Jeff Pearlman is a New York Times bestselling author who has written for Sports Illustrated, ESPN and The Athletic, among other outlets. His books include “Football for a Buck,” “Gunslinger” and “The Bad Guys Won!” This excerpt is from his latest book, “Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty,” which is available now.
It’s February 21, 2002. We are in Cleveland. Only this is pre-LeBron Cleveland, a ceaselessly pewter-skyed city that provides the razzle of an armpit. There is nothing of particular note to do here, so when NBA players come to town, they do — largely — nothing. Sit in the hotel room. Flick around the remote control. Eat. Sleep.
That’s why Samaki Walker, Lakers power forward and a man who stands 6-foot-9 and weighs 240 pounds, is in his room at the Ritz-Carlton. Sitting. Flicking. Eating. Sleeping.
Then something catches his eye. It’s the red blinking light atop the phone on his night table.
Walker assumes it’s rote road-trip insignificance. Housekeeping, maybe. A left-behind message for a departed guest. But then, out of curiosity, he presses the voicemail button and holds the receiver to his ear.
“Yo [sob] Samaki …”
Is that …?
“Maki [sob], look, you’re [sob] my boy [sob] …”
Could that be …?
“I [sob] just … I just [sob] …”
That sounds like …
“Man [sob] … I’m so [sob] sorry …”
“Maki [sob], really, I’m [sob] …”
And is he crying?
Walker is in his sixth NBA season, and while the one-time Louisville star has never quite lived up to the potential that made him the ninth overall pick of the 1996 draft, he has seen a lot. In no particular order: Walker’s father spent 13 years in prison for aggravated robbery. His mother battled severe alcoholism. He skipped his senior year of basketball at Whitehall-Yearling (Ohio) High because he hated the coach. He left Louisville early after being accused of using a Honda Accord given to his father by a booster. He was once arrested for driving a motorcycle more than 100 miles per hour through the streets of Columbus, Ohio. All those nuggets in time and space were jarring.
But this … this is something Samaki Walker can’t wrap his head around.
He continues to listen.
“Yo, Samaki … [sob] I don’t know what [sob] I was [sob] thinking. You’re a friend, man [sob]. A good [sob] friend. I’m so [sob] sorry. I’m so [sob], so sorry. Really, just …”
As he marinates within the silence of his room, Walker replays the events of the past 24 hours — a string of happenings that, weirdness-wise, rivals anything he has experienced through his first 26 years of existence. It’s the previous day, and the Lakers are holding a morning shootaround at Gund Arena in Cleveland. Toward the end of the session, as ritual dictates, the members of the team line up to launch half-court shots, with the winner collecting $100 from each participant.
As befits an organization coming off two straight NBA championships, the enlistees form a Who’s Who of modern basketball achievement. There’s Robert Horry, the dead-eye three-point gunner whose penchant for late-game heroics is legend. There’s Rick Fox, the savvy small forward whose cinematic appearances and marriage to Vanessa Williams make him Tinseltown royalty. There’s Brian Shaw, the cerebral point guard and locker room sage. There’s Derek Fisher, the fast-talking spark plug from tiny Arkansas-Little Rock. There’s Shaquille O’Neal, the larger-than-life’s-largest-life 7-foot-1, 325-pound center. There’s Kobe Bryant, the sixth-year straight-out-of-high-school superstar many consider to be the second coming of Michael Jordan.
The men line up to shoot. And miss. And shoot. And miss. And shoot. And miss. Familiar trash talk serves as the soundtrack. Slang barbs. Surface insults. Finally Bryant — 6-foot-6, 212 pounds of long, sinewy muscle — picks up a ball, takes a bunch of steps behind the half-court line, trots four long paces forward, elongates his arms, pushes forward, and … and … and …
“Gimme my money!” Bryant barks toward his teammates.
“Gimme my fucking money!”
The Lakers are paying Bryant more than $10 million for the season, and he’ll land an additional $20 million in endorsements with such companies as McDonald’s and Sprite. The $1,200 in half-court-shot winnings is chump change. But that’s not the point. It’s pride. Status. Strike or be struck — that’s been Bryant’s modus operandi since entering the league six years ago. Nobody was going to make Kobe Bryant his bitch. To some, these contests are mere game. O’Neal participates, sideways grin glued to his face, knowing he can’t possibly win. The same goes for Mark Madsen, the lumbering 6-foot-9 forward out of Stanford. But in Kobe Bryant’s world, nothing is a game. Ever. Not checkers, not chess, not Connect Four, certainly not a half-court shot with $1,200 on the line. That’s why, when the practice ends, he marches from teammate to teammate, palm extended. He takes the $100 from O’Neal, the $100 from Fox, the $100 from Shaw, the $100 from Horry.
Bryant looks Walker over. “My money?” he commands.
“I gotta get it to you later,” Walker replies. “I don’t have it on me.”
Bryant flashes an agitated look but walks off. Within the Lakers organization, there’s an understood 48-hour window for debts to be paid. Bryant is young and rich and averaging 25.2 points per game for a team expected to win yet another NBA crown. What’s a delayed $100 in the grand scheme?
Now, however, it’s the following morning — around 10 a.m. on February 21. The Laker players file onto the chartered team bus to make their way back to the facility for a brief practice run before the night’s matchup against the lowly Cavaliers. Befitting their status as two of the team’s key veterans, O’Neal and Fox head toward the vehicle’s rear, which they lovingly refer to as “the Ghetto.” They plop down into seats behind Jelani McCoy, a reserve center. Walker follows, settling into his regular spot. They are all listening to individual CD players, nodding their heads to the beats.
