A new book chronicles the adventures of Shaq, Kobe, and the Lakers’ three-peat
It’s hard to believe that we no longer have Kobe Bryant around anymore; following his untimely death in a helicopter crash earlier this year, the eulogies rightly cited his turn away from being “Black Mamba” to being a “girl dad” who coached his daughter Gig (also lost in the crash) and her basketball team. But in the early 2000’s, Bryant was a stone-cold killer on the court and an absolutely terrible teammate, selfish and immature. He also was a three-time, three-times-in-a-row NBA champion. The contradictions in this lie at the core of Jeff Pearlman’s brilliant new chronicle of those heady, unpredictable years.
In Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty, Pearlman makes the case that the latest Lakers dynasty (after the “Showtime era” of the Eighties) was about as dysfunctional a family as any, with warring sides chaired by Bryant and his rival Shaquille O’Neal, with others caught in the middle. The creative tension that produced three straight NBA championship trophies also kept the two marquee players of their era from ever really learning to trust one another or even feign teamwork on the court, much less off it.
O’Neal, gregarious and generous, was the polar opposite of Bryant a glory hound who put himself first at the expense of his team, including longtime NBA veterans who tried to mentor the high-school phenom when he skipped college and jumped to the pros at 17. It’s hard not to think of the Kobe-Shaq dynamic as a little like the Beatles’ main songwriting team: O’Neal was beloved Paul, always the darling of his teammates and the media as well as fans, while Bryant was acerbic John, pushed to greatness by an overweening desire to be the absolute best basketball player ever (that he came awfully close to earning that title doesn’t excuse much of his more boorish behavior, in the eyes of many).
But the Kobe-Shaq relationship wouldn’t have been as productive if not for other factors like head coach Phil Jackson, who came to the Lakers straight from winning six titles with the Chicago Bulls. His diplomacy worked for a while, but eventually he lost the team as the 2004 season ended in defeat. Role players like Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, and J.R. Rider were just as important to the Lakers’ legacy of winning in those years as Bryant and O’Neal, and they get a fair amount of speaking time in Pearlman’s book. The hectic nature of winning in the entertainment capital of the world was not always conducive to good vibes among players, and some didn’t adjust so well to being kings of the NBA (Shaq and Kobe included). But for the eight years that Bryant and O’Neal were teammates, the Lakers were always a show worth watching.
Pearlman, a veteran sports reporter and biographer, weaves his story together with a mix of deep seriousness about the desire to field a winning basketball team and a witty irreverence for the entire madcap nature of the Early Aughts Lakers, a team so good that they couldn’t lose any of those three championships even if they tried. Kobe Bryant’s 2003 sexual assault case, understandably not commented on much after his passing, also gets substantial coverage. Here Pearlman is at his best, documenting how investigators in the case feel to this day that they had a guilty man in Bryant, if the trial had simply proceeded as normal.
But the media circus that followed even a Laker-on-trial case proved too much, and the allegations tarnish Bryant’s legacy, no matter the veracity of the claims against him. Meanwhile, O’Neal, once a dedicated pursuer of championships on moribund teams like Orlando, became lazy in his post-MVP-trophy campaigns, his health issues more from a lack of effort than physical disabilities. And alpha-manager Jackson, long reputed to be the best coach in the NBA, burned bridges (among them, with longtime Lakers GM and NBA logo Jerry West) that left him friendless in just a few years on the job.
In the end, the Lakers’ three-peat was just that, over before you could blink from all the glitter that was sitting courtside. Shaq and Kobe eventually won without each other (O’Neal in Miami with Dwyane Wade, in 2006, and Bryant solo in 2009 and 2010), but like John and Paul, they were never the same apart that they were together. And Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash made his younger self, with all the unpleasant selfishness and desire to be the best, perhaps not as loathsome considering where he was as a man and as a father when he perished alongside his daughter.
But in telling the whole story of those turn-of-the-century champions, Jeff Pearlman has painted a cautionary tale of how the pursuit of excellence can turn even one of the best players of all time into an All-Star monster of a teammate. It’s an ugly portrait, and Bryant isn’t the only one who emerges with some baggage from the championship run. But for the brief moment that all three uncomfortably shared (and battled for) the spotlight in Los Angeles, theirs was a dynasty that will be hard to top.
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 22, 2020)