Excerpted from Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty, by Jeff Pearlman. Copyright © 2020 by Jeff Pearlman. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
The Utah Jazz arrived at the Staples Center on Feb. 4, 2000, at the seemingly perfect time to take a baseball bat to the knees of a wobbling Lakers franchise. Phil Jackson wasn’t happy with Kobe Bryant. Bryant wasn’t happy with Shaquille O’Neal. Nobody was happy with the one-foot-out-the-door Glen Rice. “We were at our bottom,” recalled Rick Fox. “Sometimes, in the course of a season, you wonder if maybe this just isn’t going to work. That’s where we were.”
Then everything changed.
The Jazz began the game by shooting 1 for 14—brick after brick after brick. Some of this was fatigue (one night earlier, Utah had hosted Milwaukee), but most was attributable to the genre of suffocating defense Jackson had preached throughout the season. Bryant, too often an offense-only ball hog, was all over the court. O’Neal, never pleased by the sight of Jazz center Greg Ostertag, swatted away five shots—several violently. Los Angeles forced 14 first-half turnovers, resulting in 21 points. After one quarter, the Laker lead was 33–14. At halftime it was 56–21. “We pretty much did what we had to do, and we came out with a lot of energy,” O’Neal said afterwards. “We kind of needed this game.”
The final score, 113–67, was greeted by America’s sportscasters as some sort of misprint. Was that 87? Maybe 77? “It’s just one game,” Stockton said, following his 14-minute, 2-point night. “You find out a little bit about yourself after something like this.”
Three nights later, the Lakers triumphed again, this time a 106–98 victory over Denver. Then they won again, a 114–81 takedown of Minnesota. Then they won again—88–76 at Chicago. And 92–85 at Charlotte. And 107–99 at Orlando. Before long, the same franchise that had been on the verge of a collapse was piecing together a breathtaking 19-game winning streak. The talk about trading Rice—dead. The turmoil—shelved. The Lakers were the hottest team in basketball, a turnaround powered by talent trumping discord and (as always) the presence of the world’s greatest post player.
Throughout his first seven years in the league, O’Neal had been both the NBA’s most awe-inspiring and most maligned presence. By now, wasn’t he supposed to have a championship ring? At least one? O’Neal was a dominating force. He was an awful free throw shooter. He made teammates better. He was an awful free throw shooter. The media loved him. He was an awful free throw shooter. O’Neal had shot 59 percent from the line as a rookie with Orlando in 1992–93, and it was presumed, with time, he would get better. Only he never did. Excuses were made—oversized hands, fatigue, nerves, anxiety, the lasting impact of a childhood accident that had resulted in a broken wrist. Every year it seemed a new free-throw-shooting expert would be brought in to change the world. Once, a University of South Florida–St. Petersburg American foreign policy professor named Dennis Hans mailed Kupchak a series of articles he’d penned on O’Neal’s problems at the line. “One day I got an e-mail from Mitch, and he told me he passed my writing on to Phil and Shaq,” Hans recalled. “He made a little progress and I felt good about that. But it didn’t last.” Another time, the Lakers enlisted a private shooting coach, Ed Palubinskas, who diagnosed O’Neal as overly stiff and intimidated by the rim. Rick Barry, the retired Hall of Famer who shot free throws underhanded, to the tune of an 89 percent success rate, suggested aloud that O’Neal, too, shoot underhanded. (The big man wouldn’t dare.)
The only diagnosis—the correct diagnosis—belonged to Derek Harper, the veteran guard who had played with the Lakers in 1998–99. “He didn’t work at it hard enough,” Harper said. “That’s the simple truth. Anyone who works on free throw shooting can become at least a decent free throw shooter. Shaq was one of the best players to ever step on a court. But he didn’t devote himself to something he needed to devote himself to. He was all about power and force. Not free throws.”
Two decades removed, Harper recalled a 1999 game against Seattle that had gone down to the wire. Coming out of a fourth-quarter time-out, Kurt Rambis drew up a play for O’Neal. “We’re walking back onto the court and Shaq goes, ‘What am I supposed to do? Who is that play for again?’ ” Harper said. “I was like, Oh, he doesn’t want the ball because he might get fouled. I told him to get the ball right back out to me. I’d take care of it. It’s incredible—someone of that stature to come out of a timeout and not want the ball.”
