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Chaos on and off the court – ‘Three-Ring Circus’

September 30, 2020
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We’re living in the age of the superteam in the NBA. While the league has always been star-driven, the necessity of those stars has never been more apparent. If you want to win a ring, you NEED at least two top-tier superstars. These days, assembling those dynamic duos or titanic trios involves players actively recruiting one another, with stars seeking out paths to play with other stars that they like and/or admire.

It wasn’t always that way, though. Two decades ago, we watched the most talented pairing in the league rise to dizzying dynastic heights even as they were engaged in an ongoing and off-putting internal fight.

Jeff Pearlman’s “Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30) dives deep into the eight-year stretch – from 1996-2004 – where two of the greatest basketball players of not just their generation but of all time team up to bring a string of titles to the Los Angeles Lakers even as their own interpersonal antipathy rages and boils beneath the surface. All while a renowned and legendary coach largely removes himself from the fray, content to let it work itself out.

It is a magnificently and meticulously detailed work, one featuring deep-dive interviews with all manner of people connected to that tumultuous time in the history of one of the NBA’s most storied franchises. It’s an unflinching and often unflattering portrait of the men who led L.A. to the top of the mountain; frankly, learning the extent of the chaos renders the championship victories all the more impressive.

Let’s get this out of the way up top: Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant hated each other. HATED each other. These men loathed each other with a virulent specificity that infected every aspect of the Lakers organization. Even at the height of their considerable success – not a lot of NBA three-peats out there – their mutual disdain cast a pall over it all.

Through hundreds of interviews and countless hours of poring over words written and spoken about this stretch, “Three-Ring Circus” is as comprehensive a look at this period as one could possibly imagine. It is absolutely packed with detail, drawn from reminiscences given by some of the team’s biggest names and – far more interestingly – some of the guys who played in the outsized shadows cast by the two clashing alpha dogs at the top of the depth chart.

Let’s talk about those two.

In 1996, Shaquille O’Neal was in the midst one of the most dominant starts to a career in NBA history. He was a physical force of nature who was disgruntled by the perceived lack of respect shown to him by Orlando, the organization that drafted him. So, when Lakers owner Jerry Buss ponied up a massive contract number, O’Neal took it and made his way west. He was a legitimate superstar.

In 1996, Kobe Bryant was a gifted high school senior who surprised everyone by declaring for the NBA draft. The return of high schoolers to the draft mix was still new; Kone was the first non-big to attempt to make the leap. He had plenty of skill, but he also sported a combination of arrogance and insecurity that resulted in something of an attitude problem. He believed himself to be the best player on any court he stepped onto.

Together? Well, let’s just say that this was a match made not in heaven, but … the other place.

The first couple of years featuring the two were bumpy, to be sure. Coaches like Del Harris and Kurt Rambis proved largely unable to mediate any sort of peace between the two. Shaq was an established figure in the NBA, one at the peak of his physical powers. He had proven his worth and expected the game plan to reflect his status as the offensive focus. Kobe, however, walked into the gym and just started firing away, putting up shots at a ludicrous volume (and not making nearly enough to justify the itchy trigger finger).

It wasn’t until the sage Phil Jackson turned up that the results began to fully match the talent. With his Zen guru reputation and his six rings, Jackson was viewed as a potential savior. He brought in his personal offensive philosophy and the longtime assistant who largely developed it – the triangle and Tex Winter, respectively – and helped lead the team to three straight titles in 2000-2002.

But the behind-the-scenes tensions never went away. Not even championship success was enough for Shaq and Kobe to put their differences aside. Shaq had some struggles with health and motivation, one often springing directly from the other. Kobe proved unable to fit in, his hypercompetitive attitude often proving detrimental to his performance on the court and his relationships with not just Shaq, but all of his teammates. By all accounts, young Kobe was a tremendous jerk.

(It should be noted that this book was completed before Bryant’s tragic and untimely death earlier this year. Pearlman addresses this in a late addendum to the book, writing an introduction that explains the timing and acknowledging that the man he wrote about here is not the same man that Bryant would ultimately grow to become.)

“Three-Ring Circus” is unwavering in laying out the realities of these relationships, warts and all. Whether it was the on-court struggles for dominance or the off-court controversies – including Bryant’s 2003 sexual assault arrest – Pearlman digs deep and shines a light on it all. Pearlman’s ability to narratively engage while also executing top-notch reportage is what makes all of his books such worthwhile reads – this latest effort is no different.

One of the many striking things about this book is the vividness of the recollections being offered. So many of the players, coaches and administrators involved in this time have remarkably clear memories of these events. No surprise, really – one imagines that sharing space with two hate-filled greats sticks with you. Still, the thoroughness of the stories being recounted provides a wonderfully detailed foundation, rendering a complete picture of a uniquely weird situation – one that defined an era of NBA basketball.

“Three-Ring Circus” is a phenomenal book for any basketball fan, an outstanding and engaging deconstruction of the costs and rewards that come with the pursuit of greatness. It’s the kind of engaging sports history story at which Jeff Pearlman excels, smart and surprising and page-turningly compelling – an absolute slam dunk.

Last modified on Wednesday, 30 September 2020 10:51

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