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‘Three-Ring Circus,’ part 4: Shaq stars, Kobe sits in their first Lakers training camp

Riverside Press-Enterprise 9/24/2020 Jeff Pearlman
Shaquille O'Neal sitting on a bench: Shaquille O’Neal gestures during the filming of the Warner Bros. film “Steel” on a set made to look like a junkyard in downtown Los Angeles, on Monday, Sept. 16, 1996. O’Neal stars as the superhero Steel in the film which is due to be released in Oct. 1997. (AP Photo/Nick Ut) © Provided by Riverside Press-Enterprise Shaquille O’Neal gestures during the filming of the Warner Bros. film “Steel” on a set made to look like a junkyard in downtown Los Angeles, on Monday, Sept. 16, 1996. O’Neal stars as the superhero Steel in the film which is due to be released in Oct. 1997. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment of a five-part serialization of “Three-Ring Circus,” Jeff Pearlman’s book about the Lakers era that featured Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson. The book was released Tuesday.

Three-Ring Circus
Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty
Parts1 2 3 4 5

The Los Angeles Lakers would officially open training camp on Oct. 4, 1996, and if the plan was to have some sort of grand rollout – what with a new larger-than-life starting center, a new electrifying rookie, a new hope of returning to the Showtime glory of the 1980s – this wasn’t quite the way to show it.

Beginning in 1988, Dr. Jerry Buss, the franchise owner for nine years at the time, insisted that camp be held in Hawaii. It was both a method of getting away from distractions and a way to showcase the glory and prestige of the NBA’s marquee franchise. Let the Pistons train in Michigan, let the Bucks train in Wisconsin. The Lakers would be hanging with the hula girls and palm trees.

Now, however, as the players readied to arrive at the Sheraton Waikiki, a time of renewal felt complicated and unclear. First, there was the issue of Shaquille O’Neal, the NBA’s $121 million man. When one signs a contract that large, it comes with expectations. You show up early, you behave professionally, you embrace your status with class, dignity, even a bit of humility. Instead, O’Neal spent part of the summer on the down-low, unresponsive to Laker phone calls, blissfully unaware of the responsibilities that accompany stardom. When he finally was reached, he told the team he expected three members of his personal entourage (including his long-time bodyguard, Jerome Crawford) to be added to the Laker payroll. Wrote Larry Guest of the Orlando Sentinel, “Welcome to Shaq’s World, Lakers. Orlando Magic officials have knowing smiles these days.” O’Neal then mentioned that, um, training camp might have to begin a few days later than usual – unless the team was willing to hire a helicopter and send it to the latest movie set, chopper him over to the airport, then fly him daily via private jet (paid for by the team) to Hawaii.

Why? Because hoops needed to wait while he filmed “Steel.”

Yes, “Steel.”

The script revolved around John Henry Irons, an oversized soldier who dons a suit of iron and becomes the enormous superhero. This was just seven years after Michael Keaton made “Batman” into a worldwide cinematic phenomenon, and Kenny Johnson – the director and writer – saw a grand opportunity to piggyback off that success. Quincy Jones, the producer, signed Johnson on to the project, then told him what he had in mind. “A black superhero,” Jones said. “That’s what I want. A black superhero.”

Johnson was enamored.

“Who do you see playing the lead?” Johnson asked – envisioning the likes of Denzel Washington, of Blair Underwood, of Wesley Snipes . . .

“Shaq!” Jones replied.

Shaq?

“I heard he’s a nice guy,” Johnson said. “But he’s not a star, Quincy. He can’t open this film.”

Jones disagreed, and O’Neal signed on. Shooting commenced shortly after Shaq inked his Lakers deal, and over the next month the “Steel” cast and crew traveled across Los Angeles, creating a cinematic masterpiece that would gross (and you are not about to misread this) $870,068 on a $16 million budget. O’Neal’s co-star, Annabeth Gish (best known from her work in “Mystic Pizza” and “Wyatt Earp”), recalled a “gentle giant” who made up for cinematic woodenness with charm and warmth. “This fell a little short of an Academy Award,” Gish deadpanned. “But he tried.”

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One day Venita Ozols-Graham, an assistant director, brought Brigitte, her 5-year-old daughter, to the set. The girl was attached to a silk gecko that she kept in a box, and between takes O’Neal approached, leaned down, and said, softly, “What’s in the box?”

“It’s my gecko,” she whispered.

“Is it real?” O’Neal replied.

“No,” Brigitte said.

She opened the box, and O’Neal – hands the size of bread baskets – pet the little animal.

“Brigitte,” he said, “would you like a real one?”

The next day, Ozols-Graham was working when her daughter came running. “Mommy! Mommy!” she yelped. “Come with me!” Brigitte grabbed her hand and pulled her inside O’Neal’s trailer, where she was greeted by an enormous terrarium, overflowing with rocks and plants and starring a pair of fat-tailed geckos. “It’s all yours,” O’Neal said. “The only condition is you have to name one of them Shaq.”

Brigitte did.

“My daughter later came to the set with the box and the gecko doll,” Ozols-Graham recalled. “She opened it and gave the doll to Shaquille. It was a really beautiful moment.”

O’Neal’s one demand of Warner Bros. was that he be provided an on-set mobile workout facility complete with a gym and a basketball hoop. He lifted weights and shot baskets between filming sessions, but come Oct. 4 – when he showed up on time in Honolulu, thanks to an accelerated shooting schedule – O’Neal was hardly in tip-top shape.

That, however, was nothing compared with the other major Laker headache. In the aftermath of his sizzling four-game summer league run, Kobe Bryant expected to join the team and immediately emerge as a superstar. Only, well, he did something extraordinarily stupid. Because Bryant was young and dumb and a 24/7 hoops junkie, on the afternoon of Sept. 2 he visited the famed pickup courts of Venice Beach to get in a few runs. After leaping at the hoop to tip-dunk the ball, he fell toward the pavement and tried to catch himself with his left wrist. His 200-pound body landed atop his arms, and moments later he saw three knots bulging below his hand.