Then Bryant boards the bus.
He marches toward Walker, glares downward. “Yo Maki,” he says, “you gonna give me my fucking money?”
Walker pretends not to hear, so Bryant gets louder. “Maki, where the fuck is my fucking money?”
This time Walker doesn’t merely ignore him.
This time, Walker doesn’t merely laugh at him.
No, this time Walker waves him off like an errant gnat. “I’ll give you your money,” he says, “when I have it.”
To Walker, it’s all a joke. He and Bryant entered the league together, and the majority of players on the roster view Kobe’s latest efforts not unlike MC Hammer’s forever lampooned 1994 attempt at gangsta rap. Bryant is a “Thank you” and “You’re very welcome” type of guy — polite, suburban, cultured, well-heeled. Truth be told, he’s always been a clumsy fit for this league of superstars with well-earned street cred — the Allen Iversons and Stephon Marburys. The cursing is the latest addition to Bryant’s paint-by-numbers approach to sounding hardened, and it’s as authentic as $5 mink.
“It was his Beanie Sigel phase,” says McCoy. “Really fake.”
Now, if one looks closely enough, he can see the steam rising from Bryant’s ears. The four-time All-Star leans past Fox, draws back his right fist, lunges across Walker’s head, and — pop!— punches him in the right eye.
For a moment, everyone on the bus freezes. Just for a moment.
Walker, 28 pounds heavier than Bryant, gazes toward McCoy, his closest friend on the roster. “Did this fucker just hit me?” he says. “Did he just hit me?”
McCoy nods. Walker rises, clenches a fist, and — whoosh! Jerome Crawford, O’Neal’s King Kong Bundy-esque bodyguard and constant companion, charges from five rows up. He wraps Walker in a bear hug, but not before Walker launches his Discman at Bryant’s head. Not surprisingly, the career 63 percent free throw shooter misses. The device hits the floor and cracks apart. Walker is screaming at Bryant. “Fuck you, bitch!” Bryant is screaming at Walker. “No, fuck you!” O’Neal, whose relationship with the young guard is both well chronicled and chronically awful, looks Walker in the face. “You’ve gotta fuck him up!” he says in his deep baritone. “Fuck. Him. Up.”
Walker nods, then gazes toward Phil Jackson, the veteran head coach, whose ability to grasp (and manipulate) the psyches of his players is a longtime calling card. “Phil,” Walker says, “can you please stop the bus?”
In his two and a half seasons with Los Angeles, Jackson has endured some absolutely crazy moments. He’s watched awful Shaq movies and long lines of hotel lobby groupies. He’s had a player turn up with a “please excuse his absence from practice” note from a hotel clerk and wondered whether certain men were performing under the influence.
Now, the Lakers are somewhere in downtown Cleveland. Jackson has no great desire to have his two-time defending champions pull to the side of a road in downtown Cleveland. However, he sees what his players also see in Kobe Bryant — a selfish, entitled, me-first human whose social skills lag far behind his athletic gifts. “Hey,” he says to the driver, “pull over when you can.”
The bus stops. Walker, his voice emotionless, looks at Bryant, who gazes toward the floor. “Well?” he says. “You wanna step off and take care of this?”
Bryant ignores his teammate. The silence is palpable.
“That’s what I thought,” Walker says. A pause. “You little bitch.”
With that, NBA life seems to continue as normal. The bus arrives at the arena, the Lakers practice (without Walker, who is told by Jackson to remain in a side room and calm down), the men return to the hotel to rest before the night’s game. In his mind, Walker imagines a scenario in which he yanks Bryant aside and beats the snot out of him. He doesn’t merely want to hit Kobe Bryant. He wants to hurt him. Walker is a product of the inner city, a man whose time in Columbus taught him how to handle business. “I’m gonna fuck that boy up,” he tells O’Neal at one point. “There’s gonna be nothing left of him.”
This is what Walker is pondering when he notices the light blinking on his hotel room phone; when he listens to a sobbing Kobe Bryant; when he realizes his teammate isn’t exactly a model of emotional stability.
Later in the evening, shortly before tipoff against the Cavs, Walker is on the treadmill at Gund Arena. He is still angry, though the rage has subsided. This is what it is to be a professional athlete. You set distractions aside. You move on. You march forward. You focus on the task at hand. You …
It’s Crawford, O’Neal’s bodyguard.
“I’ve got this fucker outside,” he says. “He wants to talk to you.”
Moments later, Bryant approaches. His voice is unusually soft. His shoulders are hunched. He looks wounded, as if he’s about to once again weep.
“Maki,” he says, “I’m really sorry. That’s on me.”
The forward stops jogging and steps from the treadmill. He actually feels surprising pangs of sympathy for the kid. Walker — 100-mile-an-hour motorcycle roadster — knows what it is to mess up.
“Listen,” he says, “we’re good. Seriously, we’re good. But you can’t go around hitting another man. There are some issues you’ve gotta work out. You can’t live life this way.”
That night, the Lakers take down the Cavs, 104–97. Kobe Bryant scores a team-high 32 points on 13-of-24 shooting. He plays like a man possessed.
“Kobe,” Walker would say, “was a great basketball player. No doubt. But sometimes you had to wonder whether he was comfortable being himself. Whether he knew who he really was.”
Excerpt from THREE-RING CIRCUS: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty by Jeff Pearlman. Copyright © 2020 by Jeff Pearlman. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.