Q&A With Jeff Pearlman on Three-Ring Circus, Kobe, Shaq, and More

On September 22, 2020, Jeff Pearlman released “Thee-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty.”  Jeff is a prolific sports writer who has written books on the 1986 Mets, Walter Payton, the 1990s Cowboys, Brett Favre, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens.  On the basketball side, he wrote the well-received “Showtime” in 2013 about the Magic Johnson Lakers, for which he sat down with me for a fun interview.  The book was a fascinating and detailed account of that era.   I knew when he was writing another hoops book, I had to talk with Jeff again and he was kind enough to oblige.

HoopsAnalyst:  Going into this book, did you have any expectations what the story would be?

Jeff Pearlman:  Not really.  I always think you are better off not going in with expectations.  You know the basics about Shaq, Kobe, and Phil on the Lakers and I’m enough of a sports guy to know the players but you make a mistake if you go into a project thinking you know the story.  For me, it’s all about calling everyone and calling everyone and getting the stories I’ve never heard before and talking to the people who haven’t been spoken to in a long time.  So, I do not ever go into a book thinking I know what the book is going to be about.

HA:        As usual, you’ve talked to most of the people you could for this book.  I know some people were unavailable for a variety of reasons.  Did you expect to be able to talk to Kobe and Shaq going into the project?

JP:          I was told early on that my odds with Kobe were pretty close to zero.  I thought I had a good shot with Shaq and I did get him for an interview.  Phil…I didn’t know because he is pretty reclusive these days but I ended up getting a full day with him.  I’ve never written a book where I got everyone to talk.  The Mets book, I didn’t get [Darryl] Strawberry or [Dwight] Gooden.  The Cowboys book, I didn’t get Emmitt Smith or Troy Aikman.  The Favre book, I didn’t get Brett Favre. 

To me, the whole thing is when you find out you are not going to get someone, you just put your head down and you’re that much more determined to report the hell out of it.  Kobe Bryant didn’t owe me anything.  No one owes me anything.  If they are not going to talk to me, I just go out and try to ask what I can do to report this fully.  I can read everything that has ever been written.  I can find every quote he’s ever said and I can talk to people who were in his life and others who were around.  That’s what you try to do.

HA:        The contemporaneous record obviously is helpful in detailing the story but was there anything you felt you really wanted to talk to Kobe directly about?

JP:          I did want to talk to him about Colorado [and the rape charges] and everything surrounding it.  That season, 2003-04, was a ridiculous season.  It was a weird thing what the team went through.  In a lot of ways I consider that season Kobe at his worst, because he as possibly going away to prison for a long time, but also him at his best because he would fly in from a sexual assault trial in Eagle, Colorado, take a 20-minute nap and score 30 points.  It was a crazy year.  I feel like there’s this thing about Kobe we repeat all the time…amazing work ethic, dogged.  But I always wondered about him.  You miss out on things by being so focused on one thing [being the best basketball player].  Kobe hated the way that he felt Shaq didn’t work hard.  Having done this book, I actually appreciate Shaq even more.  He worked hard during the season to enjoy the off-season.  You should be swimming in your pool eating a cheeseburger and smoking a cigar after the season.  I wonder if Kobe thought he missed out or if there was something missing based upon how he approached training.

HA:        Kobe was an interesting character.  It’s hard a question, particularly since he is gone, but do you think Kobe was a fully-formed person after his career?

JP:          By the end of my book, which stops at 2004, he was not.  By the end of his life…yes.  If you look at, after the 2003-04 season, they lose to the Pistons in the Finals and Kobe basically has one foot out the door to go to the Clippers.  The only reason he returns is because Shaq and Phil are going to be gone and Kobe was going to get a lot of money.  There was something weird about that.  Even though Shaq was slightly on the decline, he was still the most dominant big man we’ve scene and they were playing for the best coach in NBA history.  Why wouldn’t you want to continue that?  Kobe needed to be the “A” guy, the go-to-guy.   He needed that.  I think that suggests a little bit of a lack of….well, it’s a little strange.  

