Three-Ring Circus: A compulsively readable look at the Shaq-Kobe Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were one of the most successful and tumultuous teams in NBA history. In his new book, Jeff Pearlman tells their story.

Perhaps no duo in NBA history is as infamous as that of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant who played eight seasons together from 1996 to 2004, winning three championships in the process. While other pairings may have been together longer or experienced more collective success, the outsized personalities of Shaq and Kobe, along with their individual legacies and the drama between them have combined to make their time as teammates one of the most talked-about eras in league history. Now, bestselling author Jeff Pearlman has written what promises to be the definitive book about their time together in his very good, compulsively readable Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty.

Three-Ring Circus functions as a sequel of sorts to Pearlman’s previous book, Showtime, which was about the Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-led Lakers of the 1980s. The new book picks up a few years after Showtime, beginning with Magic Johnson’s brief comeback in 1996, depicting a team in disarray before transitioning to profiling Shaq and Kobe and showing the machinations undertaken by Jerry West to ensure that he could obtain both of them

With Shaq, Kobe, and coach Phil Jackson at the center of the narrative, the book is more a triple biography of them and their relationships than it is a history of the Lakers as a franchise. Even as the story strays, these three men are the polestars of the book, with each receiving an extended account of just how they arrived in Los Angeles. It is their interactions with each other and their evolving dynamics that provide Three-Ring Circus with its greatest forward movement, even more than the on-court success they achieved together. Since these three men have been public figures for decades, there are some stories that may seem tiresome to longtime NBA fans, but Pearlman more than makes up for that with a number of others have never been told before. Few are revelatory, but almost all of them are entertaining. Even if you think you know O’Neal, Bryant, and Jackson extremely well, your views on them will likely be amended at least a little

Three-Ring Circus offers a nuanced view of Kobe Bryant and his time with the Lakers

The depiction of Bryant may feel overly negative to some devoted fans, though it strikes me as a necessary corrective to the mythologizing of him that began years before his tragic and untimely death. Pearlman depicts Kobe as a preternaturally talented player, but also as a selfish and petulant person whose own desire for individual greatness outweighed his ability to be a decent teammate, undercutting the chance for this brief dynasty to last longer. He also does not shy away from looking at Bryant’s alleged rape of a hotel employee in Colorado in the summer of 2003. In the aftermath of his death, many fans have found it untoward for writers or fans to bring up this aspect of his life, as if it is a slanderous attempt to defame an otherwise great life, denying the growth he may have made as a person, husband, and father in his later years. And while, from the outside, it is true that such growth appears to have happened, that does not erase the pain he caused this woman and the way such denial to seriously address this period in his life trivializes other accusations of sexual assault, both by prominent figures as well as by those who are not celebrities. This book will not force readers who are uncritical fans of Bryant to reckon with this aspect of his life and legacy, but it will at least force them to acknowledge it, which is important

While the personalities of the primary figures are fleshed out, the book really shines when focusing on lesser-known players such as Mike Penberthy, an undrafted guard who played 56 games for the Lakers over two seasons, and Mark Madsen, a bench player known more for his awful dance moves than his on-court success. Also, the stories from these players allow for a fuller view of the team as a whole and of their more famous teammates. By allowing readers to see what it was like to be their teammates — on their good or bad sides — and what it was like to be a non-star coached by Jackson, a more complete view of these individuals emerges that is different from the same old PR tales that have been rehashed for years

The book is broken up into a number of chapters that, while moving the narrative forward, which tends to function in a straightforward way, focuses on a particular match-up, player, or theme, making each section stand apart. For example, the chapter on the 1999 season uses Dennis Rodman’s time with the team as a framing device. It’s a great way to tell the larger story while also not losing sight of more discrete micro-narratives that could have easily been lost by a less disciplined reporter

While Pearlman’s reporting is unimpeachable, the writing at times does not quite live up to the standard set by his research. It’s never bad, but at times becomes a bit too casual for my liking. It often aims for humor that may or may not resonate and in the moments it doesn’t, it becomes a distraction that takes this reader out of the narrative. Also, Pearlman has historically relished revealing less savory details about his subjects, which works to humanize them and the stories themselves are quite often amusing. However, there are moments here where it feels needlessly mean-spirited. No objective observer can deny that Dennis Rodman and J.R. Rider had chaotic, less than great tenures with the Lakers yet Pearlman’s tone when writing about them can come across as kicking someone who is already down

This tone can make sections of the book read like an excerpt from a gossip magazine. This keeps the narrative moving, but it is particularly ill-suited for the subject of Kobe Bryant’s alleged rape. Pearlman does a tremendous job of acquiring the information and giving as full a detailing of what happened that night in Colorado as possible — there are several pages of transcripts of interviews between the alleged victim and the detectives as well as between those same detectives and Bryant, none of which I’ve ever seen before. However, that style and the tendency to luxuriate in certain salacious details can undercut the seriousness of the allegations at times

None of these minor complaints should keep any NBA fan from picking this book up. Three-Ring Circus is compulsively readable with new revelations arising every few pages. While the broad outline of the story will be familiar to most, no other book has covered this team in this depth. Even die-hard Lakers fans will be greeted by a number of stories and insights that will be new to them. Really, the only people I can’t imagine thoroughly enjoying this book are fans of the teams the Lakers beat on their way to their three titles, but if Portland and Sacramento fans can look past that, even they will find much to enjoy in the story of this brief dynasty’s undoing.

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