stop screaming. I’m sympathetic to women and the pain of childbirth, but that’s a pain that is supposed to happen. This was a pain that cannot be described; I will never feel anything as bad again. (And keep in mind that I had my kidney and spleen exploded.)

When you were in the prime of your career, what albums or bands were your favorites? Did you listen to you music to warm up? When you retired did you find your listening habits changed?

In order to understand my listening habits as a player, you also have to understand that I was often playing angry. Most of the time, I was overmatched physically. And I attached much of my self-worth to how I played on the court. Which meant that I was emotionally volatile, and which meant that I listened to lots of stuff that makes me sound like an eighteen-year old gamer: Tool, Nine Inch Nails, Deftones. That, though, was offset when I wasn’t, you know, in the throes of my mental battles, by plenty of time spent discovering new music. I was lucky to be in Europe, too – that helped me get out of the typical American’s rut. When I was in Greece and Spain, I discovered the Charlatans, and Blur, and Stereophonics—bands that are known in the US, but not SO known. This feeling of discovery opened my eyes to how much music was out there and I think led to a mushrooming of my music collection which, as a retired basketball player, is significantly more even-keel (although I still listen to a lot of Tool).

I actually saw Tool headline Lollapalooza at The Gorge in Eastern Washington in 1995; Maynard’s body was painted entirely green and he was done up in exaggerated Marilyn Monroe-esque gaudy make-up. One of the most memorable shows of my young life.

I read your critique of Pitchfork’s top 200 albums since its inception and your top 50 albums from 1996-2009 Do you like older music? What are some of your favorite albums from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s?

I’ve always thought that it’s something of a waste of time to try to go back and understand an album that was recorded before someone was born; the context of that album – where it fits in the progression of the music at the time – is important to understanding that album, and we know longer have that context.

That said, I do, of course, like some older music: The Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Lynyrd Skynyrd. I’ve recently gotten into records like an asshole, and have decided that everyone should have at least one Molly Hatchet album, and that no one should be without Rumours on vinyl.

The NBA seems to be almost entirely hip-hop and R&B dominated as far as players’ tastes go (Matt Bonner confirmed this)—was this the case when you were in the league? What did your teammates in Europe listen to? College?

My teammates, almost to a man, listened to garbage. Lower-case.

As a child of the Great Plains, I know garbage when I hear it: I grew up around country music. There’s good country music (the real stuff: Waylon Jennings, Steve Earle, even the Drive-By Truckers) and there’s shit country music (Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, I don’t know, Deana Carter). The same is true of most genres, of course, which means that it’s true for hip-hop and R&B. Most of my teammates did not listen to socially-conscious, thinking man’s rap; they listened to 50 Cent and The Game.

Which players did you admire when you were growing up? Which of your contemporaries (in college, the NBA and in Europe) did you respect the most?

I grew up a disciple of the Boston Celtics and the University of Kansas men’s basketball team. I met Danny Manning (who led the 1988 KU team to a championship) in a Wal-Mart in Lawrence when I was 9; it was one of the best days of my life. A dozen years later, I spent part of a summer working out daily with him in a Lawrence gym. He had no idea that I’d once asked for his autograph.

Did you admire musicians growing up? Get to meet any of them?

Yes of course. I think most of my idols were fairly predictable as a kid: Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix—the greats. But when I started playing bass in high school I got really into guys like Jack Bruce, John Paul Jones, Bill Wyman, etc. I met Jack Bruce in an elevator in New York City after a gig and he was very gracious and down to earth—not to mention ancient!

My best “meet your idol” story happened really recently: The War on Drugs were just wrapping up an absolutely brutally-routed stretch of festivals (ten countries in ten days, overnight drives and early flights, no sleep) in Europe and had one last show before a break: Bonnaroo in Tennessee. We got off the flight, whacked out from about 4 hours of sleep in the past 4 or 5 days (not to mention a couple cocktails on the flight over), trying to collect our bags and bearings by the turnstile and gather ourselves enough to shred for the unwashed ocean of hippies and go home. So we’re psychedelically exhausted and waiting for our guitars to come down the conveyer belt and we see a grey little man sitting in a rocking chair (why there was a rocking chair in the airport, I have no idea). I almost didn’t recognize him but, sure enough, it’s Brian fucking Wilson.