I’ll tell you a quick story from that book on Kobe. That season [2003-04], the Lakers were having practice right before Thanksgiving.  Karl Malone is doing an interview and Kobe Bryant is walking out of the locker room.  Malone tells the reporter doing the interview to hold on a second.  Malone calls Kobe back and says “young buck, come here.”  He pulls Kobe aside and whispers something to [Kobe] and then Kobe goes back to each player and wishes them each a happy Thanksgiving.  Kobe still needed those lessons.  He didn’t have it yet.  It came from being brought up in a cocoon and being raised in Italy and then being raised as this phenom in the suburbs.  He just wasn’t fully developed.  He didn’t have the struggles and rejection that we all would have growing up that shapes yo.

HA:        It’s weird because Kobe’s father [Jellybean Bryant] had a reputation as goofy guy and Kobe couldn’t be more serious.

JP:          It’s an interesting thing.  Joe Bryant wasn’t brought up to be this “thing” and Kobe was brought up to be the next Jordan and that was all part of his plan.  Somewhere along the way, there was something in his makeup that made him single-minded, doggedly determined, threatened by those he considered threats around him, even if they weren’t threats.  It’s just an unusual human being who was thrown into this unusual environment. 

HA:        Let’s talk about the Jordan comparisons.  Jordan was clearly the better player but Kobe was a close to MJ as you’re going to get.  Jordan also had a drive and wanted to kill you on the court.  He wasn’t nice to his teammates on the court but he never got the same rap Kobe did for being someone his teammates or fans disliked. 

JP:          I don’t think Jordan was universally beloved.  When you think about it, it was different [for Kobe].   Michael Jordan was clearly the best player on his team from the day he arrived in Chicago and Kobe was always the second best player in Los Angeles (actually the fourth or fifth best player when he first arrived).  He became the best player in L.A. when he got the best player vanquished.  So, it’s probably easier to be the alpha dog when you are already the alpha dog then when you are not.  Kobe saw himself a certain way but he wasn’t that guy on the Lakers in the beginning.  He just wasn’t.

HA:        Let’s talk about the Lakers drafting Kobe.  Could have ended up elsewhere in the 1996 Draft?

JP:          In the book, I write a lot about Kobe coming to the Lakers.  The Nets were actually determined to draft Kobe Bryant.  They were going to draft Kobe Bryant.  It was a done deal.  John Calipari, the new Nets coach, who had the final say, got scared and chickened out because Kobe called and said he didn’t want to play for the Nets.  Kerry Kittles’ agent called and said Kerry really wants to play for the Nets.  At the last minute, Calipari said they were going with Kittles.  What happens if Kobe goes to the Nets under John Calipari?  It’s not a sexy view but I, honestly, could see Kobe being Carmelo Anthony-type.   That rookie year, he would be starting for the Nets as an 18-year old, probably shooting 23 times again at 33%.  Maybe, he becomes like Dominique Wilkins, a really good scorer.  I don’t know.  Can one guy will a team to win all by himself? 

HA:        The nature versus nurture argument.  Speaking of the Nets, I was fan of them at that time used to drive out to see Kendall Gill and that crew struggle in the swamp.  I remember Gill turning down a chance to play with Shaq and Kobe to stay in New Jersey.  I wonder if he regrets it now.

JP:          He does regret it.  I interviewed him for the book.  He said it was dumbest thing he ever did.  He took the money.  The Nets countered and offered more money.  Gill’s agent told him he needed to take the bigger money offer.  [Gill] very much regrets it now.

HA:        One story you touched on in other interviews that always fascinated me was Magic Johnson’s comeback in 1995-96 [the year before the Lakers got Kobe and Shaq].   You mentioned that Magic was a total pain in the ass during the comeback but actually was still a pretty good player.  He might not have been worth the headache but the Lakers were competitive with him.

JP:          You know how sometimes older people have that moment like “frickin’ Millennials!”?  He was basically that guy on that team.  He had Nick Van Exel, who was a pain in the ass.  He had Eddie Jones, who was sullen and quiet.   Cedric Ceballos, as selfish a player as we have seen.  He nicknamed himself “Chise,” as in he was the franchise. 

When Magic came back, Del Harris told him you aren’t going to be the point guard.  You are going to play forward.  We are going to bring you off the bench.  Magic said okay to all this and then he’s there he’s feeling like this [situation] sucks.  These guys don’t want to win like I do.  They are immature and they don’t know how to win.  It was really, in a way, a bad look for Magic Johnson.  He started talking about maybe playing for the Heat or the Knicks and that he should be able to play in the 1996 Olympics.  He came off as kind of selfish and Grandpa-ish.   It did not go over well.

