Michael Scotto is joined by former NBA player and author Paul Shirley on the latest episode of the HoopsHype podcast. The duo discussed Shirley’s time playing at Iowa State with Marcus Fizer and Jamaal Tinsley, why Fizer didn’t pan out in the league, an anonymous pamphlet trashing former Bulls coach Scott Skiles, and more behind the scenes stories during his time playing for the Bulls, Hawks, and Suns, plus his new book, Ball Boy. Listen to the podcast above or check out some snippets of the conversation in a transcribed version below.
1:37 How Shirley got into writing playing in the league and what his new book, Ball Boy, is about
Shirley: When I was playing for the Suns, which really means I was mostly watching the Suns, their website people asked me if I could write what at the time was this new thing called a blog about being at the end of the bench.
Shirley on Ball Boy: It’s fiction, and that’s new to me and new to my audience, so it’s a bit of a leap for people. It’s very much basketball-related. It’s about a kid who finds basketball as a way to fit in when his mom moves him from Reseda, California to a small town in Kansas. It’s also about community and finding the thing that makes you feel special.
6:35 Shirley’s stories playing overseas in Spain, Greece, Russia, CBA, and ABA
Shirley: I played for a Chinese team that was headquartered in Los Angeles because they had gotten kicked out of the Chinese league because they had a player named Sun Yue, who I think ended up being drafted by the Lakers, that one of the two biggest teams in China wanted. Historically, the two big teams would just get to do whatever they want. I think it was the Shanghai Sharks and whatever the Red Army team was. The owner just said like no I’m not going to give you this guy, so they kicked that team out of the league and the owner kept his team together but moved it to California so they could play in the ABA.
There’s something really bonding about being in these less than desirable circumstances. Most people would be like, “Well, I’d give anything to play professional basketball.” But, let’s be honest, playing in the CBA for $700 a week and living in a motel is not what you want to be doing with your life, especially when the rest of your peers are starting their lives and moving on with friends, jobs, and girlfriends.
Another friend of mine from the CBA, Alex Jensen, is now an assistant coach for the Utah Jazz after coaching the Canton Charge of the G League for quite a while.
Scotto: He’s well-regarded. Alex Jensen is a guy that down the line could certainly be a name you’ll hear for an NBA head coaching job one day.
10:10 Which out of Spain, Greece and Russia did Shirley enjoy playing in the most?
Shirley: Spain has the second-best basketball league in the world, and I feel like I was perfectly suited for the second-best basketball league in the world.
Russia felt like pure chaos at all times and like I might disappear at any moment, so I didn’t love it there… I remember a game pretty vividly where we played on a court that was laid out on top of a hockey rink. Lots of courts all over the world might sit atop an ice rink, but this was where the ice was still there and they had just put rugs over the ice so that you could walk onto the court. I think that’s a pretty good metaphor for how Russia felt to me at all times. A little unstable.
Greece was great, but they didn’t pay me very well at the time or much at all. That was frustrating. Lucky to get to be paid to play a game, but also, you want to have them fulfill their end of the bargain.
13:15 Misconceptions about salaries for professional players overseas
Shirley: I taught here in LA for five years at a prep school for the police academy teaching creative writing and English. One day, my kids were like, ‘Hey, Mr. Shirley. Why are you doing this? You played professional basketball, so you have enough money that you can do whatever you want.” I asked them to take a guess at how much money I made every year I played until I let on that the answer was I averaged about $80,000 a year for nine years, which is better than a lot of jobs, but it’s nowhere near what people think, and it’s also not nearly enough to retire on. While I was telling the story, one of the kids was looking at me wide-eyed and I said, “Does that sound like a lot of money?” He’s like, “No, no. Mr. Shirley, do you know that a police officer in Los Angeles’ starting salary is $85,000 a year?”
17:25 Iowa State stories with Marcus Fizer, Jamaal Tinsley, and Kelvin Cato
Shirley: My first coach there was Tim Floyd with whom I’m still close, but he left after my sophomore year to coach the Bulls and the next coach was Larry Eustachy, who at this point it’s fairly widely known in college basketball circles is a bit of an unhinged tyrant. We didn’t have a lot of fun. We were really good, but it wasn’t by any means enjoyable. My senior year midway through the season we were headed to win the Big 12 for the second year in a row, and I remember telling my mom I’m never going to play basketball after this season’s done because I was so burnt out. In my college career, I had three different stress fractures plus another broken foot… Guarding Fizer everyday at practice is probably what allowed me to worm my way into the NBA.
21:41 Why didn’t Marcus Fizer pan out in the NBA?
