Jeff Pearlman talks his new book, ‘Three-Ring Circus’

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Kobe Bryant walks down the court at Madison Square garden. Bryant played alongside Shaquille O'Neal from 1996 to 2004. (C.J./Flickr)

Kobe Bryant. Shaquille O’Neal. Phil Jackson. The Los Angeles Lakers of the late 1990s and early 2000s were a collection of some of the most volatile teams of all-time.  

But that didn’t matter. Throughout all the arguments, fighting and drama that went down both publicly and privately, they found a way to win three-straight titles just one year removed from Phil’s second three-peat with the Bulls. Somehow, it worked. 

Until it didn’t. 

Former Sports Illustrated senior writer and nine-time New York Times bestseller Jeff Pearlman digs into all of it in his new book “Three-Ring Circus.” Set to be released on Sept. 22, “Three-Ring Circus” is an in-depth look at how the Kobe, Shaq and Phil Lakers were able to go back-to-back-to-back, and why it all came crashing down. 

I got the chance to talk to Jeff about his latest project, one that took him about a year and a half of reporting, 300-400 interviews and then another six months to write. 

He offered insight on some of the biggest storylines in the book, how the process came about and even some of his personal concerns with how the public might react.  

Jorge Eckardt: What inspired you to write “Three-Ring Circus?” 

Jeff Pearlman: So I, I had a book come out a bunch of years ago called “Showtime” about the Magic Johnson era, and that ended with him announcing that he was HIV positive, and stopped. And it was a really kind of abrupt ending to an era and a book. And I just, when I was thinking of new topics, I just thought there was this really interesting continuation where that happens, then you have a little beat, a little beat, and then Shaq and Kobe come along in ’96. And it just kind of felt almost like, I’ve never written a sequel, because you don’t usually write sequels for books, but it almost felt like a sequel type sort of opportunity. I mean, it’s a whole fresh story, but it was interesting. It just felt like a continuation.  

And also I live out here, when I wrote that book, I lived in New York and now I live in California, so you have much more exposure to the Lakers and much more of a greater understanding of the impact of that team on the culture and the people out here so I just kind of thought it’d make for a good subject. Also, not for nothing, when you write books, you want to have big characters like you just do, and you know, Shaq, Kobe, Phil alone are three huge sports characters, so seemed like a pretty good topic. 

JE: What was your background with the three of them before you started writing? 

JP: None. Zero. I had a lot with the Lakers because I had written that book, and I knew Jeanie Buss, the owner of the Lakers, pretty well. But none, maybe I covered one Bulls game when Phil Jackson was coaching, maybe, I don’t even know. No, zero. 

JE: Was there any particular interview that stands out that was really surprising, insightful or enlightening? 

JP: So, I didn’t know Phil Jackson. I knew Jeanie Buss from doing the other Lakers book. And Jeanie used to date Phil Jackson, so I was having trouble getting in touch with Phil, and one day I emailed Jeanie and I said, “If you were me, how would you try to reach Phil?” And she said, well, “I’ll try and get him for you”. And she wrote me back and said, “Here’s Phil’s email address, he’s expecting an email from you”. And I wrote him, he said, “When do you want to do it?” And I said, “Can I come to Montana to talk to you?” He said sure, and I flew out there. I met him at a coffee shop. The first thing he said to me, I was like, “Hey, thanks for doing this,” and he said “I’m not doing it for you. I’m doing it for Jeanie.” And I thought, “Well, crap. This is gonna last very quick.”  

We sat down, and he’s like, “Well, I was thinking first we’re going to take a drive. We’ll take a drive around the Flathead lake, how about that?” And I said, okay. The Flathead Lake is huge. So we’re driving around this lake, we stop for lunch, and he’s pointing out sights and it’s like getting a guided tour from Phil Jackson. Then he’s like, “You want to come back to the house?” And I’m like, sure, we go back to the house, we’re sitting at the porch, looking at this, you know, kind of beautiful landscape, then he’s like, I’m gonna take a nap, and I figured that’s it. Then he’s like, “You want to get dinner later?” I said sure, so I basically ended up winning the spend a day with Phil Jackson sweepstakes, you know, for nothing. And he was awesome he was really nice. It’s a reminder that some of the great experiences in this job somewhat come sort of serendipitously. 