There was a growing concern that, toward the ends of tight games, opposing coaches would foul O’Neal and place him at the free throw line. Jackson always felt the threat lingering, as did Bryant—who simply did not understand (and wondered aloud) how a man with so many skills couldn’t hit six out of ten unencumbered shots. During the streak, though, the Lakers came up with a temporary solution: Beat the snot out of opponents so they’d never have reason to place O’Neal at the stripe. Over 19 games, Los Angeles’s margin of victory was an average of 14.1 points. The close contests weren’t even that close—often the margins got tighter only late in the fourth quarter, when Jackson rested his starters.
On March 6, O’Neal celebrated his 28th birthday by—in the words of the Los Angeles Times’s Lonnie White—ripping “through the Clippers’ collection of big men as if they were wet food stamps,” en route to 61 points and 23 rebounds in a 123–103 win. Upon arriving at the Staples Center three hours before tipoff, O’Neal was told by the Clippers staff that his request for extra seats for family members had been denied. If he wanted his relatives to attend, he’d have to pay just like everyone else. O’Neal couldn’t believe it. This was his building. His court. “Don’t ever make me pay for tickets,” he said afterwards. “Ever.” Before tipoff, he had pulled aside point guard Derek Fisher and said, “Man, can a brother get 60 on his birthday?” Translation: Get me the ball, and get it to me often.
Fisher nodded. “Absolutely,” he said. “Let’s make it happen.”
O’Neal would play 19 NBA seasons, but never quite at the level of 1999–2000. He averaged 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 3 blocks, and set a career high in assists (3.8). He was in the best shape of his life, desperate to please a new coach with a track record. “Shaq is in great condition,” Brian Shaw said late in the year. “He’s blocking shots and rebounding like never before. I played with him for three years in Orlando, and he didn’t get after it on defense like this.”
The Lakers finally lost on March 16, dropping a 109–102 nail-biter at Washington. But two games later, something happened that both pleased Jackson and solidified the Lakers—these Lakers—as a different breed than their immediate predecessors. On March 19 the team returned to California to host the Knicks, a legitimate title contender whose coach, Jeff Van Gundy, had little good to say (or think) about his Los Angeles counterpart. Before accepting the Lakers job, Jackson had been in light discussions with the Knicks, and Van Gundy rightly believed it crossed a line. As Del Harris repeatedly noted, one doesn’t vie for a job held by a peer.
Even without any hostility, the Knicks weren’t a team to mess with. Their roster was a Who’s Who of NBA brawlers. Larry Johnson, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound power forward, regularly dropped opponents to the floor. Latrell Sprewell, the athletic small forward, had famously choked his head coach, P.J. Carlesimo, two years earlier. A backup power forward named Kurt Thomas was widely considered the most physically intimidating (non-Shaq) man in the league, and Patrick Ewing, the center in his 15th season, still possessed a scowl that froze boiling water. The hardest rock on the roster was also one of the smallest—6-foot-3, 195-pound point guard Chris Childs.
“Chris took no s---,” said Jayson Williams, his teammate on the Nets. “He was small, but he played big.”
The one thing Childs had no patience for was arrogance. In Kobe Bryant, he saw arrogance. He liked nothing about the kid, despised how he acted as if he walked on air and played as if he were better than the men who had been around far longer.
That’s why, in the third quarter of Knicks-Lakers, Childs took particular exception to Bryant twice elbowing him in the head as he dropped back on defense.
“Did you see that?” Childs whined to Ted Bernhardt, the referee. “Are you gonna do something about that bitch and his bulls---?”
Bernhardt shook his head.
“Okay,” Childs said. “No problem.” He leaned into Bryant and said, “I don’t mind elbows from the neck down. But do that to my head one more time, young fella, and it’s on.”
Bryant laughed. “You ain’t gonna do s---,” he said.
The Laker stood 6-foot-6, 210 pounds. He was taller, thicker, more muscular. But, across the league, few found Kobe Bryant even slightly intimidating. Seconds later, Bryant elbowed Childs again. It was mild, but enough was enough.
“He hit me with a chicken wing,” Childs said. “I hit him with the twopiece and a biscuit.”
Childs drew back his forehead and brushed it into Bryant’s face. Momentarily stunned,