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Alan Goldsher is Collectable’s Head of Content.
Visit him at http://www.AlanGoldsher.com

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.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

Why did you decide to write a second book about the Lakers?

JEFF PEARLMAN:

I ask myself three questions when I’m thinking about writing a book, I really do. Number one is, has anyone done it? Shaq has written books, Kobe did The Mamba Mentality, and there certainly have been a lot of books about the Lakers. But I felt like this period, ’96 to ’04 specifically, had an unknown quality to it. Number two, could I enjoy spending two years writing about it? Here, I thought I could. Number three, could it sell? I think the Lakers with Shaq, Kobe, and Phil is a big topic. You never know if it will sell, but the Lakers put you in the ballpark. I thought [the subject] was ripe for the picking.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

Was this a tough book to write as compared to, say, your USFL project?

JEFF PEARLMAN:

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.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

Why do you think Kobe didn’t want to talk?

JEFF PEARLMAN:

I assume it was two things. Number one, he’d just come out with a book, The Mamba Mentality. Number two, ’96 to ’04 was a really, really dark period of his life, and he wasn’t one who particularly relished discussing that era.

I always say, no one owes it to me to talk for a book. They’re making no money off of it, they don’t get final editorial say, and I don’t even show you what it’s going to be, so I get it. Every book I’ve written, there have been key people who didn’t talk.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

Being that you discussed nearly a decade of Lakers lore, was this one tough to write?

JEFF PEARLMAN:

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.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

I’ve written a couple of biographies, and to me, they’re more grindy than narrative non-fiction.

JEFF PEARLMAN:

For me, not at all. The team books are much harder. For one, the repetition of seasons is a complicated thing to deal with. You really get bogged down where you’ll be like, “Oh man, that Utah game, that was a big game, and Malone had this many points, and Stockton…” And then you’re like, “Wait, I’m 20 years removed from that. Nobody cares.” So it’s a challenge not to get lost in the seasons.

What you also risk is becoming very repetitious. Because people say to me, “When was it when they beat Philly in the championship?” And I have to think, “Oh wait, it was 2001.” So that’s a big challenge.

What I enjoyed about writing Walter Payton’s biography was that I went to different places. I started with a deep dive into Columbia, Mississippi, and that was awesome. Then it was onto Jackson State. and it was like writing a whole new book, then he was a rookie in Chicago, and it went from there. You go through these periods and it’s very refreshing. But when you’re writing about a team, the same characters kind of hang around, so it’s harder to find fresh material. 

The other thing about this book was that the Shaq/Kobe relationship was like a freaking magnet, and you couldn’t get away from it. It’s fascinating, so it’s worth writing about, but you couldn’t escape it. You’d be talking about Rick Fox, and [the conversation] would come back to Shaq and Kobe, even if you were like, “No, I want to go over here.” That was tough, because I didn’t want to write 130,000 words about Shaq and Kobe’s relationship, but everyone kept going back to it. 

Like I went down to Dallas to sit with Derek Harper who played with [the Lakers] for a year, and it was awesome, and he was great. He’s just a really nice human being and very smart and insightful. But even with Derek Harper, sitting there eating spaghetti, it always went back to Shaq and Kobe.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

I've been around Shaq a couple of times, and from what I can tell, he's what you see on TV, gregarious and generous. When you spoke with him, was he that guy?

JEFF PEARLMAN:

Okay, so one thing we talk about this in my house, is, Who’s taking that mantle from Muhammad Ali? I would say it was Magic Johnson for a while, but there’s also Dolly Parton, Snoop Dogg, and Shaq. Shaq has a thing about him, where everyone loves him. There’s just something about him. 

I went to see him in Atlanta, and I met with him in the TNT studios before a broadcast. He was great: enjoyable and funny. The two things that kind of stand out for me were that when he was drinking a soda, and his hand is so enormous that the soda can looked like a mini can, but it wasn’t a mini can, it was a normal can of soda. 

The other thing is, while I was talking to him, his daughter FaceTimed him. She told him about someone’s parents who had just died, and Shaq said to her, “Listen, no matter what, make sure I get the bill for the funeral. I’m going to pay for all that.”

ALAN GOLDSHER:

Was Shaq that way with his teammates?

JEFF PEARLMAN:

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.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

Speaking from personal experience, when you’re doing this sort of project, gaining access to even lesser-known subjects can be problematic.

JEFF PEARLMAN:

Yeah, I can give you my weirdest interview story: J.R. Rider.

I couldn’t get a phone number for J.R. Rider, but I got an address for J.R. Rider. So he lives in Arizona and I was in Arizona, so I figured I’m just going to go knock on J.R. Rider’s door. So I drive out and I get there like 9:30 in the morning, definitely a little on the early side for knocking on someone’s door.

But I still knock on the door, and a kid answers, and he says, “Can I help you?” And I say, “Yeah, I’m looking for J.R. Rider.” He closes the door, then a woman comes out and asks, “Can I help you?” I say, “I’m looking for J.R Rider, my name’s Jeff Pearlman,” then I show her my USFL book and say, “I wrote this.”

She’s like, “Hold on,” then she goes back in. I hear some kind of arguing behind the door, then J.R. Rider comes out. And I’m like, “Hey,” and he’s like, “Who are you?” I say, “My name is Jeff Pearlman. I’m a writer.” He says, “Bro. Bro, no. No, no, no. You just show up? No, that’s not cool.” He opens the door and comes out. “That is so not cool, man. You cannot just…are you kidding me? What are you writing about?”

I say, “Lakers. The Shaq/Kobe era.” He points to the USFL book and asks, “Did you write that?” I’m like, “Yeah.” He’s like, “What’s it about?” I say, “USFL.” He says, “Oh, that was Trump, right?” I go, “Yeah.” He says, “So you’re writing about the Lakers? I’ll talk to you. Okay, I’ll talk to you.” 

I thought the guy was going to punch me in the head, but I ended up getting two hours of J.R. Rider. He was awesome.

ALAN GOLDSHER:

You've written this wildly divergent batch of sports books, and it seems like you gravitate towards the story rather than the team.

JEFF PEARLMAN:

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.