HA:        It’s well-documented that Magic’s aggressive temperament helped when he was the best playe but not so much as a coach or GM.

JP:          Also as a talk show host

HA:        I still remember that moment when Magic rolled his eyes on camera reacting to Van Exel pushing a ref, as if Nick was immature and couldn’t control himself.  Within a few games, Magic did the exact same thing and bumped a ref

JP:          Magic did have one moment that I loved during the comeback.  He totally okee-doked Latrell Sprewell with a fake pass and layup.  It was so awesome and probably the highlight of his comeback. 

HA:        Was there ever a chance that Magic could’ve played with Shaq and Kobe the next season?

JP:          I don’t think that was ever a realistic possibility.  Magic was really fed up by the end of that year.  People can have this fantasy idea because it was so close together in time but it was never going to happen.

HA:        Pragmatically, it seems like it could’ve happened.  No one knew who Kobe was at the time but the Lakers had set up the entire 1995-96 season to position themselves to sign Shaq.  They cut most of the team to do it and Magic, who wanted to win badly, one would think, would be open to it. 

JP:          It would’ve been funny having Kobe Bryant ignore Magic Johnson.   I think Magic’s head would’ve exploded the first time he gave Kobe advice and Kobe just told him “alright old man, I don’t want to hear it from you.”  That would’ve been awesome.

HA:        Going back to the Shaq-Kobe rift, the first moment I remember it being palpable was early on when Shaq made a point of saying that Sam Jacobson was the Lakers’ best shooter as a dis at Kobe.

JP:          Oh yeah.  Shaq gave Kobe the nickname “Showboat” very early on.  It was not a friendly name.  It was mean-spirited and pointed.  There’s one moment where Shaq is sitting by his locker and began singing a parody of the Whitney Houston song: “I believe that Showboat is the future…”  he was just mocking Kobe. 

I think for Shaq the thing was he wanted to be the big brother.  He wanted to be Batman and this kid to be Robin.  Kobe had no need for this type of relationship and no interest in it.  He didn’t want to be babied or a sidekick.  He wanted to be the man. 

During Kobe’s first training camp, the players all stood in a circle and introduced themselves.  Each player would say hello and when they got to Kobe, he introduced himself and said: “none of you guys are gonna punk me.”  Everyone was like…what?  He’s 18-years old.  Of course, they were going to punk him.  It was really hard for Shaq to relate to a kid that cocky and, in a lot of ways, irredeemable.

HA:        There are a lot of cocky NBA players but they usually have a vestige of a sense of humor.   Kobe didn’t seem to have that part of his personality.  Other high strung guys like Iverson and Sprewell also wanted to kill you on the court but you could see having a beer with them after the game.

JP:          I agree.  He met his wife Vanessa when he saw her in a rap video.  He had his own rap album and he wanted her to be in his video.  She was a high schooler and he was 21.  He starts sending her flowers to her high school.  He was a lonely guy.  He would walk the UCLA campus just to feel like he was in college. 

When Kobe got married, he didn’t invite any of his teammates.  A lot of them didn’t even know he was getting married or even dating anyone.  It was a really isolated existence and kind of a sad and lonely existence.  I just think it’s easy to get caught up when you research Kobe to conclude he was really a pain in the ass but I think it’s sad.  There was a lot of sadness and loneliness there and an inability to relate to people.  He really had to work to relate and interact with people. 

HA:        He’s the prototype for the son of an NBA player, like you said, put in a lab and designed to be a pro.  Since then, we’ve seen Steph Curry and now Dwyane Wade and LeBron’s kids potentially.   Kobe’s the seminal example of not necessarily the best existence you could have.

JP:          What’s the point of doing all that work, if you don’t enjoy it?  I know a lot of people don’t share that view.  [Kobe] worked so hard and his dreams came true.  Having covered sports for many years, one of these things I hate hearing athletes say after winning a championship is, “we can’t enjoy this now, we’ve got to get started working for the next one.  I’ll enjoy this when I’m retired.” 

