March 3, 2007: My agent, Keith Glass, told me today that I have now suffered through two events previously unseen and unimagined by him in his 26 years of agenting.
The first instance came about when the Atlanta Hawks agreed to sign me to a second 10-day contract and then, that contract in hand, reneged while I stood outside the head coach's office waiting to add my own signature to the piece of paper.
The second occurred this past weekend.
On the previous Monday, I awoke to a voice mail left by Keith. I was both pleased and surprised to hear him say that a team in Europe was interested in having me in its employ.
Pleased because we had discussed just that weekend how urgently I needed a basketball job.
Surprised because I'm rarely capable of contemplating drastic life changes when I wake up at the crack of 9:30.
When I finally talked to him, Keith warned me that I might have some problems with his proposal, but that I should take in all the information before I made any hasty judgments. (He knows me fairly well.)
The team with interest was one that played in the LEB, the Spanish second division. They wanted to sign me for the rest of the season and would be willing to pay between $20,000 and $25,000 a month for that period.
My initial reaction was not a good one. I've been disdainful of second-division European teams in the past, and my basketball résumé has benefited: I've played only in well-respected European leagues. Keith reminded me that, while the LEB is the lesser league in Spain, it is the sixth- or seventh-best league in Europe. (For example, it is probably more respectable to play in the LEB than it is to play in the first division in, say, Germany.)
He reminded me that the money was quite good, that I would have a chance to play, and that the season's end was drawing near -- it was probably time to play somewhere.
And then he made perhaps his most important point. In his discussions with Arturo Ortega, the Spanish agent who had brought him the job, Keith had asked Ortega why I wasn't getting more offers in Spain. Ortega's response was that European GMs were afraid that I don't know what I want; that I may not be serious about playing basketball because of my sideline work as a "writer."
Keith and I have long suspected that general managers in the NBA are wary of my creative instincts, but we've assumed that my dastardly reputation was bound by the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, we thought the Europeans might embrace my well-roundedness. After all, de Gaulle was both a boxer and a professional cricket player before becoming the leader of the Free French.
(That was 100 percent made-up.)
Sadly, I don't have a direct phone number to every European GM, so I can't plead my case to each of them. Additionally, the translation fees would be outlandish.
Keith thought that a trip to the Spanish second division might send the message that I am serious about playing basketball. I reluctantly agreed with him, especially after I did a more thorough job of researching the team's location -- the island of Mallorca.
When I read that 9 million tourists visited the place in 1999, I realized two things. First, that Kazan, Russia, hasn't had 9 million visitors in its 600-year history. And second, that there is a good chance that more than one of that 9 million would be a better-than-average-looking girl.
I told Keith to investigate further.
By Tuesday, it was clear that the team was first going to offer the job to a player named Lou Roe. If he turned it down, it was mine for the taking.
On Wednesday morning, I found another while-I-had-been-sleeping message from Keith. Roe was out of the picture. I had the job if I wanted it. The formal offer: $75,000 for my basketball services from the period beginning March 1 and ending with the conclusion of the season -- most likely sometime in May.
It was time for me to begin my specialty: extreme perseveration. I had done further research while I waited for the potential offer. I remained excited about the team's location, its willingness to pay me a load of money to play basketball, and the opportunity to get my name back into the basketball world. On the other hand, I remained fearful of the potential résumé buster that could be the LEB. And, I had found the team, called Palma Aqua-Magica, on the LEB Web site. I had browsed the roster, looking for familiar potential teammates. I was disheartened to learn that many of them were Americans. (I tend to like my foreign teammates more than my American ones. They're usually more likely to be capable of an intelligent conversation.) And then I looked at their pictures. I've learned one important thing over the years: there's usually a reason that a basketball player's picture looks like a mugshot.
After weighing the pros and cons, I accepted the job. The money was too outlandish, Mallorca looked too nice, and I needed to go somewhere and play -- not only because of the aforementioned career questioning. Additionally, I need to test out my newly scoped right knee. I've been in Kansas City, diligently rehabilitating my knee for three months. Needless to say, I'm really tired of working out by myself. And I need to find out if my orthopedic surgeon is as good as he says he is.
I was geared up and ready to go. Because of past experiences, I knew that the team would likely make some outlandish request like, "Can Paul leave tomorrow?" In proactive moves, I called my literary agent and my editor to tell them that I would be out of the country when my book is released. Then, happy to finally have something to say, I called friends to tell them the news. (I hesitate to write "good news" because I remained somewhat lukewarm about the job. I was more relieved than excited.) I even made a well-planned trip to Walgreens, where I bought a new toothbrush always hard to find in foreign countries).
After some back and forth between Keith and Ortega, I learned that my most likely departure date was that Sunday -- Thursday had been a holiday in Spain and the team's GM was in Italy, hampering the contract-signing process.
