Saturday, October 29, 2022

Review: Three Ring Circus (2021)

By Jeff Pearlman

The biggest story line in the NBA in the years between 1996 and 2004 was the Los Angeles Lakers. They won three championships along the way, and - not by coincidence - there were three future Hall of Famers in the mix there, having a huge role in their fate.  

For those watching from a distance, it seemed as if the Lakers had pulled off quite an accomplishment. It's not easy for three different Big Dogs to be mixed in the same group and figure out a way to win titles. That was when happened when Shaquille O'Neill, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson teamed up to create something of a dynasty.

But now we know how "not easy" it was ... thanks to author Jeff Pearlman. He's outlined the problems that team in his book "Three Ring Circus." It wasn't just a miracle that the Threesome put up results in the standings and in the postseason . It was a miracle, however, that no one got hurt via internal battles along the way. 

While O'Neill certainly gets more than his fair share of coverage here, and the other players of the team get their say too (which is one of the good parts of the book), Bryant probably ranks as the star. This book overlaps with the first six years of his career, and Kobe was, well, different. 

The son of a former NBA player, Bryant grew up with basketball. He spent part of his youth in Italy, thanks to dad's own hoop travels. Kobe ended up in Philadelphia, where he surprised just about everyone by jumping to the NBA immediately after high school. While that wasn't incredibly unusual in that era (1996), it was unusual for someone who wasn't a center/forward type to do so. Players from the other positions usually need some seasoning to prepare for pro ball. The Lakers, guided by general manager Jerry West, saw enough potential in Bryant to trade for the right to pick him.

But Bryant wasn't like other players - and absolutely not like other rookies. He was really different. Basketball has a nickname for a guy who will take a pass and then shoot no matter what the circumstances on the court. It's called a "black hole." What goes in does not come out. That was Bryant in those early years, even though passing might have resulted in easy baskets and though he wasn't quite good enough (yet, if ever) to dominate like Michael Jordan. Throw in some aloof behavior, such as a general refusal to mix socially with his teammates, and you get one odd teammate. 

Compare that to O'Neill, who was a very different personality. His former teammates just loved the guy, more for the way that he looked out for anyone associated with the Lakers - whether it be passes during the games or at social functions after them. He and Bryant just never did mesh on a personal level - probably because both wanted to be the Big Dog. 

Jackson arrived as the head coach along the way. He's not fully explored here, although there are plenty of insights along the way. Give him credit - he managed to keep everyone on the same page long enough to win three straight championships. But even Jackson grew tired of it all and exited for a while. 

A large complicating factor in all of this, of course, was a rape charge issued to Bryant in 2003. He continued to play basketball during the legal proceedings, sometimes flying to Colorado for court hearings and then flying back to Los Angeles in time to play in games. (It's at least a subject for discussion elsewhere that Bryant received standing ovations from Lakers' fans during that period just by walking on the court,) Pearlman prints a great deal of evidence here, as authorities believed Bryant was clearly guilty. It's tough reading in spots, but probably necessary.

By the end of the run, Pearlman describes Bryant this way: "... the superstar guard came with all sorts of contradictions and complications. He was selfish, moody, arrogant, dismissive, brash, rude. In no particular order." Still, he was the player that was something of a surrogate son to Lakers' owner Jerry Buss. He's the one that hung around when O'Neill and Jackson went their separate ways. Bryant is said to have grown up considerably after that era, although from an extreme distance it's easy to wonder just how complete that transformation really was.

Pearlman always gets people to talk for his books, as he puts in the time and effort. The author gets the details right. This book might not be quite as enjoyable as some of his other stories, perhaps because there isn't a whole lot of joy to be found in the characters. 

Pearlman still keeps you turning the pages, though, with a writing style that's always entertaining. "Three Ring Circus" works quite well as an in-depth look at a time and place in basketball history. And if you followed that team closely, you won't want to miss it.

Four stars

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