That usually doesn’t happen.  Because when you are retired, you forget all the feelings.  I was on Howard Beck’s podcast and he asked me about the idea that Kobe was more mature than Shaq because Kobe was a harder worker.  I would flip that idea on its head a little bit and argue that Shaq was more mature because he understood how fleeting this whole lifestyle was and how marvelous it is to be the center-of-the-world for a short time.  To waste all that time in the gym….there’s something kind of off about that. 

HA:        Let’s turn to Shaq for a second.  He was the goofy teddy bear that everyone loved but you could see how there would be something frustrating about him.  Not just for Kobe. I remember Shaq’s rookie year, he played Patrick Ewing, who worked his ass off with this desire to win a title that was burning.  Shaq came in against him as a young kid and was immediately stronger and better than Ewing.  And Shaq wasn’t even trying that hard.  It could be frustrating to others that it came so easy to Shaq

JP:          I think so.  I wouldn’t say he lazy until later in his Laker career.   I mean later, I talked to a Laker trainer and he could not get Shaq to work hard.  It was laughable.  [Shaq] was a hard enough worker before that and he was dominant.   The thing that gets overlooked with Shaq is that he just got the crap beat out of him during the season.  Everyone was throwing their biggest guys at him and double teaming him. 

I talked to Malik Rose [who played with the Spurs] who guarded Shaq a lot.  He talked about the physicality they would throw at Shaq.  They would try to undercut him, elbows to the back, over and over.  Shaq was tired and beaten up.  He was a giant monster of a man and I don’t think he was necessarily lazy, just tired and battered.

HA:        I do remember Phil Jackson busting his chops about being in shape.  I recall that the Lakers had to play Soumalia Samake at center because Shaq sat out one season.

JP:          Yeah, that was really bad.  It happened because Shaq did not have his toe [which required surgery] worked on in the off-season and he waited until the season to do it.  That, to me, was egregious and crossed the line where you can’t do that.  If you have an injury and you can treat it in the off-season and report healthy, you do it.  That definitely violated something with a lot of the Lakers and violated something with Kobe.

HA:        Did you find that the Laker teammates talked more favorably about Shaq than Kobe?

JP:          Yes. 

HA:        Did anyone say that they saw where Kobe was coming from at all?

JP:          No.  It’s funny, a lot of guys were brought in to help Kobe along.  There’s a long list of guys who were brought in actually to play on-court therapist.  Random guys: John Salley, J.R Reid, Derek Harper, Ron Harper, Rick Fox, Brian Shaw, and Robert Horry were all brought in to do that.  When you talk to those guys…..the thing about Kobe is he was just really stubborn.  He wanted to figure it out on his own.

J.R. Reid came to the Lakers in the Glen Rice trade.  Reid was a throw-in, that’s all he was.  Jerry West, one day, told Reid that he liked the way Reid spoke to Kobe and asked J.R. to pull Kobe aside to help him, engage him, and make him part of the team.  Reid said that Kobe didn’t want this.  You couldn’t help someone who was not helpable. 

This sounds like I’m bashing Kobe but I have much respect for the guy.  He set a goal and accomplished his goal.  He worked harder than anyone ever.  Was he a great teammate?  Probably not. 

HA:        It doesn’t matter because he won. 

JP:          Exactly.

HA:        What about the Glen Rice trade itself?  I always thought that Eddie Jones was the better player.  I know Jones was due for a big contract but I felt the Lakers would’ve been better with Jones.  Did they consider keeping him?

JP:          They tried to trade Eddie Jones for years and years.   There were two reasons.  Number one, they thought he and Kobe played too similarly.  They were similar but I don’t think it was a problem.  They were both slashy-type players that explode to the hoop.  Somewhat similar body types, Eddie Jones was leaner than Kobe, though Kobe was thinner when he was younger.  Number two, there was this idea that Eddie Jones was not a money player.  Shaq talked about that a lot. 

When I interviewed Eddie Jones, he was talking about that Game 5 against Utah in 1996-97 when Kobe shot those four air balls.  Eddie Jones said he was furious and he wanted to shoot those shots and I talked to Shaq and he said that Eddie did not want to take those shots and that Eddie Jones shied away from those shots when they played together. 

