The Hard Thing is the Right Thing:
An Interview with Paul Shirley
A few weeks ago, I wrote about Paul Shirley, the professional basketball player turned writer who caused a furor with his January 2010 column about how providing aid to earthquake-ravaged Haiti was a waste. Shirley was fired from his freelance gig at ESPN.com in about the time it took me to write this paragraph.
Several aspects were repeatedly overlooked in this controversy: Shirley, who did not have a contract, was dismissed from ESPN for stating an opinion. For another website. Years after he had made other controversial statements about people and places in his memoir, Can I Keep My Jersey?. In the book, Shirley details several years playing in the NBA (where he was a benchwarmer) and overseas (where he was frequently a marquee player). Not only is it one of the most honest athlete diaries ever written, it’s an exceedingly well-written one.
Shirley did not shelve his direct nature in this interview, which was conducted over email. He talks about how he became a writer, his initial reaction to the feedback regarding his infamous column, and how he now feels about ESPN.
Pete Croatto: In Can I Keep My Jersey? you talk a lot about how you became a basketball player. But how did you get into writing? Was that ever a dream?
Paul Shirley: I started writing for a reason that seems overly simplistic: I needed to tell people what was going on. My first basketball job was in Greece and all sorts of strange things were happening. I didn’t have much access to a telephone (this was pre-Skype) and only spotty Internet, so I worked up an update—a journal, really—each week. It turned out that people liked what I was writing and I found a way to make it entertaining (having some time on my hands helped) and, slowly, I developed a schtick. As I continued to play, I continued to write. Eventually, I thought there’d be a book in it—I just didn’t think the opportunity to write the book would come so quickly.
Pete: After the book, did you catch any guff from anyone? I’m thinking of your various teammates, who mostly come across, how do I put this kindly, as oblivious and narrow-minded.
Paul: The guff came from general managers and owners who, I learned through my agent, thought that I wasn’t taking basketball very seriously if I was spending so much time writing/thinking. This was annoying, as you can imagine, and probably led to fewer (and worse) basketball jobs for me. I don’t think many of the players I was writing about ever read the book. Shocking, I know, to learn that basketball players don’t read much.
Pete: One aspect about the book that I loved is that you portrayed playing basketball as being as inconvenient and humdrum as any other job. Did it bother you when people gushed to you about having a dream job? And, looking back, did you?
Paul: That was one of the main theses of the book, so thanks for picking up on it! People have always struggled and will always struggle with understanding that, just because they think the life of a basketball player is idyllic doesn't mean that’s actually the case. The book bled out of me in part because I wasn’t allowed (by friends, family, etc.) to complain about my life; the assumption is that, hey, you’re getting to play a game–don’t complain. The problem is that my life was lonely and pressure-filled and I really didn’t make all that much money, at least not when compared to what people thought. (I now figure I made only slightly more than I would have if I’d pursued a job in engineering, the degree I hold.)
That said, it was far better than, say, digging ditches in Alabama or picking rags in Delhi. I think I often came down hard on the side of complaining because I felt like I needed to swing the argument to the other side. The problem with this is that it made me seem like an asshole.
Pete: How do you look at your writing career compared to how you looked at your basketball career? Are there any similarities?
Paul: Similar levels of “Oh hell I don’t know if I’m going to have a job tomorrow,” which is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. I’d say that's another thing people don’t understand (about basketball and writing): most basketball players aren’t Kobe Bryant, and most writers aren’t, oh, Thomas Friedman. Most of them are fighting tooth and nail to come up with a job for the next week, month, year.
Pete: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about your essay on Haiti for FlipCollective. What prompted you to write the piece?
Paul: In the same sort of way that I felt like I had to come down hard on the side of the reality of my basketball career, to the detriment of someone’s image of me, I thought enough had been said about the tragic side of the Haitian earthquake. So, I thought it would be interesting to raise the argument on the other side: should we hold the Haitian people responsible for their circumstances and, in some way or another, admonish them before rushing to their aid? Admittedly, I did this harshly and without much grace, to my own regret.
Pete: Were you surprised at the amount of attention that arose from the piece? If so, was it more of a free speech issue or “I can’t believe so many people care what I have to say about this”?
Paul: Shocked and completely baffled. At the time, FlipCollective (the website where it appeared and which I run) was getting around 2,000 page views each day. I thought the piece might jump that number to 3,000 page views; I knew it was polarizing and that it would get stuck in some craws (as my father would say). I had no idea that the page views would go to 220,000, or that I would be on the front page of MSN.com or that People magazine would call.
Pete: The one thing that’s always struck me as curious is why you wrote this so soon after the disaster. Why not wait six months and then comment on Haiti’s progress or lack thereof?
Paul: It’s really easy to look back and second-guess long after an event. It’s harder to take a stand when people are in the middle of dealing with that event. If I’ve learned anything, it’s usually that the hard thing is usually the right thing, even if the outcome is unpleasant.
