Alan Goldsher is Collectable’s Head of Content.
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Bestselling Author Jeff Pearlman Drops the Definitive Book on the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers, Version 2.0
Much has been written about the Los Angeles Lakers teams of the late-1990s and the early-aughts, because, goodness, gracious, there was a whole lot to write about. You’ve got the rivalry between the NBA’s most notorious frenemies, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. You’ve got Phil Jackson trying to hold together a cast of characters that was, putting it mildly, mercurial. And you’ve got a whole lot of championship hardware.
While this iteration of the Lakers has been dissected time and again, nobody has covered it quite like bestselling author, Jeff Pearlman.
Pearlman is arguably the modern master of sports-themed narrative non-fiction, the 21st Century’s Roger Kahn. Along with biographies of Walter Payton and Brett Favre, Pearlman has done filmic deep dives into the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Mets, and the USFL. His latest, Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty, is his second look at the Lake Show, the first being 2014’s Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s.
Like his other sports tomes, Three-Ring Circus reads like a novel, vibrant and detailed, energetic and engaging. From his home in California, Jeff discussed his writing process, his adoration for Shaq, and one potentially frightening interview.
Was this a tough book to write as compared to, say, your USFL project?
The USFL was super-easy by comparison, because everyone involved was thrilled to talk. And if they weren’t thrilled to talk, well, you’ve got an entire league, so if one guy doesn’t talk, you’ve got 500 more people that will, so there was a wealth of sources.
As for the Lakers, modern athletes are harder to [lock down for interviews] than older athletes, they just are. Also, a lot of these guys are used to speaking via social media and they are used to having publicists get in the way and handle things [like scheduling interviews], so from 2000-on, it’s a much more protective environment for athletes. I did speak with Phil and Shaq, but I never got Kobe.
Being that you discussed nearly a decade of Lakers lore, was this one tough to write?
This book was just really hard. I look at it now and I’m like, “Oh, this worked out, this actually is good,” but if you talk to my wife about the grind of this book, she’ll tell you it was super-grindy.
Was Shaq that way with his teammates?
So Mark Madsen told me that when [the team] flew, Shaq and Madsen used to sit together on the plane. And the flight attendant would walk by and Shaq would say to her, “Hey, any chance you’re Mormon?” She’d say, “What?” And he’d point to Madsen and say, “He’s Mormon.” Madsen told me he’d meet people in the Lakers offices who would tell him, “Shaq was here the other day asking if any of us were Mormon, because he’s trying to set you up.”
Then there was Mike Penberthy, a backup guard from The Master’s College. He told me that when he made the team, he didn’t own any suits. For his first game, they were on the road in Portland, and he goes to a Banana Republic to buy a sports jacket. He can’t find anything, so when Shaq saw him, he said, “Hey man, do you have any suits?” And Mike said, “No, I’m going to go buy some tomorrow.” Shaq’s like, “No,” then took him to his personal shopper and bought him six suits.
You've written this wildly divergent batch of sports books, and it seems like you gravitate towards the story rather than the team.
Yeah. I don’t really care about the team. I’m not a Laker fan, and I wasn’t a Cowboys fan. I was a Mets fan as a kid, and I love the USFL, but didn’t write them as a fan. I just like writing, I like reporting, and I like good stories.