I think the Lakers misunderstood Glen Rice’s game.  They thought they were getting a guy who could create his own shots and shoot off the dribble and he couldn’t.  And he was overweight when he came to L.A. Kurt Rambis told me that [Rice] could shoot but it had to be off of the pass and could not create and open up the floor like they thought he would.

HA:        Rice was also a little past his peak. He was really good about two years before that.

JP:          Miami-Charlotte Glen Rice was a top 15 NBA player and L.A. Glen Rice was probably a top 50 NBA player, maybe.

HA:        I thought Kobe/Eddie Jones worked and could’ve been a Jordan/Pippen-type arrangement of similar players.

JP:          To be honest, I thought Nick Van Exel /Kobe Bryant backcourt, Eddie Jones at the small forward, whomever at the power, and Shaq at center was the most talent they had in that era.  It didn’t work and Van Exel and Harris were never going to work but talent-wise Van Exel was a great player.

HA:        The problem was that you couldn’t really match Kobe with a point guard who needed the ball.  You needed a Derek Fisher who would defend and hit open jumpers and not demand touches.

JP:          I think that’s why Gary Payton was not a good idea [for the Lakers 2003-04].  It was a sexy idea but not a good idea. 

HA:        He was also not the younger Payton at that point.  There were a whole lot of reasons why that didn’t work out.   You mentioned in other interviews that you spent a lot of time with Del Harris.  It reminded me of when you wrote about Jack McKinney in Showtime.  McKinney’s destiny was stopped by a bike accident but Harris just missed a dynasty for other reasons.  They called him “Dull” Harris because his personality matched his Phil Donahue look.

JP:          Nice Phil Donahue reference.  You just lost 70% of your readers [laughs] or they are googling.  I don’t know if McKinney is a good comparison.  I know what you’re saying  but….I feel bad for Dell Harris.  He was clearly a good NBA coach.  He wasn’t great for the modern player.  He talked way too much.  That was his downfall as a coach.  He just talked and talked and no one wanted to listen.  It drove Nick Van Exel and Shaq insane.  It drove Eddie Jones and Kobe insane too.  So, he was an excellent Xs and Os coach who talked too much and the players stopped listening.   

HA:        I understood why some players didn’t like Harris but Van Exel’s dislike I didn’t get.  He was a late second round pick [in 1993] and Harris gave him a chance.  He let Van Exel really shoot in the 1995 playoffs.  He didn’t give Harris any credit for that?

JP:          Nick Van Exel is probably the least likely NBA assistant coach ever.  You would’ve never guessed that would happen when he was playing.  When I talked to Van Exel he says he considers Dell Harris a really good friend now and he acknowledged that [Van Exel] was kind of a pain in the ass and immature.  Time has matured Nick Van Exel.

HA:        The theme of the early Kobe Lakers was that they couldn’t beat the Utah Jazz.  What percentage was Utah being really good and what percentage was the Lakers not being ready?

JP:          A big part of it was Shaq was an awful pick-and-roll defender.  Brutally bad.  Maybe, one of the worst pick-and-roll defenders of that era.  He could not defend Stockton-to-Malone on that play.  The one thing you had to do was defend that play or Utah would do it to death on you.  The Lakers were outgunned.  Utah was better coached.  Stockton and Malone were still kind of at their peaks and were marvelous players.  They had a great system.

Also, not for nothing but Greg Ostertag, an otherwise forgettable name in NBA history, played Shaq well.  He was big and goony and strong.  [Ostertag] was not graceful but he beat the hell out of you. Utah was better.  It’s like why Detroit beat the Bulls until Jordan figured it out.  It wasn’t quite the Lakers’ time yet and the Jazz were a really good team.

The game in 1996-97 where Kobe put up the air balls really fascinated me.  I talked to a lot of guys on the Utah bench and they said all they wanted was for Kobe to shoot.  This was the best thing ever.  They had Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel standing there and you’re going to give the ball to this 18-year old kid to shoot air balls.  I tried really hard to find the last time an NBA player shot four air balls in a game and I couldn’t find it anywhere.

HA:        Let’s talk about Phil Jackson.  He’s a thinking man’s coach.  Some consider him a bit of a phony and his tactics were pseudoscience.  What did you find?