JE: You said that he was doing it not for you, he was doing it for Jeanie, and then you got him to open up so much. How do you go about that? 

JP: It wasn’t that hard. Sometimes people say “How do you get someone open up?” And sometimes it’s tricky. He’s just a really nice guy who likes to talk. And I think he was like, I don’t know if he was putting on an act when he said, you know, “I’m doing it for Jeanie,” but he was probably feeling me out a little bit. But the main thing I found in my career is you just let people talk, and you don’t, you don’t force them back. I’m sure I had a million unanswered questions for that day about whatever, Shaq or Rick Fox or Robert Horry or whoever, but sometimes you’ve just got to let a person talk and let them be comfortable. And I just sat there and listened very happily. 

JE: What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome during this book? 

JP: I mean, I would say it was Kobe’s refusal to talk. It wasn’t an obstacle, it happens, I’ve never written a book where everybody talks. But it definitely it would have been very nice to get his insights, and now, obviously considering that he passed away, it would have been meaningful to get his insights. So that was a bit of a bummer. 

JE: After his passing, how much more difficult did this project become, if it became more difficult? 

JP: Well, it didn’t really because the book was done. So he died on January 26, and the book was pretty much done, it was like 99%, through edits and everything. First I was just sort of blown away by the sadness of it all and the tragedy of it all and how awful it is. And after we kind of thought about it a little, I talked to my editor, and we just decided, you have to add something at the front of the book, you know, like you have to at least acknowledge that this happened.  

My main concern was the book itself is not overly kind to Kobe Bryant. It’s from a sliver of time, ‘96-to-’04, when he could be a real difficult human being and a really difficult teammate. And I just really wanted to make it clear that someone at age 25 isn’t who they are at 41. I didn’t want this book, I know there are tons of Kobe fans out there, and I don’t want them to approach this book and think “Oh, this guy’s destroying Kobe Bryant oh god Kobe Bryant’s a really awful person.” I don’t think he was an awful person, I think he went through stretches of growth and development and highs and lows and rocky periods and some really ugly periods, but that’s not the completion of who he was. I just kind of wanted to put that out there.

And I just really wanted to make it clear that someone at age 25 isn’t who they are at 41.

JE: How much of the book focuses on the relationship between Kobe and Shaq? 

JP: A lot, actually more than I probably wanted. I love getting into like the minor characters and the role players and blah blah blah, but it was like a freaking gravitational pull, Shaq and Kobe. It was very hard to get away from it, every time you thought you weren’t writing about it, you found it kind of getting in there like because you’d have teammates taking one side or another, teammates recognizing one guy’s behavior or another or teammates trying to impact and talking, like — you’d be interviewing people and it would always come back to Shaq and Kobe, you sit down with Rick Fox, it always comes back to Shaq and Kobe. You talk to Derek Harper, Glen Rice, just, it would always come back to Shaq and Kobe. So, more than I wanted because it was such a profound and weird relationship that everyone felt it. 

JE: What word would you use to describe them together? 

JP: Combustive, but I mean, it worked, basketball-wise, really well. So, you know, combustive doesn’t have to be explosive, so it was it worked really well. They were just a really weird relationship. But it worked. You know, they complemented each other’s games very well. 

JE: What was the dynamic like between them specifically? 

JP: It was like, it’s like, you have this one guy Shaq, who’s super lovable is super embraceable and a little bit fragile, and wants to be the leader and is the leader, and wants to be loved and is beloved. And then you have this one guy come along, and he’s a high school kid, and he doesn’t really care. And I don’t even mean that in a bad way, but he just doesn’t care. He’s like, “I’m here to play basketball. I’m here to be great. I don’t need a big brother. I don’t need someone taking me out to dinner you know blah blah blah blah blah like, I don’t need that, I don’t want to be Robin to your Batman, I’m here because I want to be great.”  

