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Interview with Paul Shirley

Paul Shirley is a former NBA power forward who played with 11 different teams over nine years, seven of which were international teams. He wrote about his experiences in the book, Can I Keep My Jersey?.

He spoke with me about the talk surrounding the NBA concerning players and their dalliances with international teams during the current NBA lockout. I felt if the mass exodus overseas does in fact kick off, foreign players will be the big winners in the move. Here is what he had to say.

Krystina Lucido: What do you think of all the players moving overseas?
Paul Shirley: It’s pretty odd for Europe because the European economies are actually worse than ours. I think there’s some misconceptions about how much money is available there. It’s kind rough timing for a lot of European teams who might otherwise be able to capitalize on the opportunity to get some of these guys to Benedict-Arnold their way over to Europe.

KL: I remembered from your book, Can I Keep My Jersey?, you played with a couple of international teams that did not give you the money they initially promised. Did they ever pay you?
PS: No, I’m still owed like $53,000 from that team in Greece and another $15,000 by the team in Spain. A lot of the money that’s bandied about is theoretical. It’s kind of like talking about the debt crisis, none of this is real. So it comes to actually getting teams to pay up; I think it will harder than people realize.

And these teams don’t have, especially right now, capital to get some of the players that people think they can get. Like there might be a couple of Deron Williams’ contracts, but not very many.

Also, I think there’s this myopia Americans have about the rest of the world where we kind of assume that all other countries are like little kids. But these are real countries with real basketball leagues with real teams who want to win. They’re not going to be too keen on just allowing guys to come over for as long as they want. The myth of the NBA buyout is widespread right now, but if a team signs a guy, they’re probably going to want to know that he’s going to play. It’s hard to imagine a bunch of teams giving players that much freedom.

KL: The international players are the big winners in this move. There’s going to be a flip in attention and notoriety.
PS: People don’t realize that in Europe, it’s usually less star-driven than in the U.S. The gaps between the highest-paid player and the next-highest-paid player are usually smaller in order to keep the philosophy more about the team than about the individual. I don’t know if players here are used to that, and they’re probably also not used to the level of defense that’s played. The way things are, it’s just not set up for guys to score 30 points a game. It’s set up for the leading scorer in the league to have 18 points a game or something like that.

As far as the treatment of the players goes, it is true that if you’re in Russia, I think (Andrei) Kirilenko is going to be a bigger name than whoever might go, Chris Paul or something like that. I guess if the players are big enough, if by some miracle Dwight Howard wanted to play in Europe, I suppose he would be a big enough name that he would be the star there. But there is a lot of nationalism and loyalty to a home-grown talent and I don’t know if Americans can compete with that.

KL: In your experience playing with big league guys, what does this do to their ego when they come to Europe and aren’t given the same treatment?
PS: I suppose it would be pretty hard on people. There’s a certain kind of player who can play in Europe. I’ve ran across many, many times the guy who would come over expecting to be coddled and treated in a way that was not reasonable to expect, and those guys often got sent home after three weeks because the European teams, again, people forget these teams have been around a lot longer than NBA teams. In some cases, they don’t care really. It’s not like they are going to just be told by an American player. In some cases, they will if it’s a guy they’re paying a million dollars a month or something like that than maybe, but most of the time, they have a certain amount of pride, too, and they just don’t give a damn. If somebody’s unhappy, they’ll just send them down the road, especially if they have a lot of players to choose from.

KL: Talk more about the style of play differences.
PS: I always wish Americans could see more European basketball because it fits more into their view of what basketball should be. It’s more like college basketball because there’s more passing; players are playing together as opposed to apart. There’s just more concentration on defense in general and strategy and all those things. In general, as people swear by college basketball being more popular than the NBA, fans respond to that. They like seeing teams. I think the NBA failed because it tries to market the individual too much and forgets about that loyalty to specific teams.

How much the leading scorers are scoring in European leagues is because the coaching is emphasized more. The coach has more power over the players. He looks down the line and says, “You’re not playing well. You’re going to come out whether you’re the star or not.” And that’s just not how things are in American professional basketball right now.

KL: David Stern is getting the rap now because he pushed for the NBA business to expand internationally, and now his hard work is essentially being said to be thrown in his face with the move of the American players overseas. I don’t know if I agree with that.
PS: If the economies were more healthy, it would be being thrown in his face a little more in that there would be more discretionary income for people to spend on going to basketball games.

I was just in Spain two weeks ago and talked to some old basketball friends of mine and they’re saying in Spain, which has for the longest time had the best league in Europe, is really on hard times because there’s just not much money. A lot of the teams were supported by real estate companies that no longer have money so there just aren’t enough bullets in the gun to, not take down the NBA because that’s not going to happen, but this would be that opportunity for Europe to shine. I don’t just think they have the resources right now.

KL: Do your friends in Spain still play?
PS: I still have friends that play. People also forget, these leagues, they only allow two Americans on each team in most cases. Some of them are different; I know the rules change. Like here in Spain right now, they’re trying to figure out if they might allow three. Most of the players are European, which cuts down on the number of slots available. I have a lot of European friends who will be able to play forever because they’re European.

KL: Yea, I was wondering if they felt threatened by the idea of Americans coming over to play on their teams. But I suppose if there is a cap on the number of Americans on a team, they wouldn’t be worried.
PS: I wouldn’t be surprised if that gets relaxed a little bit, maybe this year. But, in general, I’ve been watching carefully to see who gets these jobs because there just aren’t very many jobs. It’s not necessarily fair, but it makes sense. The leagues want local interest in the game. If they just shipped over 12 Americans, there wouldn’t be as much interest, but it does cut down on the availability of jobs pretty quickly.

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