JP:          I didn’t think he was a phony.  There was a lot of mythology to his tactics, like giving books to players to read.  80% of those books went unread.  Burning incense and things like that.  Those were definitely a little gimmicky and it became a nice narrative for the media.  I understand it, being a member of the media.  We fall for that stuff. 

What he did with Jordan really well was he got Jordan to buy into the Triangle Offense.  He did this less well with Kobe but still had some success.  Phil also let [assistant coach and architect of the Triangle] Tex Winter be Tex Winter and teach the offense to the players.  It wasn’t ego for Phil Jackson about the Triangle. 

With the Lakers, the best thing Phil did with regard to Shaq/Kobe issues, he didn’t overdo it.  He treated them similarly to Rodman in Chicago.  Generally, he let the spats go, even though it was a pain in the ass and annoying.  If you want to rip each other in the press, go ahead.  You’re adults.

Kurt Rambis, who was the interim coach before Phil came in, was very adamant about how they treat Kobe.  He wanted them to take Kobe under their wing.  Most of the players were like “fuck that.”  He doesn’t even want to listen to us.  Phil was wise about letting the Brian Shaws and Rick Foxes lead the locker room instead of being an overbearing coach trying to put his foot down all the time.

HA:        Did Phil let on who he preferred between Jordan and Kobe?

JP:          He definitely liked coaching Jordan a lot more than Kobe.  Kobe was a huge pain in the ass to coach.  He was very anti-Triangle.  To go on a tangent, people wondered how Kobe and Shaq meshed their talents so well.  The answer is they really didn’t mesh.  It worked because they were really good.  They were two of the five best in the NBA on the same team. 

If you have an explosive shooting guard and a big man who can do all those things, the odds are it’s going to work out okay.  But did Kobe condition his talents to work in the Triangle system?  He really didn’t.  He tried at times but it broke down often.  It was exasperating.

HA:        By comparison, Phil had moments when Scottie Pippen was a pain and he still loved Pippen.  It didn’t seem like he loved Kobe.

JP:          You have to remember that Pippen never thought he was better than Michael Jordan.  Not for one day.  Never.  Kobe Bryant thought he was the best player on the team and should be the center of the team.  That’s a huge difference when you are coaching.  Phil Jackson made it clear from Day 1 that the offense would run through Shaq first and Kobe second.

Well, Kobe never bought into that.  He was a great player and tried and played well but didn’t buy in to Phil’s system.  It was very awkward.

HA:        Speaking of Pippen, did you speak to any of the Blazers about that 2000 series [where L.A. came back to go to the Finals]? It seemed like the Blazers had that series won.

JP:          I talked to Joe Kleine, Jermaine O’Neal, and a few others.  That Blazers team was as deep a team as you’ll find.  They were 12-deep.  I do think the Lakers, somewhere along the line, developed this thing where they knew they were going to win these series.  The Blazers thought they would win but the Lakers knew that wasn’t happening.  The next year, Sacramento definitely thought they could possibly win and the Lakers thought there was no way they were losing to Sacramento.  No matter how dire it got.  It got real dire.

HA:        The Kings did get screwed on some calls and lucky plays earlier in the series but at the end of Game 7, Peja Stojakovic was throwing up air balls and Chris Webber was making weird behind-the-back passes you wouldn’t make in even a pre-season game. 

JP:          A lot of times we confuse choking with losing.  Often, a player misses a shot and he didn’t choke, he just missed a shot.  The Peja air ball was a choke.  He never shoots an air ball on that shot.  Doug Christie threw up some bricks.  Chris Webber, maybe he didn’t choke, but he did not play well. 

The Kings felt they were the better team and they blew it.  They did feel they were robbed by the refs.  There was the play when Kobe slammed into Mike Bibby and Bibby was bloody and there were no call by the refs.  There were definitely a bunch of mysterious calls where you could see why the Kings might think the NBA was conspiring against them.  If you are the type of person who is haunted by losses, the Kings are haunted by that loss.

HA:        You do wonder whether the secondary players, not the Kobes or even Chris Webber, but the role players, do they really care about the losses years later?

JP:          When an athlete tells me 20 years later, I think about “that game” every day, I’m thinking “no you don’t.”  My dog died three months ago and I was devastated but there have been days I haven’t thought about him and that was three months ago.  There’s no way a player is thinking about a loss every day for 20 years.  It’s impossible.

