‘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

The best books (I’ve read) on Michael Jordan

Watching the excellent ESPN documentary The Last Dance has inspired me to put together a short post of my favourite books about, or covering, Michael Jordan.

Jordan made his pro basketball debut in 1984 shortly before I was born.  By the time I was taking my first steps he was well on his way to becoming a legend.   In the 90’s NBA was hugely popular in Ireland largely due to Jordan and of course NBA Jam on the Super Nintendo.

As one of the 20th Century’s most famous and accomplished sportsmen, Jordan has been subject of a vast number of books. For me, the best ones (I’ve read) are:

  • ‘Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made’ by David Halberstam
  • ‘The Jordan Rules’ by Sam Smith
  • ‘Michael Jordan: The Life’ by Roland Lazenby
  • ‘Dream Team’ by Jack McCallum

Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made.  David Halberstram is a writer I found through this book and I immediately fell in love with his work. I’ve seen Halberstam described as being to sports books what Robert Caro is to political biographies and Paul McGrath is to centre backs (i.e God basically) which I fully agree. He is simply a wonderful writer.

PfK

Playing for Keeps was written before Jordan retired for the second (but not final) time. The book is about Jordan the man and Jordan the phenomenon.  It’s also very much about the NBA of the 80s and 90s and the people in that world.  Its as much about the impact of Jordan as it is about the actions of Jordan.  In many ways it picks up the story following on from Halberstram’s other NBA book The Breaks of the Game which covered Bill Walton and the Portland Trail Blazers of the 1970s.

Halberstram gives plenty of backstory on the various supporting players (Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Larry Bird, the wonderfully entertaining Pistons, just to name a few) to create a full, and compelling portrait of the Bulls and the NBA of the time. The Jordan that emerges is complex, headstrong, incredibly hard working and above all driven – driven perhaps like nobody before or since in any sport. Its a detailed, engrossing read and one that I would recommend to anybody.

My only criticism is that it reads at times a bit too much of a love letter about Jordan – although its hard to think of a sportsman who came to define his sport more than Jordan.  Like all Halberstam’s books it is wonderfully well written and tells as much about the society at the time (particularly the changing US attitudes to race) as it does the protagonist.

A very different book looking at the Jordan phenomenon is the gossipy and entertaining The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith. The book details the internal workings of the Chicago Bulls during the 1990/91 season as they won their first NBA Championship. Jordan doesn’t come across particularly well. Most surprising to me at least was his attitude to basketball – he seems to really just have wanted to retire and play golf.  There are definitely question marks over how accurate it is – the Fire and Fury of its day when the most famous man in America was thankfully just a sports star! Its enjoyable and entertaining, a fun read and a fascinating snapshot of nearly 30 years ago.

J r

Michael Jordan: The Life by Roland Lazenby is a relatively more recent biography of Jordan.  It sat on my shelf unread for more than 3 years.  Once I picked it up however, I couldn’t put it down.  While most other books tend to focus on a specific season or specific aspect of his life,  Lazenby does a great job of telling the fuller picture of his life and playing career.

The first part of the book detailing his background, the history of his parents and ancestors is particularly strong with Lazenby’s skill as a biographer shining through. The strength of the book is the intense focus on Jordan’s relationships – with his coaches, family, friends, other players and the numerous other people whose crossed his path.  The story is told largely through the stories of those who accompanied Jordan through the various phases of his life..

Jordan’s top 10 moments (according to ESPN Sports Centre)

His parents are presented as complex characters and the darker, but still unproven, side of the Jordan family history is touched on.  In particular, I was left with even greater admiration for Bulls coach Phil Jackson’s leadership and management ability.  Getting Jordan to work for the greater good of the team took a special coach and Jackson was clearly the right man for the job.

It’s a big book yet I would have liked a bit more on Jordan’s life/career post playing.  Being a run-of-the mill owner isn’t quite as interesting as winning 6 Championship rings, but it felt like the book ran out of steam a little bit.

It’s a study of Jordan the man as much as Jordan the icon yet Lazenby wisely avoids over analysing Jordan or guessing as to his motives.  But by the end of the book, I was left with a pretty negative view of the man yet the a recognition that such unimaginable wealth, fame and public pressure would be hard for anyone to emerge from unscathed.  Highly recommended for a fuller look at Jordan’s life.

Jordan looms large in another great basketball book Dream Team by one of the all time great basketball writers, Jack McCallum.  As the name suggests, Dream Team tells the story of the US Men’s basketball team who captured the world’s attention at the 92 Olympics.  It really was some amazing collection of cultural icons with Magic, Micheal Johnson, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley among others.  McCallum had amazing access to the players both at the time and years later – including Jordan who seems to rarely talk to journalists for these type of books.  Reading it brought back some great memories of watching the Barcelona Olympics as an 8 year old and loving both the Dream Team and the amazing multicoloured, Grateful Dead inspired, jerseys worn by recently independent Lithuania.

lith.jpg
The greatest jersey of all time

A good insight into the players, their relationships with each other and the ultimate impact the team had on basketball.  McCallum recounts many entertaining behind-the-scenes stories of the Dream Teamers when they weren’t defeating their opponents by embarrassingly large margins. The backstage stuff is the value of the book – reading about a 40 point victory isn’t exactly thrilling.

One of the highlights is the coverage of “The Greatest Game that Nobody Ever Saw,” the legendary team practice match that Coach Chuck Daly organised at the team’s practice facility in Monte Carlo. The greatest collection of basketball players ever going at each other. McCallum goes play-by-play through this exhibition, and brings to life one of the rare great sports moments that happened behind closed doors.

The Greatest Game that No-one Ever Saw

For anyone who made it this far, I also have to mention a brilliant article written by Wright Thompson in 2013 called ‘Michael Jordan Has Not Left The Building’ which profiled Jordan as he turned 50. It is available online at: http://www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/page/Michael-Jordan/michael-jordan-not-left-buildingĀ  and is also included in Thompson’s excellent anthology book ‘The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business’

Wright Thompson also published a great piece on Jordan’s will to win recently which is available at: https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/29180890/michael-jordan-history-flight?platform=amp&__twitter_impression=true

And here is a recent article I really enjoyed about the time Jordan and friends came to Ireland for golf and pints: https://www.killarneyadvertiser.ie/guinness-golf-and-gambling-the-day-michael-jordan-came-to-killarney/