Pete: OK, so the essay is published. ESPN quickly dismisses you. How did you find out? Also, on what grounds did they fire you?
Paul: I was actually at a concert (Everclear, if you must know) that I was planning to write about for ESPN. (I was writing about music for them at the time.) I noticed that my editor called twice while I was watching the show but I didn’t answer thanks to the noise. And I assumed he was just calling to talk things over. Little did I know that I had already gotten the proverbial axe. We talked later that night; our discussion was mostly filled with me listening in disbelief and then calling him a coward.
I understood that ESPN had the right to fire me. In my mind, though, it was inconsistent to fire me for having an opinion that people might not have agreed with (or for raising the specter of a question that people didn’t want to face, which is probably a more accurate description), especially when one recalls that I was hired because I made outlandish statements and/or wrote things that others wouldn’t write.
To return to your question, I was an easy fire because I didn’t have a contract. It likely didn’t help my case that ESPN was running “Donate $10 to the Haitian relief effort by texting [some number]” under all their programming which, I’m sure, came from the bottom of their corporate hearts and which, I’m also sure, had nothing to do with the PR bump this gained them.
Pete: To me, your dismissal was a joke. You wrote this for another outlet. You were representing yourself, not ESPN, and it’s not the first time you’ve been outspoken. In my mind, it was a PR move by ESPN to save face. What’s your take?
Paul: I was not thrilled with it, mostly because I think it gave people further reason to think that I was the bad guy. They were able to point to my firing and say, “See, he even got fired for saying it—he must have been wrong.”
Pete: Bill Simmons was one of your early supporters when you were blogging for NBA.com. Did he say anything to you after ESPN made its decision? Have you spoken to him since?
Paul: He said nothing. We’ve not spoken.
Pete: Chuck Klosterman wrote a glowing foreword to Can I Keep My Jersey?. He and Simmons are the main forces behind Grantland, the sports-pop culture hybrid Web site that is part of ESPN. Do you wish you could write for the site? Is there any way that will ever happen?
Paul: It seems like a good fit, but according to the people I have contacted, it is not possible at this time.
Pete: Have you learned anything from this whole ordeal?
Paul: I’ve learned enough to fill up an entire book. The short version, though, is that many, many people claim to be tolerant of all sorts of views. But most of them are not.
The Lightning Round
Most boring city in the NBA? Sacramento, or maybe Orlando.
Best player you ever played with? Steve Nash.
What five bands should I be following right now? J Roddy Walston and The Business, The Joy Formidable, Crystal Castles, Cloudkicker, and look out for Purity Ring
Sideline reporters: Useful or useless? Could be useful, just like The Bachelor could be a good show.
Five sports books anyone would enjoy: Gah! Who reads sports books? Um . . . The Kid From Tompkinsville. Does Rabbit, Run count as a sports book? Oh, I liked The Wages Of Wins, which calculates the impact individual basketball players have on their teams. That’s all I've got on the sports front.
(Later, I emailed Shirley and addressed his scorn for sports books. “As for a lack of good sports books, p’shaw! Granted, I know the cobbler doesn’t want to read about shoemaking when he goes home, but if you ever need a recommendation, let me know.”
Shirley’s response: “As I thought about it today, I do realize that I’ve read My Losing Season by Pat Conroy (liked it) and at least one Phil Jackson book (Jesus, he’s insufferable). But yeah, cobblers and leather and nails and all that.")
Five favorite non-sports books: Catch-22, Joseph Heller; A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving; The Road, Cormac McCarthy; Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand; American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis
Do NBA players care about what’s said about them by the media? Of course.
When do you see the NBA lockout ending? February 9, 2012.
I recently flew cramped in coach from Phoenix to Philadelphia. Please explain the luxury that is NBA chartered flights, and spare no detail. Well, imagine that flight you took and how uncomfortable and pissed-off you were. It’s the exact opposite of that.
Books mentioned in this column:
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (Vintage, 1991)
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (Reprint edition, Plume, 1999)
Can I Keep My Jersey?: 11 Teams, 5 Countries, and 4 Years in My Life as a Basketball Vagabond by Paul Shirley (Villard, 2007)
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (50th anniversary edition, Simon & Schuster, 2011)
The Kid from Tompkinsville by John R. Tunis (Odyssey Classicsm 2006)
My Losing Season: A Memoir by Pat Conroy (Bantam Books, 2003)
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (Modern Library, 2002)
Rabbit, Run by John Updike (Ballantine Books, 1996)
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Vintage Books, 2007)
The Wages of Wins: Taking Measure of the Many Myths in Modern Sport by David Berri, Martin Schmidt, Stacey Brook (Stanford Business Books, 2007)
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, AMC Filmcritic.com, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and The Weekender, and maintains a movie blog. A longtime Mets fan, Pete currently lives in Bucks County, PA, which is Phillies territory. Pray for him. Contact Pete.