And you know Shaq, the idea is look, you have the most dominant force in the NBA, get the ball to him. And Kobe’s kind of thinking is, “Man, I’m a dominant force too. I don’t always want to dump the ball down low to him.” Kobe has — and he’s correct — this way of thinking, “I’m the hardest working human being on the planet. It’s 2 a.m. and I’m going to be taking jumpers and Shaq is going to be on a boat in Orlando with his buddies smoking cigars. Like that’s not fair.” That was kind of his sort of outlook. “That’s not fair. I’m sweating my ass off in 120-degree heat, running up steps, and Shaq is eating Whoppers. You know, that’s not fair, like that’s not right, I don’t appreciate that.”  

So I think that that kind of wedged between this hard-working, lives in a very focused world of work work work, win win win, dominate dominate dominate, versus this other guy who’s like “I love winning too but I just really want to have fun. You know, I really want to have fun and I want to enjoy life and all it offers. I get this is fleeting and I want to have caviar and I want to smoke cigars and I want to hang out my guys.” Like those were really pretty polar approaches to life and basketball. 

JE: Were you able to talk to Shaq for the book?  

JP: I was, he was great. It was great. I went to Atlanta and sat with him in the Turner studios. 

JE: What was the conversation like? 

JP: It was cool. It was like an hour, 20 minutes. He’s hard not to like, I mean, he really is hard not to like, he’s very embraceable, he’s very honest and he’s funny. There was one moment when I was talking to him, and his daughter Facetimed him, he excused himself and I was just sitting right there, and it was basically she was saying that she had a friend whose parents had tragically, suddenly died, and Shaq just goes, “Listen, make sure I pay for the funeral. Make sure I get all the bills for the funeral. Don’t let them pay for anything. All right, baby, love you bye,” *click*.  

And it was like, he wasn’t doing it for me. Like he wasn’t trying to show off. It was just this conversation, and he’s just he just that kind of guy. And he’s got his flaws as we all do, but he’s probably the most beloved teammate I’ve ever written about as far as people just really embracing him, and you could see that sitting down.  

The other thing that was crazy, he was drinking a soda, and he had a normal size can of soda, but his hand made it look like a mini. Like, it was like an optical illusion watching Shaq drink a soda. 

JE: You were able to talk to Shaq, but you weren’t able to talk to Kobe and a lot of it focuses on the beef between the two. Since you were able to talk to one side but not the other, how were you able to try to fairly portray the conflict? 

JP: Well, first of all, it’s not like Kobe’s never done an interview before. I always say in a way, if you’re going to have someone not talk to you, the superstar is usually the best guy because he’s done about eight billion interviews and Kobe has done about eight billion interviews. But No. 2 is like, you talk to the guys around them. The guys who were there, a witness to it all and part of it all, and they have no reason to be dishonest, the years have passed. So just a ton of research, but also a ton of interviewing teammates, trainers, ball boys, executives, just everyone you can find to sort of give their take on how it was, how it went down, what the behaviors were, and you just try your best more than anything, just kind of do your best. 

JE: How did the Shaq/Kobe relationship progress through the years after they split up?  

JP: Yeah, I didn’t really focus on that, but I can tell you, it’s interesting, you saw Shaq when Kobe died, he was absolutely devastated. They were not close friends, they were never close friends. They were not buddies, they weren’t inviting each other out to dinner when they were in town. But they definitely had a kinship based upon shared experiences. There was a moment when Shaq, it’s on YouTube, probably on Twitter too, he walked out of the Staples Center like the day after Kobe died or two days after he died, and he started leading the fans and a chant of “Kobe, Kobe”. And like, it was really beautiful and like, you can dislike someone or not get along with someone, but also sort of love someone and cherish someone and what you had with someone, and they had this.  

I feel like a lot of times, in a way, that’s what these books are, I guess, you step back, and you can appreciate something you had, you know, maybe you didn’t appreciate as much at the time, but when you step back and look at it, and you’re older, you have more life experiences and your days are a little more numbered, you sort of can look back and appreciate and enjoy and lather up everything you did together. They were not buddies. They weren’t close friends. They didn’t talk often. But they did have the shared experience that sort of brought a peace to it all. 

JE: What was Phil’s role in the beef having to deal with such a contentious relationship between his two stars? 

