AMES, Iowa – When former Iowa State basketball player Paul Shirley enrolled at Iowa State in the fall of 1996, he never would’ve expected where his Cyclone journey would take him.
Almost 20 years later, Shirley was back on campus to tell his story to Iowa State student-athletes about his life experiences as a professional basketball player and writer.
“Obviously, it was really exciting to be invited back,” Shirley said. “Mostly, I was excited to see what Ames looks like these days. I hadn’t been there in like five years. The last time I was there it looked like it had grown by about fifty percent.”
Shirley spoke at the Iowa State Student-Athlete Services Cyclone Speaker Series Monday night, offering his humor and insight.
“We thought it would be a great opportunity for our student-athletes to bring Paul back and have him share his experiences,” said Amanda Hernandez, the student-athlete affairs coordinator at Iowa State “He understands the student-athlete experience. It was great to have him share with us his life experience and to share his enthusiasm of Iowa State.”
In 2007, Shirley penned a popular book “Can I Keep My Jersey?,” a rollicking tale of his life playing for 11 professional basketball teams in all parts of the world, including the NBA. The book became very successful and it led to his current career as a writer and instructor.
Shirley got the writing bug when he was playing professionally in Greece. Alone, bored, and in a foreign country, Shirley started writing friends back home comical anecdotes about his lonely life playing basketball overseas. He later became one of the first NBA bloggers, providing weekly updates of life in the NBA when he was a member of the Phoenix Suns.
All of these stories became the impetus for his first book.
“It’s interesting because I didn’t grow up loving to write,” Shirley said. “I was very alone, very lonely and also had a little time on my hands, so I started writing these emails to like thirty people at a time and quickly realized that if I made them funny then people would write back, which would make me feel less lonely. So I developed kind of a shtick and just kept doing that. I discovered I found it therapeutic and cathartic to write down all the things that were happening to me. I had no shortage of material because of the weird life that I was living.”
Writing is now an integral part of Shirley’s world.
“I assumed that when my career was over, that I would get to write a book,” Shirley added. “Then of course after a couple of years I ended up in Phoenix, where because I was the coherent looking dude at the end of the bench, they asked me to write for their website. It was just a blog, which at the time was new. Because I had been doing it for a while I kind of knew how to construct it so people wanted to read it and that’s what led to the book deal and the sense that maybe I had a future in writing.”
The 6-10 power forward from Meriden, Kansas, always had dreams of playing Big 12 basketball, mostly at Kansas, where he grew up idolizing the highly successful Jayhawk program.
His offers were mainly from mid-majors, and he remembers the day when former KU head coach Roy Williams told him he wasn’t good enough to play Big 12 basketball.
“It is hard to describe because I grew up such a fan of KU and was so devastated when Roy Williams said I couldn’t play,” Shirley recollected. “It drove me, pushed me and pushed me. I would visualize his face while shooting a hundred free throws after practice.”
Kansas’ loss turned into Iowa State’s gain. Shirley was a key player on some of the greatest teams in Iowa State history. In his final two seasons as a Cyclone, Iowa State won back-to-back Big 12 regular-season titles (2000 and 2001), as Iowa State won five-straight games against the Jayhawks, including two-straight in Allen Fieldhouse.
Shirley will be the first to admit he was surrounded by outstanding players at Iowa State, and he certainly was. He was fortunate to play with three All-Americans in Dedric Willoughby, Marcus Fizer and Jamaal Tinsley, and a slew of other Cyclone fan favorites.
However, Shirley was darn good player, too. As a senior in 2001, Shirley averaged 10.0 points and 6.9 rebounds to earn honorable mention All-Big 12 honors and second-team Academic All-America accolades.
He finished his Iowa State career with 822 points and 552 boards.
“I was lucky that we ended up with a lot of great players around me, but it’s funny looking back at my career and how I behaved,” Shirley said. “I was always this mild mannered, very humble human being because I knew that’s the role that I had to play. On another level I always sort of assumed that I would be a pretty good basketball player and that someday I would play professionally. I remember practices or preseason conditioning experiences thinking I can’t believe this- I’m actually a basketball player on a Big 12 team. At the same time I also felt it should be someone else. For me, it’s also been a little bit of a bipolar disorder in that I had this weird inferiority complex about who I was. But I also thought it would probably work out in the end.”
To many, Shirley appears to come across as crass when reflecting back on his time in Ames. One of Shirley’s greatest traits is that he is brutally honest. He’s honest when he tells you he appreciated his years at Iowa State and what the school did for him. But, he also isn’t afraid to speak the truth and tell people it was extremely hard work being a basketball player. Sometimes it wasn’t all that much fun, either.
“It’s one of those things I would get myself into trouble because sometimes the way I talk about my years at Iowa State comes off as unappreciative,” Shirley said. “What people don’t seem to understand about college athletics is that it wasn’t much fun. We weren’t really having a good time in the midst of that, but I’m proud in that we were really successful and I got to play on great teams which led to a professional career of some kind.”
“But in a lot of ways I do regret the way that it happened, because it wasn’t much fun and we didn’t enjoy it,” Shirley added. “However, the experience of getting to play in front of 14,000 rabid fans was of course irreplaceable and at times almost impossible to believe. I always have been thankful for the fans and the amazing environment to play in, but internally, to the basketball team, it wasn’t exactly a healthy environment.”
Shirley calls Los Angeles home now and is enjoying the Hollywood lifestyle.
“I just paid $50 dollars for a haircut,” Shirley joked.
He continues to stay busy with all of his writing projects, which includes teaching writing at a prep school and running a pair of writers workshops. He also writes for El Pais, a Spanish newspaper which covers the NBA.
Shirley acknowledged he was honored and nervous for the opportunity to lecture to ISU’s latest crop of student-athletes.
“I was very nervous even though I do a little bit of these speaking engagements,” Shirley said. “They’re usually not in places with any expectations of me to knock it out of the park. So I felt a little pressure to do a great job. I hope I lived up to the standards I set for myself.”