Q&A with former Phoenix Suns 12th man Paul Shirley -- Part I

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Paul Shirley was part of the special 2004-05 Phoenix Suns team.

Special.

That’s one word often used to describe the 2004-05 Phoenix Suns. Seven Seconds or Less made its debut and Steve Nash quickly became the face of the franchise that drafted him, while leading them to an NBA-best 62-20 record and capturing his first MVP along the way.

Amare Stoudemire transformed from a raw talent to a polished offensive force that year. His knees were still surgery-free as he dunked over anyone and everyone as ferociously as humanly possible and averaged a cool 37.0 points per game against the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.

Shawn Marion was still The Matrix, providing a unique and never-ending energy, and still shooting threes that made you cringe. Then there was Joe Johnson, who emerged as one of the better shooting guards in the Western Conference before becoming the odd man out in Phoenix.

Mike D’Antoni (2005 Coach of the Year) had endless talent at his disposal, and created an unconventional yet exciting style that has yet to be duplicated. The Suns fell short in the playoffs, losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals in five games, but although they didn’t win a championship, this team created a style and culture that’s characterized the Phoenix Suns ever since.

Although he wasn’t a staple on one of Phoenix’s most memorable teams, 12th man and basketball journeyman Paul Shirley was along for the ride. The 6-foot-10 power forward chronicled the Suns’ playoff run and went on to start a blog for ESPN called “My So-Called Career.”

Shirley didn’t return to the Suns after the 2004-05 season and went on to play for 13 different professional teams over the course of his basketball career that came to an end two-and-a-half years ago.

We’ll get into Shirley’s life, newest book and take on the NBA lockout tomorrow in Part II of the Q&A, but before that, the opinionated NBA journeyman shared his take on what made that Suns team special, the ‘should Steve Nash chase a championship somewhere else’ debate, Amare Stoudemire’s innocence and more.

Shirley on how he would describe his experience with the 2004-05 Suns: Comfortable is the word that comes to mind. It was the only time in my basketball life where I felt comfortable because the environment around the team, the coaching staff, all the players. Everyone was secure with themselves. Obviously you had individual personalities that weren’t necessarily secure human beings but within roles on the team and how everyone got along was a very comfortable situation.

On what that stemmed from: I think it comes a lot from the relationship Steve Nash had with D’Antoni and at the time Jerry Colangelo was still around. There was a sense of continuity to it all and the fact that people trusted each other. Everyone felt like they were together for the right reasons, to win games but also to treat people well. It was a great experience for me because I never had that and it was what I always dreamed of in basketball. It’s a thing that’s very hard to find.

On whether he thought that team should have won a championship: People really forget how much luck has to do with winning a championship. People say, ‘Well Karl Malone wasn’t a great player because he didn’t win an NBA championship.’ You obviously have to give yourself a chance to win it and from there the top four or five or six teams are probably all good enough to win it. Were the Dallas Mavericks really the best team in the NBA this year? The Lakers could have beaten them and we never would be having this conversation about the Mavericks in general. I know it’s frustrating for me to hear analysts talking about the Suns saying, ‘Well they’re not built for the playoffs, blah, blah, blah, blah.’ If you can win all of those games over the course of all those years, you’re certainly good enough to compete for an NBA championship.

On if he thinks Nash is really content without a ring: If it bothers him I feel for him because he’s a good person and I enjoy being around him and would consider him a peripheral friend. We’re not like the best of pals but he’s a really good human being. I think he might be the odd personality who knows the truth about life, which is that as long as you’re happy with how hard you work and how much effort you put into something, there’s not much more you can do, especially in a team sport where he doesn’t have total control of the situation. He didn’t really put his career together until pretty late so maybe his basketball prowess didn’t really connect with when he was at his physical prime. From what I know of Steve Nash from being around him for six months is that he’s that rare bird who may be fine with it and he’s probably better off because of it.

On what Stoudemire was like as a teammate and if he’s surprised he left for the Knicks: I’ve seen him a couple of times at NBA games just saying hello and it’s interesting to me how much he’s matured. He was really, really a kid in those days just about everything. He didn’t really understand how to play basketball or what the concept of defense was in any way. Am I surprised he left for NY? Not really. Professional athletics is a weird world because it’s really hard to see the forest with all the trees and you can get caught up in making a name for yourself instead of being excited about what you have and the place you are. I can imagine that some of that affected him where he just thought, I need to go prove that I can do this by myself. And he’s wrong, he’s just fundamentally incorrect about that. But it’s understandable given the personality that comes along with being a high-level athlete.

On what he means when he calls Stoudemire raw on and off the court: (Laughs) Well there’s the story, I don’t know if I ever wrote about this but — he was not only raw and young on the court but he spent a lot of time asking really dumb questions. They were kind of sweet, they were actually very endearing because he just didn’t know things about how the game of basketball was played. Off the court he was pretty naive as well. One time we were in the locker room, this was around the election of 2004. Jimmy Jackson comes in one day and he’s talking to the guys about, well you should vote for this guy or whatever. Of course at the time it was George W. Bush against John Kerry and Amare stands up and says, ‘I don’t know what the Hell you guys are talking about because I’m going to vote for Kerry Edwards and I’m not interested in any more of this. I’m not interested in who these other people are.’ He thought that there was a man named Kerry Edwards. But again a lot of the time it was very cute because he was like this big puppy dog who could probably tear your head off. He just didn’t know much about the world and basketball in general.

On STAT and D’Antoni’s relationship: It seemed fine to me. I think D’Antoni lost patience with him a few times but I think he also understood that he was trying the best way that he knew how but his way of trying was maybe different than the way that you and I would try.

On if the Seven Seconds or Less style can return to the NBA and be successful: Yes, definitely. I think people who are quick to condemn it don’t actually understand how the game of basketball works. When Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith are sitting in the studio maligning it, that for some reason carries a ton of weight with people when it shouldn’t. People really forget how successful those teams were and how close they were to winning it all. There’s nothing magical about trying to score more points than your opponent.

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