I have to backup and disclose that I’m a stone-cold Beach Boys fanatic. I like their classic work, I like their delusional 70’s output and I even like their bizarre missteps. Brian is a God to me, but I’m too intimidated to approach him. Luckily Adam gets the balls to ask him for a photograph (something I never really do but in this case was thankful for his boldness): “Brian, we’re big admirers of your work, could we have a photograph with you?” His handlers swoop in to escort him away and he mumbles “I don’t have time, I don’t have time.” One of his handlers must have seen the exhaustion and desperation in our eyes and says “ok, just one photo really quick”. We gather around him, beaming and sleep deprived. I give my iPhone to our soundguy Mickey. He pauses, hits the button and says “ok I think I got it.” Before he can confirm this, Brian and his entourage are out the door and whisked into a limo. I look at my iPhone. It’s a blurry picture of the floor. I love Mickey but I don’t think I’ll ever forgive him for pressing the button at the wrong time (he probably won’t forgive himself either).

I believe that basketball is the closest sport-analog to music—it’s improvisational and cooperative with a vast array of participants, whereas football strikes me as very regimented and war-like. Do you agree? Do you see any relationship between your love of hoops and your love of music?

I agree wholeheartedly with that assessment. Basketball is like live rock ‘n’ roll; there are rules and patterns that develop, but you never know what might happen—no two plays will ever be exactly the same.

Now, you could say that for football, on a micro-physical level – a player’s body might move slightly differently on one pattern versus another – but the general goal of football is to mimic the perfection of a drawn play, each time out.

My love affair with music comes from feeling like something of an outcast, which is a feeling that most musicians usually relate to and often sing about. I didn’t think I fit in with people, so I played basketball. But then I didn’t fit in with basketball players, so I listened to music. This also explains why in my post-basketball days, I seem to end up with musician friends, even though I can play a guitar like a fish can pilot an F-22.

That’s fascinating because I was driven to music because as an adolescent I felt everyone was measured by his or her athletic ability. Academics (something I excelled at) weren’t “cool” and music was just something to do before gym class and involved brass instruments and weird symbols. When I discovered that you could actually feel a sense of belonging and that your “otherness” was accepted through the bizarre act of turning an amp all the way up, well, I was hooked forever. So in essence I got in music what I originally sought (and was unable to get) in athletics.

So can you play hoops?

I played a little bit in high school and college (mostly intra-mural type stuff) and wouldn’t embarrass myself in a pickup game, but not sure that I can play by any standard close to yours. I also tore my ACL in a pickup game when I was 20, and had the patella tendon reconstruction. The knee is nice and stable but I have tendonitis resulting from the surgery. Having said that, The War on Drugs has officially challenged The Walkmen to a 5 on 5 game-not sure if they’re up to it or not. We’re a pretty scrappy bunch of dudes, you should see Adam dribble through the lane with abandon. Also, our aforementioned soundman is 6’8” (although he is missing a couple fingers) so we have a legitimate center (by musician standards anyways).

If you ever need a washed-up power forward who has no interest in rebounding anymore, I’m available.

Be careful what you offer! We will take you up on that—you can just camp out at the top of the key and drain jumpers—I’ll take care of the tap outs.

What do you think of the state of the game today? How do you think Lebron James and Kevin Durant compare to, say, Magic/Bird, Kobe/Tim or Michael and his peers?

For more on this, see this article I wrote for my friend Justin Halpern’s website.

People are starting to view the early 2000s as a post-Jordan lull for the NBA, with isolation-offense and selfish guard play coming to the fore. Do you agree?

Ergggh, there was definitely a lull, but that lull was probably caused by Jordan. Teams and their front offices were desperate for another Jordan, so they encouraged copycatting—players (often guards or small forwards) who were thought to be capable of being stars like Jordan (Allen Iverson, Grant Hill, et al) were given the go-ahead to hold the ball and as a result, the game slowed down and got gross.

Where do you see the future of the game heading? I personally believe it’s the perfect sport that could one day eclipse even soccer in worldwide popularity.. how will basketball globalization help/harm play quality?

I, too, think that basketball is the closest of the major sports to transcendent. The problem is that people don’t necessarily want transcendent; they want the NFL. (Or so it seems.) I do hope that (or wonder if) there will one day be a league that spans the world, so that World Champions means what it purports to.

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