Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty

Jeff Pearlman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, £25

Review by Hugh MacDonald

ON a foggy Sunday in January of this year, a helicopter crashed into a hillside outside Los Angeles. All nine people on board died. The tale of awful but mundane tragedy escalated quickly in three increasingly shrill responses.

First, there was the revelation that Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest basketball players ever, was among the victims. Second, there were the obligatory eulogies to his genius with the mandatory shrines at sporting arenas.

Third, there was the suspension of a Washington Post journalist who posted a link on social media to a report that asserted that Bryant was almost certainly a rapist and one who had escaped justice because of his fame and financial clout.

The reaction to his life and death, the grief of his fans, the vitriol directed at a journalist who pointed the world to a sober examination of an alleged crime, all reveal much about the elite world of sport and the public’s capacity to forgive or indulge in communal amnesia to those deemed heroic.

Sport is merely the human race at play. Sports books, too, are hardly a departure from the themes and motives of other non-fiction.

They deal in objective or subjective history, the arc of triumph emanating from failure and how to use an activity to deal with life. These broad themes can be summarised thus: reportage, against all odds, sport as a balm to emotional or physical pain.

The shortlist for William Hill Sports Book prize, awarded last week, conformed to these crude categories. It had Born Fighter by Ruqsana Begum, The Unforgiven by Ashley Gray (both against all odds); The Rodchenkov Affair by Gregory Rodchenkov (subjective reportage); The World Beneath Their Feet by Scott Elsworth and The Breath of Sadness by Ian Ridley (sport as balm).

Three-Ring Circus is something similar, something more. Its purported subject is the era of 1996-2004 when the LA Lakers reigned as king of American basketball. It has all the big games, all the missed shots and every moment of gaudy triumph.

It is subjective and objective reporting at its best. Pearlman is an assiduous dedicated reporter who always seeks to do that extra interview and is rewarded with daubs of colour whose dramatic vibrancy would put Jackson Pollock to shame.

He has an ear attuned to the best anecdotes, a feature of his earlier books, most conspicuously Boys Will Be Boys, his revelatory chronicle of the most successful Dallas Cowboys dynasty which is most closely related to Three-Ring Circus.

The LA Lakers story is constructed through an investigation of the three central characters in their period of dominance: Shaq O’Neal, egotist and player, Phil Jackson, egotist and coach, and Bryant, egotist and egotistical player. This, though, is a Bryant book.

O’Neal can be characterised in one anecdote. He is the type of man who has a fish tank in his Ferrari. Jackson is the obsessive coach who preaches harmony while practising self-survival. The excess and the success of both conform to standard industry practice.

Bryant was different. His entry to the NBA, the most lucrative league by far in the world, was made without taking the preliminary steps through college.

He forced himself on to the stage, aided by extraordinary talent, certainly, but also driven by the will that is the mandatory mindset for any elite athlete.

Bryant, too, never attempted to conceal that it was all about Kobe. Sport floats on a sea of hype that roars that the game is all about the team, the highest purpose is selflessness in the face of adversity, that frenetic activities involving a ball can teach us all profound truths about life. Strangely, but only occasionally, sport can testify to the truth of all of the above.

But, at its core and at the heart of many of its most spectacular performers, is a truth that dare not speak its name. Bryant screamed this, though many on the periphery of the court still refused to listen. His team mates admired his talent but abhorred his propensity to take every shot, his refusal consistently to play as a part of a team. Bryant was occasionally assaulted and regularly criticised by team mates. His genius (and in sporting terms it was all of that) gave him a licence to perform with an almost reckless lack of strategy on court. It earned him five NBA titles (the highest honour in the sport) and two Olympic gold medals.

This personality, though, distanced him from meaningful relationships with colleagues or rivals and even from his supportive parents.

Most significantly, Bryant seemed to have the imperative to take what he wanted, whatever the consequences, whatever the damage inflicted on others. Did this trait contribute to the incident in 2003 when Bryant was accused of sexual assault by a hotel worker?

The case was dropped after the alleged victim declined to testify in court, having received death threats after her name had been leaked. Bryant paid her to settle a civil action, adding in a statement that he understood “how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter”. This cannot be construed as a protestation of innocence. The district attorney on the case remarked: “I’m 100% certain. He did it.” The lead detective added: “There’s zero doubt in my mind. He raped her.”

But Bryant remained free to continue a spectacular, lucrative career. He matured as a player, accepting he needed others to win. He grew as a personality, devoting time and huge chunks of money to various philanthropic causes.

At his death, aged 41, his conspicuous sporting success and his charitable work were lauded with the reference to his sexual assault case viewed as disrespectful, even malicious. It was neither.

Pearlman has written a highly entertaining book, but an important one that has significance beyond the basketball court. Without preaching or any pretension to moral superiority, he has investigated the notion of heroism. He has in consequence told us much about Bryant and something of ourselves in that fame can not only corrupt the celebrity but blind the observer.