Phil Jackson coaching the LA Lakers during a timeout. Jackson was head coach of the Lakers from 1999 to 2011. (Bridget Samuels/Flickr)

JP: I mean, he basically sided with Shaq, most of the time. First of all, he was kind of the more important player during that dynasty. Kobe was up-and-coming and Shaq was a dominant force. And Kobe was a pain in the ass, he just, he wanted to be shooting 50 times a game, and he thought that offense should run through him, and he was really difficult and really kind of babyish at times in that regard. So part of it was, you know, siding with Shaq, part of it was trying to soothe over Kobe the best he could.  

And a big part of it was just sitting back and letting it happen organically. He wasn’t an overstepper of boundaries. He didn’t feel like he had to always sort of prod and push and yell. He certainly wasn’t a yeller. So I think of a lot of it, he saw they were winning, and he saw that somehow that dynamic was working, despite the kind of, you know, static electricity involved with it all. So I think part of it was just kicking back and letting it happen and just continuing to win. 

JE: I can imagine siding with Shaq a lot didn’t rub Kobe the right way. 

JP: No, but it’s funny because Kurt Rambis had been the interim head coach before Phil was hired, and Kurt Rambis was very sensitive to Kobe. He’d come along with a young Magic Johnson, I think he valued a young homegrown superstar, the idea of it. And Kurt Rambis sort of coddling Kobe Bryant drove the other players crazy. So yeah, Kobe wasn’t gonna come back if Shaq came back and Phil came back after the ‘04 season, so, and later, Kobe ended up winning two more rings with Phil. I think it took being without him for a bit to kind of appreciate how good of a coach he was. 

JE: Yeah. How did the breakup go when Shaq and Kobe split up? 

JP: Not good. No, terrible. Kobe basically said, there’s a part of the book where he says to a teammate, there was a guard they used to have named Kareem Rush, and after the ‘04 season ended, Kobe said to him bluntly. “I ain’t playing with that motherfucker again.” He was threatening to leave to the Clippers and it was a very real threat. He basically made it clear “I don’t want to play for Phil anymore and I don’t want to play with Shaq,” and Jerry Buss made the decision that to save this sort of franchise, or to save the most of what we have, we need to side with the young, homegrown, up-and-coming superstar, not the guy on the other side of 30 who’s kind of fading. 

JE: After really digging into the Kobe-Shaq relationship, what do you think of the public perception of it at the time, and then now? 

JP: I think it was accurate, actually. I think it was pretty accurate. I think the media got it right. The media knew what was going on, because every day they’d be covering games and Shaq would call the press over and then Kobe would call the press over and they’d be taking digs at each other. So I think it was pretty accurate. And I think, I mean, I think it’s still accurate.  

I think when someone dies, as Kobe has, we tend to glorify a little bit and I think that’s fair. I think that’s okay. I think people were rightly horrified by his death. I was too. So maybe people are sort of remembering Kobe, a little more warmly than they would have otherwise. But I think that’s okay, actually, that’s kind of what we do and how we process it all. I think that there’s nothing wrong with that.  

JE: You touched on it a bit earlier, but after his passing, are you worried at all about the public’s reaction to some of the less flattering parts of the book about Kobe? I read online that I think a bit of it talks about his rape accusation, am I right? 

JP: A lot of it. Basically two chapters. Yeah. I mean, yeah, I’m nervous about it. I am. I wrote a book years ago about Walter Payton, the former Chicago Bear. Basically, Sports Illustrated ran an excerpt on the cover a couple weeks before the book came out, and it was about his infidelity and drug usage and blah, blah, blah. It was at the end of his life, and 95% of that book was a really glowing portrait of Walter Payton, who was one of my heroes growing up. But the 5% came out, and I just got freaking destroyed. Destroyed. It’s almost like, I got a really bad car accident about a decade ago, in the rain, and for a long time driving in the rain, I would really be cringing when I was driving in the rain. And I feel like I’m back driving in the rain with this book, and a little nervous about it. 

JE: Aside from the Kobe and Shaq relationship, what other major storylines are featured? 

JP: The Phil Jackson arrival obviously, the ‘03-’04 season is absolutely insane, as far as bringing in Karl Malone bringing Gary Payton, kind of trying to create this dream team with kind of “on the fade” superstars brought in at the same time Kobe is going through the rape accusations. It’s the craziest season ever, ever.  

