There will probably never be another book like Jim Bouton's Ball Four, a plainspoken, bitterly hilarious classic in which Bouton, a journeyman knuckleballer for the short-lived Seattle Pilots baseball team, talked about his life in the majors. Though it seems rather quaint now, Bouton's book brought a firestorm of criticism from players and officials who felt he shouldn't be telling tales out of school. And behind those attacks was the insidious implication that Bouton, a player-to-be-named-later type, didn't have the right to talk smack about Mickey Mantle. Coming out at a time when a steroid junkie is chasing the home-run record and a star NFL quarterback is under investigation for hosting dogfights at his estate, Paul Shirley's withering memoir Can I Keep My Jersey? isn't in danger of igniting a similar scandal. But Shirley's first book deserves a spot next to Ball Four on the shelves, because he and Bouton share a jaundiced view of their respective sports and an alienation from the lunkheads who play them.
Having distinguished himself as a solid 6'10" forward at Iowa State, Shirley decided to pursue a career in professional basketball, but he wasn't a hot prospect coming out of college, so he had to realize his NBA dreams in a roundabout way. Through workouts and summer leagues, Shirley has tried to scrape and claw to the back of the pro roster, and he's succeeded in picking up short-term contracts with teams like the Phoenix Suns, the Chicago Bulls, and the New Orleans Hornets. But more often, he's been relegated to less-glamorous destinations in European pro leagues and sketchy American organizations like the ABA, where West Coast road trips included a stop in Tijuana and games against Master P's team in Las Vegas.
Four years of misadventures in professional basketball haven't stopped Shirley from trying—he just finished up a season in Menorca, Spain—but they have contributed to a wry, self-deprecating attitude about life in the game. (Chuck Klosterman wrote the introduction, which is a sign of where Shirley is coming from.) He reserves much of his rancor for his teammates, whom he characterizes as "angry guys interested in dumb girls, jewelry, and the advancement of their own careers." Here's hoping Shirley gets another chance to work out his aggression on the court—or, more likely, produce another collection of juicy anecdotes.