I finally received a contract signed by the general manager on Friday afternoon. Happy to be gainfully employed once again, I signed my copy and faxed it to Keith's office. I intensified my preparation to leave; I dug out my Lonely Planet guide to Spain and started researching the best beaches in Mallorca.
I resolved to change my disorganized ways and decided to actually plan my bag-packing for the trip. I woke up at 10 on Saturday morning (early for a weekend) and used my bed as a staging ground for everything I thought I would need. I counted out 19 pairs of socks (I've learned that there's never any way to know when I might find a washing machine in foreign locales), reminded myself to go buy some underwear later in the day, and called upon the team-colors research I had done and picked out a pair of blue and white basketball shoes for use on the courts of the LEB.
After performing the most impressive prepacking job I've ever done, I took a break to have lunch with my friend Matt. I told him about the dread I had felt that morning. In what is a normal occurrence for me in such situations, I had awakened to the cold sweat caused by a paralyzing sense of dread. My fear: complete failure. I imagined scenarios wherein I physically could not make a basket upon arrival in Spain. I envisioned laughing teammates and disappointed coaches. In a perverse way, I was happy to see the return of my mental faults -- in my own, completely screwed-up way, I was ready to leave.
Matt and I said goodbye outside of the Blue Moose Bar and Grill and I walked to my car, ready for a trip to Target in order to procure the aforementioned undies and a voltage converter. Before I put my car into reverse, I checked my voice mail. There I found the following message from Keith:
"Paul, I just got off the phone with Arturo. There are some problems with your deal. Call me back."
When I did, he said, "I don't think we're going to Spain."
Arturo told Keith that the word out of Mallorca was that the team's president had covertly signed another player the night before, without consulting the general manager, who remained absent in Italy. There was no place for me to go.
Skipping the trip to Target for underthings, I returned home, where I attempted to process the new information. Oddly, I wasn't all that disappointed. Initially, anyway. I felt a lot like I have after being cut by NBA teams: strangely relieved. (Of course, in those situations, my relief often stemmed from the realization that I would no longer have to deal with a bunch of humans whose presence I could barely tolerate.) Sadly, my odd sense of relief lasted only 15 minutes. Then, despair rolled over me. I cleared out some space on my bed and listened to loud music for an hour, contemplating what the quasi-loss of $75,000 would mean. Soon, I realized that the opportunity cost wasn't what would bother me in the long term. I was most devastated because I had used so much mental energy to get used to the idea of leaving. I was nervous about going -- apprehensive about how I would play, how my knee would react, and how I would get along with my teammates -- but I knew that I needed to go. It was the right decision. I didn't really want to get on a plane bound for another new place, but I needed to. It gave me something to do -- a purpose -- something to worry about other than mind-numbing workouts and concern about my book's effect on my basketball career.
When I talked to him, Keith was apologetic. But he remained upbeat. He, more than anyone except my family, understands just how bizarre my career has been to this point. Because of his intimate knowledge of that career, he knows that the loss of one opportunity can often bring about something even more interesting. My basketball career has been one long example of the phenomenon. If I hadn't gotten kicked in the spleen while playing for the Bulls, I probably wouldn't have played for the Phoenix Suns the next year. I wouldn't have written a blog and signed a book deal.
Or, if my team in Greece had paid me like they were supposed to have done, they would have been able to exercise the team option for the following year. I wouldn't have signed my first 10-day contract with the Atlanta Hawks.
And if I hadn't been left outside a coach's office, patiently waiting while the Hawks' brass talked themselves out of my second 10-day, I might very well have missed out on the opportunity to live and play in Barcelona for four months, which would have been tragic because I wouldn't have seen that beautiful Spanish girl walk out of the Mediterranean Sea and to the beachside shower on a perfect late spring afternoon, all while topless.
I won't be playing for any teams headquartered in Mallorca this year. Sadly, I had to explain why that is the case to the people who raised a very confused eyebrow when they saw me anytime in the following week. They probably didn't understand how traumatic the turn of events was. They listened to my explanation and shrugged, saying, "Huh. Well, back to work for you, I guess."
They were right. By now, I've certainly learned that -- when it comes to my career as a basketball player -- there is no such thing as normal. As strange as this turnabout was, it will remain only a blip on my basketball timeline. It probably won't even come up in the conversations I will one day have with my court-appointed psychologist.
And so I've been returned to a familiar state: complete and utter ignorance where my own future is concerned. For five days, I had the next three months planned -- a circumstance I find to be completely foreign. And then suddenly, as is often the case, I wasn't entirely sure what I would do when I woke up the next morning. But I suppose that's OK. When I'm old and decrepit (for me: age 42) I'll probably yearn for these days of unpredictability. By then, my only bouts with the unknown will be derived from confusion about how to ask my doctor about Viagra. For now, the status quo means daily workouts and the occasional investigation of the atlas when Keith tells me to look up another potential destination. Everyone should have it so tough.
Paul Shirley has played for 12 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.