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Can I keep my jersey?
by Paul Shirley / May 18, 2007

Excerpted from CAN I KEEP MY JERSEY? 11 Teams, 5 Countries, and 4 Years in My Life as a Basketball Vagabond by Paul Shirley. Copyright © 2007 by Paul Shirley. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group. It's available now in book stores everywhere or at your favorite online retailer.

Former Suns forward Paul Shirley had two stints in the ABA. The first one was with the with the Kansas City Knights. He talks about his experiences with the team in one of the chapters of his book.

When we finally arrived back in Kansas City after our
twelve-day tour of the West, I was completely spent and in just the right mood to hear, as I walked in the door of my place, “Hey, Paul, the furnace is broken.”

I try not to subject myself to situations that involve extreme mental fatigue; I got enough of that in college. I had forgotten what it feels like. It is a good thing my brother/roommate/tenant was around to walk me through the steps of furnace repair (calling the heater people) or I might have bundled up in three sweatsuits and gone to sleep in the cold. I have an engineering degree, yet could barely figure out how to remove the access panel so I could stare blankly at the innards of my heating system I was that far gone. Fortunately, the nice repairman who came fixed everything without a problem and we were quickly returned to the blissful state of an artificially created interior atmosphere. The experience, though, left me pondering how people are able to balance a job, a spouse, kids, home ownership, car ownership, credit card debt, two mistresses, and a drinking habit. I don’t know if I am cut out for that lifestyle. I’m going to start concentrating on avoiding career-ending injuries so I can continue to put off any flirtation with that whole real-world thing as long as possible.

Happily, I have a job that allows little time for contemplation of the concept of settling down. It pays well, the travel is comfortable, and the lodging on the road is luxurious. And sometimes hard to come by.

When we arrived in Las Vegas sometime after our bus ride across the land of Steinbeck, we were informed that the home team had not, in fact, reserved rooms for us at the entirely full Super 8. I said, “Cool, let’s go to the Bellagio.” My advice was not heeded. Because the Consumer Electronics Show was in town, it was difficult to find rooms, so we settled into the lobby for a wait. (Keep in mind that we were coming off a six-hour bus ride from Fresno. No one was in a wait-and-see mood. Also, game time was rapidly approaching four hours and counting at this point.) Amazingly, after only an hour or so, it was determined that the Super 8 was big enough to hold us after all (I think somebody was paid off), and we settled into our fabulously spacious, pristine, used-by-who-knows-whom-for-who-knows-what rooms for some rest.

Shockingly, there was some miscommunication between the Las Vegas Rattlers and the van rental company and the team was not able to secure transportation for us, so we rode to the UNLV recreational center in taxis. The Rattlers do not usually play their games in the UNLV student rec center but, because the porn convention in town had outbid the team for the use of their usual facility, we played there that night. (I’m not joking.)

The rec center was a fine venue for a professional basketball game: seating for eight hundred, no lockers, no towels. It was also, I think, the fourth place we were told we would play. Which is a good method for hiding the location of a meth lab, but is ineffective if the goal is to attract fans to a basketball game. Actually, we have played in front of fewer, but all the secrecy did make it difficult for me to communicate where we were playing to the people who were trying to come and watch me play. One made it, one did not. We lost to a motley group of players masquerading as an organized basketball team. (Not all that surprising, considering our day to that point.) Afterward, we wanted to leave as fast as possible. The one friend who did make it to the game met me afterward, and I introduced him to our coach as we were standing around waiting for word on transportation back to the Super 8. I was amazed at how interested our coach was in hearing about my friend’s acquaintance to me ... until he asked him how many people he could fit in his car. Turns out he was just being nice so he could save cab fare.

The Las Vegas team employs/is financed by one Master P (aka Percy Miller), the ex-rapper-turned-producer who is worth millions. (At least that’s what people say. I’m not sure how rappers like him those with no discernible talent become so wealthy.) In the same way that he aspires to be a decent rapper and produce quality music, he aspires to be a basketball player that is, he isn’t very good at any of the three. He didn’t play in our game in Las Vegas but did make an appearance in a recent game in Kansas City. He is not a truly awful basketball player it’s not like he is retarded but he doesn’t really have any business being on the court. Of course, I’m not opposed to him playing; he donates a lot of money to the pockets of his “teammates” and brings in fans, along with providing us, the opposition, the opportunity to play five-on-four whenever he is on the court. I was amazed, in both games, with the lust of the average person for a brush with fame. (He walked in to cheers midway through the second quarter of our game in Nevada and signed hundreds of autographs in Kansas City. Well, dozens, anyway.) I mean, the guy could hardly be considered cool; his fame passed years ago, but that doesn’t stop people from clamoring to be in his presence.

