A new Jeff Pearlman book is always something to savour. I really enjoyed his various biographies, especially his recent Gunslinger on Brett Farve. However, his in-depth deep dives into iconic sports teams (both on and off the field of play) are among the very best sports books.
Pearlman previously chronicled the Magic Johnson / Pat Riley led LA Lakers in the excellent Showtime. It’s the definitive book on the Showtime Lakers era.
Three-Ring Circus sees Pearlman return to familiar territory of an LA Lakers championship winning team. The book tells the story of next 1996 to 2004 Lakers as Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and coach Phil Jackson combined to create a 3 time champion team.
Shaq of that era emerges as a loveable figure both in the public imagination, to strangers and to anyone who showed him love and respect. The book is full of stories of Shaq’s remarkable kindness but it also paints a picture of a man who knew his own value and for whom being loved / respected was all important.
Jackson remained steadfastly himself during his time in LA, a character familiar to anyone who remembers his remarkable achievements with Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. He was an unorthodox coach, unloved by his fellow coaches and unafraid to hustle for jobs that weren’t vacant. He was also an incredibly successful man-manger and possibly the only coach who could have wrangled Shaq and Kobe into working together for the benefit of the team.
While all three men share central billing, inevitably, due to his fame, personality and talent, Kobe Bryant sits firmly at the centre of this story. Pearlman pulled no punches in presenting Bryant how his peers experienced him during this time. The Kobe Bryant portrayed in Three-Ring Circus is deeply unlikeable yet also admirable in his determination and work ethic. A man you wouldn’t want to spend time with but one who was destined to be successful.
It’s clear throughout the book that most of Pearlman’s interviewees spoke to him before Bryant’s tragic death. It’s a little jarring to read such an honest and unflattering portrait of someone so soon after they died. Pearlman goes into a fair bit of detail on the serious rape allegation that overshadowed Bryant’s early successes and mentions the oft-forgotten fact that Bryant all but accepted the young lady didn’t consent to their encounter when apologising after charges were dropped. It makes for difficult reading having consumed months of glowing memorials to Bryant’s legendary career since his death.
As Pearlman says in the introduction, however, the Kobe of then is not the Kobe of post 2005. Its easy to judge someone who experienced an unimaginable life lived in the public eye since he was a teenager. I’m not sure how well I (or anyone) would come across in a book detailing their life between 17 and 25.
The book doesn’t neglect the other important personalities and Pearlman’s tireless research ensured he got fascinating insights from lots of other players who helped to make the Lakers championship teams. As he says in the book, people seemed to really enjoy talking about this team and their experiences which is reflected in how enjoyable it is to read about them!
Despite the Lakers remarkable success with 4 final appearances and 3 championships in 5 years, and some remarkable runs of form, the team seemed to constantly be on the verge of falling apart. It is testament to both the players’ overwhelming talent and Jackson’s remarkable ability to manage superstars that they achieved such success. This was a dynasty that was never going to last however. Neither Shaq or Kobe could ever be happy in the others shadow, both needed centre stage and the adulation that came with being the dominant player on a championship team.
Three-Ring Circus is a fascinating slice of basketball history. A must for any sports book library.
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