HA:        Back in 2001-02, I had a little extra cash and I got Nets’ playoff season tickets on a lark and I ended up going to games three and four of the Finals against the Lakers and L.A. just smoked them.

JP:          It was such a mismatch.  I talked to a lot of the Nets.  I remember Brian Scalabrine telling me that there was a point when the Nets went on a run where they were rolling and he looked up and they were only up six points.  That was as good as they could’ve played and we were barely beating the Lakers.  That’s when he knew the Nets had no chance of winning. 

The Nets were all very honest.  They said they were just not as good as the Lakers and the Nets needed to be perfect to have any chance. 

HA:        Did you talk about the Tim Duncan/Shaq rivalry?

JP:          I didn’t talk to Duncan and there really wasn’t any rivalry.  If anything, Shaq had a rivalry with David Robinson.  Shaq used to live this lie [he made up a story] that Robinson snubbed him for an autograph when Shaq was a teenager.  It was total bullshit.  David Robinson is the nicest human being you could meet and probably signed every autograph for any kid who approached him.

Shaq didn’t have any of that with Duncan.  If you look at it, there was actual legitimate mutual respect with Duncan.  I was most fascinated by Malik Rose of the Spurs.  His whole assignment was to get really low on Shaq and put an elbow to his back non-stop.  There were very few guys who were good at defending Shaq.  Another guy was Evan Eschmeyer, the one thing was to be strong and get low. Shaq had some issues with those guys.

HA:        What about the failure to get that fourth ring?  Did the Lakers think they had a shot or were they just done at that point?

JP:          It’s funny.  I spent a lot of time in a Starbucks with Kareem Rush [a reserve guard for the 2003-04 Lakers].  A really nice guy.  Rush swears that they would’ve won the title if Malone had been healthy.  I spoke with Howard Beck today and he agrees. 

I don’t think so.  Kobe went into that serious desperately hoping to be the MVP.  He shot non-stop and wouldn’t pass.  The Pistons defensive efforts were tenacious that playoffs and they locked Kobe down really well.  Larry Brown was a great coach at the height of his powers.  Shaq was fat and lazy and Kobe had one foot out the door focused on free agency and the rape trial.  Payton was a pain.   It would’ve taken a lot for the Lakers to have won that series.

HA:        One of the stathead arguments against the Lakers was that the supporting cast had eroded in 2003-04 to the point that they couldn’t do the basics to help the Lakers compete.

JP:          Definitely but they also really abandoned the Triangle that series.  At one point, Rick Fox held a team meeting.  There were five guys left from the three-peat, and they met with Phil Jackson in the bathroom and said they needed to fix the offense and play these players more.  They ended up playing those guys a bit more but the problem wasn’t really the Triangle.  They were old and it showed.

HA:        Which team did you like better, the old 1980s Lakers of the Kobe/Shaq group?

JP:          For me, I have a sense of nostalgia 80s Lakers that I don’t have for the other team.  I remember being a kid in New York and we would get one game a week besides the Knicks and Nets.  CBS would zoom in on the glitz of the beach and the Lakers Girls that gave me a sense of love for that team and L.A.  It’s hard to lose that little boy in you.

HA:        Which team players were easier to interview?

JP:          The Magic Lakers are older and further removed so they would talk and reminisce as long as I wanted.  The newer Lakers are still on TV and sort of in the game and less interested in discussing the past.  There is nothing more powerful than nostalgia to get people to talk and the newer team doesn’t quite have that yet.

HA:        1986-87 Lakers play the 1999-00 Lakers in magical time warp.  Who wins that series?

JP:          I think the 1980s Lakers.  That Shaq matchup is really hard on Kareem but he still has his unstoppable hook shot.  The 1980s Lakers were ridiculously deep.  It’s a good series but I think the Magic Lakers win.

HA:        Finally, the most important question we’ve been saving.  What’s currently going on with Stanislav Medvedenko?

JP:          He blew me off!  We were friends on Facebook and I had like five messages with him to meet and he kept blowing me off.  So, the answer is he is blowing people off on Facebook.

Three Ring Circus is available for order today here.  Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffpearlman and check out his website here.