That we do not have a team trainer becomes especially evident on road trips. The obvious rebuttal to this is “Well, Paul, don’t get hurt,” which is advice that is as good as most I have heard. It does pose problems, though, should a Knights player actually have the gall to sustain an injury. I mentioned at some point that I have been dealing with a bone bruise on my knee this season. It doesn’t bother me much as long as I take care of it. Treatment usually involves ultrasound before activity and ice after. Simple enough, right? With no trainer, it’s not that easy. For our trip out West, my vaginitis called for me to lug around a secondhand ultrasound machine that the girl who is the training staff for our home games bought from a former employer for $10. Before we left, she taught me how to use the thing. “The intensity read-out is broken, so to get the right level of energy you have to look for the flickering 888 on the LED screen and line up the marker on the dial with the first T in INTENSITY. Treatment time is five minutes. Don’t use too much gel, and if you start to feel something burning, turn it off.”

It was a reassuring lesson.

I did a fine job of self-administering ulstrasound on the trip, but I was hampered somewhat by the apparatus’ systematic breakdown. A couple of days into the trip, the intensity light itself burnt out (no 888 to find), but the tip of the ultrasound wand seemed to remain warm, so I continued to self-treat. After a few more days (and a few more jarring impacts with other bags in airplane cargo holds) it was necessary to hold down a button in order for the timer to count down. By the end of the trip, the timer readout was totally shot and the complexity of the machine’s operation was on a level with that of a flashlight: there was on and there was off. I’d say there is a fifty-fifty chance I now have some sort of tumor in my knee.

After Las Vegas, we traveled to Juarez, Mexico. The team ran out of money, so we were forced to hitchhike there. (Not really, but that would have been an amazing story: Kerouac meets Feinstein. I think I could have pulled off the story and nobody would have been the wiser. Opportunity lost.)

I approached our trip to the land of sombreros with some trepidation. I had never been to Mexico, but the place does not inspire my mind to visions of cleanliness, safety, or comfort. My intuition was correct on two of the three strangely, our hotel in Juarez was actually the best on the trip. (Not that the competition was all that stiff.) I was amazed. The room I shared with Derek Grimm (my best friend on the team) did lack hot water, but the surroundings were generally pleasant and the food was decent, so I couldn’t complain too much. (Check that. That should have read: “A normal person couldn’t complain too much.” I could. And did.) The arena was another matter. It was absolutely frigid inside, both baskets were crooked, and the locker room appeared to serve the secondary purpose of being a breeding ground for cockroaches of unusual size. (“La Cucaracha” indeed.)

We won the first game of a back-to-back in Juarez. It was a foulfest. My team shot fifty free throws (I shot fourteen myself), which is unheard of in an ABA game; the referees in the league do their best to keep the action going, and free throws would not be considered action.

We won the second game as well, but it was kept close by some rather subpar officiating. At some point in the fourth quarter of game two, I noticed that one of the referees was repeatedly making peculiar calls. This official had been assigned to several of our previous games, so I had gotten to know him relatively well. I even knew his name. (Darrell. Poor decision by his parents.) I didn’t think he was prone to consistent lapses in judgment, but I was beginning to question my analysis. Near the end of the game, he called two phantom fouls on me; after the second I inquired, in my most polite manner, what the hell game he was watching. He replied, “I know, Paul, I know.” To which I said, “Well, if you know, then make the right call.” Our point guard, Joe Crispin, intercepted me and told me to settle down, saying that he would explain it all after the game.

Once we were tucked safely away in the filthy locker room, he explained. Darrell the Referee had told Joe early in the game that one of the Mexican team’s officials was continually threatening his life, saying that if Darrell didn’t make most of his calls in favor of Juarez, he was going to kill him. The ref took the man at his word and told Crispin early on that he was scared enough that he was going to screw us on some calls. Joe told Darrell to do what he had to do (and rightly so it was only a minor-league basketball game), and so Darrell proceeded to work us over for the rest of the game. I was amazed at the story, and more than a little incredulous, but Joe (who is not one to exaggerate) assured me that our friend Darrell had looked truly scared on the court.

I thought it over on the way back to the hotel and came to the conclusion that the guy probably had been pretty frightened. Intimidation comes fairly easily when one is in a completely foreign place. However, I did think the claims of death threats were a little much. I attributed the story to some overreaction on his part, and possibly a shade of storytelling on Crispin’s part. That is, until Darrell the Referee walked into the hotel restaurant that night. He was visibly shaken and looked completely bedraggled and said the following to those of us sitting there: “Guys, I’m sorry. I cheated you out there tonight. But I was scared. I’m going to try to get out of town tonight because I don’t know what might happen if I stay here.” He then sort of wandered over to the lobby desk in a state of confusion, got his bags, and left. Upon final analysis, I probably would have done the same.

Paul Shirley has played for eleven professional basketball teams in the six years since he graduated from Iowa State University, where he was an engineering major and an academic All-American

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