Quick Review: THREE-RING CIRCUS by Jeff Pearlman (HMH)

PearlmanJ-ThreeRingCircusUSAn amusing, irreverent account of the Lakers of Kobe, Shaq, and Phil Jackson

The story of the Lakers dynasty from 1996 through 2004, when Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal combined — and collided — to help bring the Lakers three straight championships and restore the franchise as a powerhouse 

In the history of modern sport, there have never been two high-level teammates who loathed each other the way Shaquille O’Neal loathed Kobe Bryant, and Kobe Bryant loathed Shaquille O’Neal. From public sniping and sparring, to physical altercations and the repeated threats of trade, it was warfare. And yet, despite eight years of infighting and hostility, by turns mediated and encouraged by coach Phil Jackson, the Shaq-Kobe duo resulted in one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history. Together, the two led the Lakers to three straight championships and returned glory and excitement to Los Angeles.

I’m not sure I can remember a time when I didn’t know the names “Kobe Bryant” and, especially, “Shaquille O’Neal”. This despite not having access to NBA games (in person or on TV) until Kobe’s final year in the League, and after Shaq had retired. I knew they’d won the championship together at least twice, but that was it. When Pearlman’s Three-Ring Circus popped up on my radar, I knew I had to read it. And I’m very glad I did: it’s a detailed, irreverent and (seemingly) balanced account of the tense years leading up to and including the Lakers’ three-peat. I really enjoyed it.

In Three-Ring Circus, Jeff Pearlman gives readers a tightly-written history of the Lakers, focusing on the 1996-2004 seasons and the characters that included. He writes of the superstars, the role players, the tourists, and others in the Lakers organization. To me, it felt like the author gave an honest, quite balanced picture of each player, telling readers of the good and bad. Even Kobe, who he clearly doesn’t have much respect for during these years, is nevertheless recognized as a superb talent and gets a sympathetic portrait at times. The story builds to the eventual dismantling of this three-time championship team, when the situation just became untenable.

Through the eight years that followed, Bryant was as beloved as he was disliked. He could do magical things on the court while behaving as a selfish child off of it. He treated many fans like his closest friends while treating many teammates (especially undrafted rookies) like empty soda cans resting alongside a gutter. He had little use for some coaches and overwhelming respect for others. He was dour and peppy; intense and playful; cruel and loving. He was accused of raping a woman, proclaiming his innocence even as he came very close to serving time.

The book is at its best when examining the relationships between the players and coaches; in particular, the relationships with Kobe. Pearlman has not penned a hagiography of the superstar at the start of his career. Quite the opposite: this is a warts-and-all account of Bryant’s first eight years in the League, and the tension between the teammates; much of it the fault of Kobe. One of the most common refrains in the book is along the lines of, he needs to pass the damned ball. It’s clear that Kobe was pretty much universally disliked — by everyone except the Buss family, whose constant “willingness to kneel before a child” frustrated and “befuddled” the coaching staff (especially Jackson). Pearlman quotes many people lauding Kobe’s production, his points, and so forth. But almost without exception, they disliked him. Also, it’s interesting to note that his impressive points tallies often came on the back of huge numbers of shots (and, therefore, a lot of misses).

“When Kobe didn’t look to get other guys involved, it could be really tough,” said Fox, who scored 11 in the setback. “Sometimes you wanted to say to him, ‘Kobe, you know we’re all out here, right?’ ”

Bryant’s insistence on being the alpha clashed with Shaq’s popularity and success. O’Neal was clearly a beloved teammate, despite his sometimes mean/gross pranks and latter-years laziness. He’s a larger-than-life personality (and presence) with a zest for life that even in these accounts comes across as infectious. His generosity is as large as he is. Pearlman digs into the dynamic between the two stars, comparing their different styles on and off the court, and even suggests that O’Neal was a little insecure, unsure why he couldn’t get Bryant to like him despite their incredible successes together.

Reading about the internal, behind-the-scenes difficulties, it becomes rather more impressive that they were able to win three championships in a row. Phil Jackson, the “winningest” coach in NBA history, wasn’t able to get Bryant to play the Triangle with his teammates. As a strategy, it collapses if everyone isn’t following it. But, he alternated between periods of resignation and anger over Bryant’s place in the team and his inability to follow any advice. Two confident/arrogant personalities clashing almost daily, yet still delivering results — for a time.

The book is written in a great, amusing style that was engaging throughout. Pearlman does an excellent job sprinkling great editorializing and satire into the factual account. He keeps accounts of important games short, but nevertheless conveys the flavour and feel of the games very well.

If you’re a fan of the Lakers, or NBA history in general, then I would definitely recommend you read this book. Really enjoyed it. I’ll have to check out Pearlman’s other Lakers book, Showtime, which covers the Kareem and Magic years.


Jeff Pearlman’s Three-Ring Circus is out now, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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