By Michael Pina
For Mark Deeks, the game of basketball is an intimate addiction. A couple of years ago, he watched about 1,100 complete games (NBA, D-League, NCAA, Euroleague, whatever), and spent an innumerable additional number of hours viewing random possessions -- a quarter here, a half there -- because there was nothing else he'd rather do.
Millions of people watch professional basketball, and many of them love it. But only a handful not employed by the NBA or one of its 30 teams understand the league's collective bargaining agreement and financial structure better than Deeks. And maybe one or two of those have the media presence to relay their knowledge to everyone else. But absolutely nobody shares his background.
Deeks, 29, is the founder of ShamSports, a website that provides the salary of every player in the NBA while also analyzing different aspects of the league's complicated yet essential collective bargaining agreement. Information from the site has been referenced by writers from ESPN.com and Grantland, the New York Daily News, the Los Angeles Times, and other major publications. In addition to working on ShamSports -- the title is derived from a childhood nickname -- Deeks is also a cap-consultant for sports agencies, and writes weekly posts for Hoopsworld, SB Nation and The Score.
Born in Hertfordshire, England, Deeks spent the first 27 years of his life in the countryside before moving to Coventry, the country's 12th largest city, to attend law school two years ago at the University of Warwick. (He recently graduated.) Of course, the experience of growing up in Europe is, culturally speaking, very different from that of growing up in the United States. But for Deeks, one gap loomed over all others.
"Basketball in England doesn't exist," he said. Though embellished for effect, this statement contains some truth, and was even more accurate 15 years ago.
Deeks was introduced to basketball at the age of 12 by the video game NBA Live 96. He played it over and over, falling in love with the real sport as the reproduced experience grew stale. But nobody played it at school, there was no Internet available to foster relationships with other fans, and, most importantly, NBA games weren't on TV. Football was the national craze, and so football was where his childhood fandom gravitated.
That changed in February 1999, when England's ITV Network began running a Saturday afternoon magazine series called NBA '99. For a second time, Deeks was hooked.
"It scratched the itch I wasn't even aware I had," he said. "Soon I found myself glued to it, watching those same shows over and over on a VHS loop. As such, some otherwise innocuous clips of Kevin Harlan's commentary from the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals are scarred into my brain."
Two years later, Deeks had regular Internet access. He latched onto various NBA forums online and was finally able to discuss the league, and the sport, with those who cared about it as deeply as he did.
Soon after, a friend in Wisconsin began recording every Chicago Bulls game and mailing the tapes directly to Deeks. As a side effect, to this day the Bulls are the one team he actively roots for. "I know a lot more about Trenton Hassell's entry passing than I really need to," he said. "I think it's an English thing. We like underdogs." He still has those tapes.
Atypical of nearly everyone who watches basketball, Deeks' primary focus is in the act of team building: Scouting players, learning the financial rules and their implications, what positions have the most value, what type of contract is the most crucial. Deeks can't explain this particular attraction. It's just the way he's always followed the sport (and the way he briefly followed football).
Thirty teams construct 15-man rosters, each with the same ultimate goal, playing with the same salary cap restrictions. Deeks enjoys studying which players are worth getting, and the mechanisms through which they can be acquired.
The process can be repetitive, but each summer its importance seems to grow. This past offseason, the Atlanta Hawks signed 28-year-old Paul Millsap to a two-year, $19 million contract. The transaction stunned the basketball world, but Deeks believes it was perfectly fair for both sides, representing neither a steal nor an overpay for Atlanta. And while some cap-space-filling team would have guaranteed Millsap at least twice as much money several years ago, the lopsided relationship between perception and value could play a role in increasing whatever he's able to earn on his next contract.
"Just as we know every young player needs more minutes, we also think players are better when they're paid less," he said. "It's an expectations thing we all seem to be guilty of, and, to be sure, getting the correct value on contracts is imperative."
Through Deeks' eyes, ShamSports is a CV, designed to simultaneously inform the public and display his knowledge -- a stepping stone he'll one day use, hopefully, to lodge his foot in the league's door.
Five years ago, one league executive contacted Deeks after reading an article he'd written about one of his players. They got to talking, and a job offer was made. Soon after, it was rescinded, when Deeks couldn't obtain a visa.
Now every smart organization in the league is overflowing with minds that rival the progressive intuition that Deeks has cultivated over the past 10 years. The thought of helping build an actual roster for an NBA team is still his number one priority, and he's desperate to make it happen sooner than later -- in part because he doesn't know how much longer he can hold out as a fan in England.
More NBA games are on British television now than ever before, but not nearly enough for Deeks to stay as connected as he'd like. He watches a majority of the action on a computer with poor Internet access, and the whole process seems to be getting tougher and tougher.
"The time difference is crippling, to be honest, and I don't know how much longer I can do it for," Deeks said. "After a while, you come to realize the affect it has on your life, from health to finances to relationships, and there will come a day when, if I'm not employed in the NBA, I will have to stop following it, or at least curtail it considerably."
"I can't really explain to anyone who hasn't lived anything comparable to it how weird and difficult it is to essentially devote a decade of your life to an activity that not a single one of your friends and peers even remotely understands. It feels almost like a double life. And yet there's been no alternative."
With a Masters degree in International Development Law and Human Rights (Deeks initially decided to attend law school in an effort to further his basketball-related ambitions), he won't go hungry if he's unable to work in the NBA. His graduate thesis covered legislative restrictions in Uganda, and two years ago he spent the summer in Africa, where, upon observing several injustices, he decided a law degree helping others would be a gratifying and captivating alternative should the NBA never call again.
What began as an enslavement to NBA Live 96 and the echo of Kevin Harlan's voice eventually led to the creation of one of the most absorbing NBA resources on the Internet. The league would be one driven, insightful mind short if Deeks ever chooses to leave it behind.
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Michael Pina is a writer from Boston who lives in Los Angeles. His work appears at ESPN, The Classical, Bleacher Report, and Boston Magazine. Follow him @MichaelVPina.