Shirley: I think Marcus suffered from the curse of early basketball prowess. He was so good coming into college and already so far ahead developmentally and physically that I think that robbed him of the chance to develop a base understanding of how basketball works. One thing you find, especially in the NBA, is there aren’t a lot of guys who are just straight-up one-on-one going to score a basket. There are a few, but they’re the best of the best. Most of everybody else has to figure out how the game actually works, which becomes actually complicated when it’s 82 games a year and it’s this arms race of the best coaches against the best coaches. One thing I noticed about guys like Marcus, and this was kind of true about Tinsley too, was they didn’t really grow up watching basketball. They grew up playing basketball. But one of the downsides of that is you don’t see the game from a bird’s eye mentality. You see it from a first-person almost like if you’re playing Call of Duty. I think Marcus really struggled because he didn’t really understand how basketball worked. He understood how basketball worked when he had the ball. I remember so vividly his freshman year, Tim Floyd explaining some play, “Marcus, you’re going to come here and set this screen and then you’re going to roll to the basket and look for the ball here.” He stopped, looked at Marcus and he’s like you don’t know what a screen is, do you? Marcus just shook his head. Nobody in high school taught you how to set a screen because all they did was give you the ball and get out of the way… We forget that Marcus suffered from the worst curse of all, which is that he was short (for his position). He’s really only about 6-foot-6.
26:28 Behind the scene of the 2003-04 Bulls team
Shirley: That was a really poisonous locker room. I don’t want to speak too out of turn because when I was in Chicago that was also the time that I had my kidney and spleen rupture 12 days into my time with the Bulls and finished out the year with the team but spent some of that time in a hospital bed and was afraid I might die. However, I do remember that there was even like a pamphlet, like a weekly pamphlet, that would circulate in the locker room written by an anonymous sort of rabble-rouser basically saying Scott Skiles doesn’t know what he’s doing and other guys should be playing and all this sh*t. It was real bad. Eddie Robinson was on that team, and I actually really loved that guy because he just didn’t care what people thought of him. He wasn’t playing because Skiles said to him if you don’t do X, it was something in warmups, then I’m benching you. Robinson was like, let’s see if he’ll do it, and then he did it.
Shirley: It was a collection of humans that was not a basketball team. That’s why it was like the worst in the Eastern Conference and also why I got to play. I remember when I got there, Kirk Hinrich is from Iowa, and we knew each other… he was not happy when I got to Chicago because he was buddies with Corie Blount, who I think they had to cut to make room for me.
31:00 How Scottie Pippen helped Shirley
Shirley: He’s in fact the person that when I was on the plane from Indianapolis where I had my kidney and spleen ruptured and was bleeding internally, he was the person I turned to and told him to go get the trainer because I was afraid I was going to expire on the plane. I was thinking, “Oh my God. I’m never going to live this down if it turns out I just have a bruised rib and I’m up here crying.”
31:37 Who was the originator of the Bulls’ locker room pamphlet?
Shirley: I don’t think it was a player. I feel like it was a hanger-on. At that time, there was also some war within the Bulls. You talk about some inside type of sh*t, but at the time, the Bulls were frustrated with some of their players because they had their own individual trainers working with them and the Bulls were like we can’t really control what those guys are telling the players. There was some frustration on the players’ behalf that we don’t get to bring our own guys in, but also the team was awful so people are tired of losing… I don’t know who was writing this pamphlet. It would circulate as a way to just sort of stir up chaos.
36:39 Behind the scenes of the 2002-03 Hawks team
Shirley: That team had Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Jason Terry, and Theo Ratliff, which is a pretty good start right there, and they (Hawks) were just God awful. They were a mismatch of players with the coach, Lon Kruger, and then it was Terry Stotts, who I never would’ve thought actually would be a good basketball coach, but has turned out to have a really serviceable NBA career, so I was wrong there.
Scotto: You had someone on that team who I think is going to be a future NBA head coach within the next couple of years. Darvin Ham was on that team.
41:00 Shirley on how he was cut from the Hawks
47:35 Behind the scenes of the 2004-05 Suns team
Shirley: Steve Nash was willing to be the grease that kept the machine running, and you had to have that.
I went to a week long tryout with the San Antonio Spurs at some point in the middle of their heyday. I was talking to R.C. Buford and I think it was him who told me the reason the Spurs were good was because their best player was also their best guy, Tim Duncan. He said that’s the reason you guys are so good in Phoenix.
49:31 Did Shirley expect Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire to become coaches one day?
Shirley: I think there’s no world where Steve Nash couldn’t be a coach. He’s so cerebral and he’s also a really good communicator. I don’t know why Amar’e Stoudemire’s a coach. He has his own quote tattooed on his forearm. I wouldn’t put him in charge of anything, but he’s got a name I guess.
50:10 What Shirley thought of Suns executive Bryan Colangelo
Shirley: He seemed a little thin-skinned I’d say… He’s one of those guys who was raised right in that he knew all the right things to say and he was able to look you in the eye and shake your hand. I think he suffered because his dad was charming without trying to be. His dad also built the Suns from the ground up, so it was a lot to try to live up to that. He seemed to me, again, this is one guy’s opinion, he seemed a little unsure of who he exactly was, and I think that was reflected in the way that he created Twitter burner accounts.
52:03 Shirley’s thoughts on Shawn Marion
You can follow Michael Scotto on Twitter: @MikeAScotto
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