By Joel Francis
Paul Shirley played in the 2005 NBA conference finals as a member of the Phoenix Suns and scrimmaged against Kobe Bryant as a training camp member of the Los Angeles Lakers, but he doesn’t want to talk about any of that right now. Shirley’s telling the story of when he first heard U2’s “Mysterious Ways” in the back of a school bus during high school.
“It dawned on me that I was old enough to have a CD player and I could play whenever I wanted,” Shirley said. “The first time I played ‘Achtung Baby,’ I thought it was the worst purchase ever, but after I played it 8 or 10 times, I thought it was the best.”
When “Zooropa” arrived a few years later, Shirley realized bands could grow and music could evolve. Nearly 20 years later, Shirley is still marveling at inventive new sounds and comforting old ones.
“Music and basketball were both my outlets,” Shirley said. “People don’t understand, but there’s a lot of catharsis in both of them. When I came home from practice, mad at the world, I could put on ‘The Downward Spiral’ and all my troubles would melt away.”
As Shirley migrated from Jefferson West High School in Meriden, Kan. – located about 15 miles outside of Topeka – to Ames, Iowa as a three-year starter for the Iowa State Cyclones men’s basketball squad and a professional ball career that encompassed Spain, Russia, Greece and several stops in the NBA, music was a constant companion.
“The music I have taken with me has allowed me to feel at home in all different places,” said Shirley, who makes his home in Kansas City, Mo. “The ability to put on my headphones and pop in a CD is priceless. It’s like having a set of friends I can take with me wherever I want.”
When not rocking with his aural amigos, Shirley was taking his friends to live shows. An early concert at the Granada Theater in Lawrence, Kan. made a big impression.
“One weekend my brother and I were home from college flipping through the Lawrence weekend paper when we saw an ad for (textural post-rock band) Mogwai,” Shirley said. “We did a little research and decided to check it out for, what, $12 or whatever. When we got there the show was so intense and focused, it was like nothing I’d ever seen. There were four guitars and no vocalist. It was just overwhelming.”
That fix turned Shirley in to a live music junkie, prowling the scene searching for the next high.
“I don’t think of myself as a person on the cutting edge, but there are moments when you see someone who you now is going to be good before anyone else. Like when I saw Ratatat open for the Killers at the Hurricane or the Secret Machines at El Torreon,” Shirley said. “Moments when you see someone destined for, if not stardom, then goodness and that’s really cool.”
Shirley’s pro ball career never took off as planned, but through those trials another passion emerged: writing.
“It never occurred to me that I could write about this stuff,” said Shirley, who saw “Can I Keep My Jersey?,” his basketball memoir, published in 2007.
After writing a column for the Phoenix Suns Website, Shirley was asked to write for ESPN.
“I think they (ESPN) were thinking I’d go back into the NBA and then they’d have a player on the inside,” Shirley said. “Instead I went to summer leagues and overseas.”
The column died when Shirley grew tired of writing about basketball, but when ESPN launched a new, non-sports section of their Website, they asked him to write a music column. Every Tuesday he interviews indie bands, reports on a festival like Austin City Limits or Lollapalloza, reviews a concert or shares his musical opinions.
“It’s nice to be able to contact a band and say, hey, I live in Kansas City and see you are coming to town. Could I go to your show?” Shirley said. “Talking to musicians is nice, too, like when I got to chat with the Dandy Warhols, who I’ve liked for 15 years.”
Today, Shirley juggles the expectations that come with being an athlete writing for the Worldwide Leader with his passion for music.
“There is a disconnect between the athletes and their fans and music nerds and book nerds, and it’s probably exaggerated for me because I write for a jock Website,” Shirley said. “People have a hard time understanding that for me, talking about basketball is like them talking about their day job. It’s not as interesting to me (as music).”
Shirley acknowledges he could be drop stories about star players, or work as an analyst, but that no longer interests him.
“Basketball doesn’t inspire me,” Shirley said. “I can only stay interested in things for so long. Right now writing – specifically writing about music – provides the spark for me.”
Paul Shirley’s ESPN collumn archive
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