It is rapidly becoming apparent that this particular basketball experiment might be coming to a quick conclusion. My participation with my Chinese-funded ABA team is making me insane.
When we returned from our road trip to Washington state, I was relatively happy about my status with the team. I had played a lot in both games, and seemed to have free rein to do what I wanted while I was on the court. I was looking forward to my home-court debut as I was actually excited about playing basketball for a change. My enthusiasm was short-lived.
The home venue used by Beijing Aoshen Olympian (my team ... stay with me here) is the Maywood Community Recreational Center in scenic Maywood, Calif. It's not exactly America West Arena. (They might have changed that name by now. I think some airline bought another one. At any rate, it's no wherever-the-Suns-currently-play.) Bleachers can be found on only one side of the gym, and the surface of the court looks as though it was the recipient of a violent hockey game. Any proceedings to be found inside are observed by paying members (I hear that $2.50 a month is the going rate) who are working out in the makeshift weight room that overlooks the court.
Now the weird part. Because the Chinese owner is, well, rich, apparently, he has the games televised back in China. Which means the parking lot next to our tiny little court in the barrio is filled with TV trucks come game time. We seem to consistently draw a crowd of about 100 for a home game. The television production crew makes up about a fifth of that number.
By the time a game starts, the situation looks nearly tolerable. The walls of the gym get covered with huge banners promoting Chinese companies. The standard baskets are raised to the ceiling, and freestanding ones with shot clocks attached are wheeled in. And, in a move that warms the basketball purist still lurking somewhere inside me, someone actually mops the floor before the game. It all almost makes a guy want to play a little bit.
As I mentioned, my first two games with my new team went relatively well. I thought my 28-point performance in the most recent of the two would convey some level of credibility for me with the team and I would be able to overcome any owner's need to play his Chinese players an inordinate amount.
Unfortunately, I failed to account for said owner's physical presence at our first home game. I don't know why he had made the trip over from China, but he had. The result -- I played eight minutes. Total. I was vexed. I noted earlier that I had gone into this experience aware that playing time might be hard to come by. But ... seriously. NBA-level players, no matter how vast or minimal their actual experience, don't drop into a team's lap every day. I understood, though, and did my best to keep a level head throughout the experience. The coach told me not to worry about it; if the owner was happy, our checks would keep coming in, and consequently we would be happy.
The problem with that theory is that I couldn't care less about the money. I am actually making a lot more than I usually would in a minor league situation -- about three times more than my highest-paid minor league gig to this point -- but it is still not going to make any significant contribution to my portfolio/gambling bankroll. The main goal of my time in a minor league is to stay ready for a possible call-up to the NBA. Secondary to that, I would like to "get better," so it is important for me to actually get to "play" in order that I can work on my shortcomings. Not to mention the fact that my own sanity is at stake. Watching minor league basketball is certainly not my preferred pastime. If I am going to be in the gym, I kind of figure I ought to be playing.
The owner did not leave after one game. I played a whopping 20 minutes in the next contest, which was at least tolerable, although still not what I needed. Then, disaster struck. In what was the third home game in the Paul Shirley Era, I did not enter the game until five minutes remained in the second quarter. I exited one minute later. I was fit to be tied. I very nearly did something rash.
(And let me be clear, I write this in all sincerity. This is not an exaggeration to show how little I care.)
I seriously considered walking past the bench and into the locker room. I thought I would disrobe, put on my street clothes, return my uniform to the GM stationed near the door and tell him goodbye. I even went so far, mentally, as to consider whether I had sufficient time to shower before the team would get into the locker room at the half. (I decided I wouldn't and would have to deal with a somewhat gross ride home. Although -- I realized -- I hadn't played enough to do much damage, so thought I could survive.) I think I was about 48 percent of the way to putting my plan into action. (Note that 51 percent is all it really takes for us to do anything. I was right there.) I'm not sure why I didn't; who would have cared, really?
I obviously didn't play during the remainder of the first half. I came out of the halftime pep talk ready to resume my position on the bench. I would guess that my body language was not filled with positive superlatives at the time. As I prepared to watch my teammates play some basketball, I noticed a slight commotion behind me. The Chinese owner had sent one of his minions down to the bench to tell the coach to start me in the second half. So he did. The players were already on the court ready to restart the game, so the situation was a bit awkward, but I was in no position to protest the fact that I actually was going to play.
(This, by the way, was not a new procedure. In fact, at times, the owner will send down instructions for one of the Chinese players to sub himself into the game. The player will then get up, bypass the coach with a cursory nod toward the floor and check in. It is like nothing I have ever seen.)
This story would be better if I could say I really tore it up in my time on-court. The truth, though, is that I was awful. I'm not sure whether it was that I had mentally checked out sometime after my brief appearance in the first half or was just a reflection of my general frustration with the entire situation. Whatever the reason, I did little to justify my insertion into the lineup. I played the entire third quarter, then was basically done.
The little things keep me going, though. For example, this game was played against a team from Tijuana. (Unlike with my team, geographical location has nothing to do with the ethnic makeup of the team.) Midway through the first half, the Tijuana team pulled in a new player -- one Master P, the rapper. Now, Mr. P has something of a history with the ABA; he owned and played for the Las Vegas team two years ago, back when I did my first tour of duty, with the Kansas City Knights. So, I had a little experience with his game. It turns out he is not retarded on the court. But he is not good, either. He's a little chubbier now, but his enthusiasm is still there.
On second thought, though, I shouldn't speak ill of his abilities. I think he outscored me that night.
To summarize, unless B-level rappers are going to show up for and play in our games on a regular basis, I am likely going to need to find a new team. I can't deal with cheerleading in the ABA.
Paul Shirley has played for 11 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams -- the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His journal will appear regularly at ESPN.com. To e-mail Paul, click here.