They brought in Dennis Rodman in 1999, which is one of my favorite spans ever. Every now and then they would experiment with like, like they bring in J.R. Rider in 2000. There’s a million awesome J.R. Rider stories. So J.R. Rider, former slam dunk champion, former Portland Trailblazer kinda star, one time, he overslept at the team hotel to miss practice, and he asked the front desk clerk at the hotel to write him a note that he could give to the coach explaining his absence. And he actually brought the note to give to Phil Jackson. Then, another time he missed I think two or three days of practices because his car broke down, but the hotel he was staying in was 200 yards away for the practice facility. Like, there’s the best J.R. Rider story ever.  

Also, Magic Johnson’s comeback. The reason Shaq and Kobe happen in a lot of ways is because Magic comes back in ‘95. He makes a comeback, and it’s a total disaster. It’s a mess of epic proportions, which I love.  

And then the whole Kobe coming to the Lakers is this amazing story. The reason Kobe is a Laker in many ways is because John Calipari, who is the coach of the Nets at the time, got scared of drafting him last minute and took Kerry Kittles instead. The Nets were all prepared to get Kobe Bryant. Kobe Bryant was going to be this young Net phenom and he’s going to be the new face of the franchise. And at the very last minute, the very last minute, John Calipari, who had final personnel say with the Nets, backed out, got cold feet and they drafted Kerry Kittles. 

JE: Do you know why he got cold feet?  

JP: Yeah, so basically, he was in his first year, and Kobe’s people wanted him to go to LA, right, and Jerry West had a deal worked out with Charlotte. Charlotte drafted Kobe and the Lakers traded Vlade Divac to Charlotte for the rights to Kobe Bryant. All that was worked out ahead of time. And Kobe’s agent, Arn Tellem, basically told the Nets “Kobe won’t play for you”. The Nets are ready to draft him, then they find out “Kobe won’t play for you”. The GM of the Nets is a guy John Nash and he’s like, “That’s ridiculous. Of course he’s gonna play for us. His parents say that he’s excited for him to come here. Of course he’s gonna play for us.” But Calipari just got really nervous about the idea of drafting a high schooler with one of his first few personnel moves and this high school kid is going to snub us, so they went with Kerry Kittles. 

JE: Ultimately do you think he would have played for them? 

JP: Yes. Hundred percent. Yeah. It’s crazy, and the funny thing is it’s just a funny weird world. Like, I bet a Kobe goes to the Nets, he’s probably their starting shooting guard as a rookie, the team is a mess, he’s shooting 38% but averaging 25 points a game. He’s undisciplined and uncoachable and John Calipari doesn’t know what to do with him. And his whole career, I mean there’s a somewhat decent chance he goes down as just like one of these players who scores a lot of points but never wins anything. 

JE: We talked about it a bit in the beginning about Magic and you just touched on it now, how much of the book focuses on him? 

A trailer for Pearlman’s new book, Three-Ring Circus. Originally tweeted by Jeff Pearlman (@jeffpearlman) on September 10, 2020.

JP: Not a ton. The first chapter is about his return from retirement because he came along, it was the Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones Lakers, and Magic comes out of retirement. They kind of wanted him to come back, but he comes back and he’s just kind of a pain in the ass. You know, he needs to be the focus of everyone’s attention, he detracts from the other players. At the end of the year, he basically he’s basically like the way like people my age now are like, ugh, Millennials. He’s basically like, “Ugh, this generation of basketball players. I can’t handle these people,” and kind of walks off into the sunset. 

JE: I saw on Twitter that you are starting a book on Bo Jackson, can you give us a little sneak peek on what that book is going to be about? 

JP: I’m only early in the reporting but I mean, he’s a he’s one of my all-time favorite athletes, all-time all-time favorite athletes. And I actually feel like people of your generation, by no fault of your own, like, he almost must feel like Jackie Robinson feels like to me, like you never saw him play. He lives on YouTube clips and name alone, but the guy, he’s the most ridiculous athlete I’ve ever seen in my life and this phenomenon that came and went in a flash. Have you seen Bo Jackson climb the wall? 

JE: Oh, of course. 

JP: Okay, so I just feel like for anyone who’s never seen it, I always say just put in YouTube “Bo Jackson wall”. And watch. It’s like, he’s this Greek god mythological creature who came and went really quickly. So just got digging into it. I’m early in the process.  

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