‘Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil and the Crazy Years of the Laker Dynasty’ by Jeff Pearlman (2020)

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.

Shaq and Kobe 1 on 1

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.

Shaq and Kobe: Dynamic Duo Documentary

‘Boys Among Men: How the Prep-To-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution’ by Jonathan Abrams (2017)

It’s always been an interesting quirk that the uber-capitalist, free-marketing loving, USA have the most socialist sports financial arrangements with salary caps, minimum pay rates and other restrictons.  As part of collective bargaining between team owners and player unions, rules have often been accepted which prevent athletes from playing in a major league until a set period of time has passed since they graduated from high school.  Even then, the player can’t sign for whoever he likes, but rather is assigned a team through a draft!  Great for preserving competitive balance, not so good for the guy who has no choice but move his life to a random city.

Prior to 2005, the NBA didn’t have any post high-school restriction (other than an age minimum of 18) and therefore high-school students were eligible to declare for the NBA draft without attending college.  Despite a few high profile cases in the 1970’s, no players followed this route for 20 years until Kevin Garnett was drafted with the fifth overall pick in the 1995 NBA draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Over the next few years, a number of future legends would follow in Garnett’s footsteps with Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Amar’e Stoudemire, LeBron James and Dwight Howard among them.   There were also plenty of players however who never made it and whose lives never quite recovered from the failure to live up to the hype.

Boys Among Men takes a detailed look at the careers and lives of many of the high school players who jumped straight into the NBA – both the successes and failures – and those who tried to do so but went undrafted.  Abrams describes how Garnett broke the mould and how his success led other teams to overcome their initial reluctance to draft direct from high school.   In particular, after Kobe Bryant dropped to 13th pick, a number of teams realised they had missed out on a Hall of Fame level talent and were determined not to repeat their mistake.

Abrams makes clear that there was no one factor which could determine whether an 18 year old would be able to make it in the NBA.  It could be that players overestimated their own talents or lacked the work ethic to reach the standard or had been exploited by unscrupulous adults.  Some came from such difficult backgrounds that the money and fame was too much for them to handle.  Others simply didn’t mature physically as they may have expected or hoped.   Those players that did succeed often came from equally difficult backgrounds but had usually gotten, and accepted, much better advice and managed to adapt quicker to the higher level of play.

In telling the story of the ‘prep-to-pro’ generation, Abrams also tells the story of the NBA’s transition from the Jordan era to the LeBron era.   The generation of players that arrived in the NBA during this period would go on to dominate the sport with many having incredibly long careers.  Howard even managed to play in the NBA in his teens, 20s, 30s and 40s!   They were instrumental in helping the NBA recover from its post-Jordon slump (in attendance and viewing figures), and again becoming a major league on a par with the NFL.

The book is exceptionally well researched and its clear that Abrams interviewed a vast number of players, agents, coaches and other insiders like the legendary Nike and Addias executive Sonny Vaccaro (subject of the great 30 for 30 film Sole Man).  As an experienced beat writer, Abrams is brilliant at recounting on-court details but the key focus on the book is the mindset of the players – what factors go into their decisions, how did they approach the step up to the NBA and why do they believe they succeeded or failed.  

As well as telling the story of the players, Abrams also considers how both the pro and college game have responded since the age limit was increased to 19.  He includes a range of viewpoints – both positive and negative – and avoids reaching a firm conclusion.  What’s clear is that the decision had a profound impact on college basketball with one-and-done players becoming ever more common and certain colleges, like Kentucky, responding much better to that trend.

The book is at its best when chronicling the stories of those who never quite made it.  The exploits of Garnett, LeBron and Kobe Bryant are well known.  The stories of  Lenny Cooke, Korleone Young, and Leon Smith were unfamiliar to me but just as interesting.  I suspect had I been given millions of dollars at 18 years of age, I’d have had a pretty hard time doing anything but partying!

Boys to Men is a really interesting and enjoyable book.  Abrams doesn’t take sides, but simply tells the story from a range of viewpoints and perspectives.  It’s a book that would be enjoyed by any basketball fan.

boysamongmen

 

‘The Soul of Basketball: The Epic Showdown Between LeBron, Kobe, Doc, and Dirk That Saved the NBA’ by Ian Thomsen (2018)

“Basketball is now the true sport of the American Dream”

The Soul of Basketball tells the story of the 2010-2011 NBA season – the season after LeBron James ‘Decision’ to move to Miami.  It paints that year as a pivotal season – the changing of the guard as LeBron’s generation seized control of the NBA.

soul 1

It isn’t simply a book about the season, but rather about the changing role of the NBA in American life as a new generation of players build on Jordan’s legacy and capture the public’s imagination.    The NBA was trying to find its way in the post-Jordan era but LeBron had turned himself into public enemy number 1 with his handling of the Decision and his promises of a decade of glory in Miami.  Players were arriving in the NBA already famous and already entitled.

Thomsen paints a compelling and illuminating portrait of the key individuals in that season’s NBA.   He takes readers inside the Heat, the Lakers, the Celtics, the Spurs, and the Mavericks and focuses on a key individual in each of those teams. For me the most compelling figures throughout the book are Dirk Nowitzki, Greg Popovich and Kobe Bryant.  Dirk Nowitzki was much less well-known to me and emerges as the most fascinating figure in the book.

Thomsen shows us who the players, coaches, scouts and executives really are, what motivates and drives them to succeed.  Thomsen’s ability to get key people to open up and share revealing insights is a real asset to the book.  There is also extensive and fascinating detail on the inside workings of team’s front office. Thomsen also captures the between old-school owners and the newer generation of owners like Mark Cuban at the Mavericks.

It is arguable that LeBron is treated a bit harshly at times in the book although the epilogue does recognise his achievement in returning successfully to Cleveland.   By detailing LeBron’s toughest year, Thomsen attempts to show some of what LeBron went through before becoming a champion.

It’s a detailed, engrossing and brilliant read which I highly recommend.  If there has been a better book written about the modern NBA, I’d be delighted to find it.