The wrist was broken – and Jerry West was dumbfounded. The Lakers general manager greeted the news of the malady with stunned silence, responding to Gary Vitti, the team’s trainer, with a blank stare.

“He was doing what?” West asked.

“Playing basketball at Venice,” Vitti explained.

“Wait,” West said. “Wait, wait. Wait. What?”

It would be one of the last times the Lakers didn’t include a no-pickup basketball clause in the contract of a rookie signee.

Though the wrist required no surgery, Bryant had to sit out the entirety of training camp and miss a total of a month and a half. All he had wanted to do was come to Hawaii and prove his worth. Instead, he came to Hawaii and watched.“I can’t begin to tell you how damaging that is to a young player,” Del Harris, the head coach, said years later. “Especially a kid going from high school to the NBA.” On the night before the first practice at the University of Hawaii’s gymnasium, Harris called the team together for a meeting inside the conference room at the Sheraton Waikiki. He looked around at the 16 players in attendance – a strange brew of iffy leftovers, highly touted newcomers and a few warm bodies. Then he began to talk.

And talk.

And talk.

Harris talked about commitment. Harris talked about shot selection. Harris talked about his boyhood in Indiana. Harris talked about coaching the 1981 Houston Rockets to the NBA Finals. Harris talked about his wife and kids, his friends and colleagues. He talked about Honolulu’s marvelous beaches and which restaurants one might avoid. He talked about Nick Van Exel’s shot selection, Eddie Jones’ toughness, power forward Elden Campbell’s rebounding.

Finally, after finishing his 17-and-a-half-year monologue, Harris asked each man to stand and introduce himself.

O’Neal, jolly and giggly, stood first, nodded, said, “What’s up? I’m Shaq. Let’s do this.”

One by one, the other men followed.

“Hey, I’m Derek Fisher. Rookie. From little ol’ Arkansas. Ready to get to work.”

Next.

“Nick Van Exel. Fourth year here.”

Next.

“Eddie Jones. I’m from Florida. Went to Temple . ..”

Next.

“I’m Jerome Kersey. This will be my – what? – 13th year in the league. Crazy.”

Next.

“I’m Ced.”

Next.

“Yo, I’m Kobe. Kobe Bryant. I’m from PA – went to Lower Merion High School, dominated everything.” (Pause.) “I just want y’all to know, nobody’s gonna punk me. I’m not gonna let anyone in the NBA punk me. So be warned.”

Awwwwkward.

“It was like, ‘Yo, Kobe, relax,’” recalled David Booth, who landed a camp invite off of a strong summer league showing. “He was trying to establish himself, which I understand. But it didn’t play very well.”

“Not the best way to start things,” said forward Corie Blount. “But you have to remember, he was a child.”

In a strange way, Bryant’s injury proved beneficial, both to the youngster and the team. Although NBA rookie hazing has rarely reached the level of Major League Baseball rookie hazing or National Football League rookie hazing, it certainly existed with the Lakers. Along with Bryant, the team had two other newbies in camp: Fisher, out of Arkansas–Little Rock, and a gangly 7-foot, 235-pound center from UConn named Travis Knight. The recent first-round draft pick of Chicago, Knight had become a free agent when the Bulls – set with a loaded roster and uninterested in providing Knight with the requisite three-year minimum guaranteed contract – renounced his rights. “I got to pick my team, which was pretty amazing,” Knight recalled. “I grew up in San Diego, I played AAU ball in L.A. I was a Southern California guy.” When he came to Hawaii the day before camp opened, Knight hit up a shopping mall to grab a sandwich. While sitting in the food court, he heard a loud noise coming from down a hallway. “I looked up from my lunch,” he said. “It was Shaq. A bunch of people were following him, naturally. I just sat there looking at him, same as everybody else. I didn’t want to bother him.”

Less than 24 hours later, Knight was O’Neal’s rookie – meaning he was charged with carrying his shoes to practice, dropping them at his locker after practice, taking smacks to the back of the skull should he lay a ball in instead of dunking. “He was very cool,” Knight said. “Nothing with Shaq was ever very serious.” Fisher, soft-spoken and appreciative, was handed similar tasks by Van Exel and Jones – grab food, make sure the drinks were cold. Light fare.

Unlike his two peers, Bryant was an enticing target. His first-day introduction was received like spoiled milk, and as camp progressed, the veteran Lakers were taken aback by his perceived smugness. When Van Exel joined the Lakers out of Cincinnati in 1993, he had arrived humble and quiet. When Jones came a year later, he had arrived humble and quiet. Knight was humble and quiet. Fisher was humble and quiet.

Bryant was neither humble nor quiet. But he sat, unavailable, with a bum wrist. So he was deemed largely off-limits. “We did not get to haze him quite as much,” recalled Cedric Ceballos. “Getting doughnuts and carrying bags and that sort of thing. Shaq did have him do some goofy things, like bust a freestyle rap for all of us.

“[Kobe] was different. Most rookies want the approval of veterans. He never really was that way.”

Had Bryant been participating, he would have – most veterans later agreed – ruined camp. Or, if not ruined, severely damaged. Van Exel, Jones and Ceballos, the three returnees with the greatest offensive responsibilities, needed to adjust to O’Neal’s dominant low-post presence, and the addition of a can’t-touch-this, better-than-the-best ball-hogging teenager was not a requisite ingredient. On the sidelines, and in limited drills, Bryant took pleasure in showing off twisting layups and off-balance jumpers. He wanted people to notice, desperately wanted teammates to see what all the hype was about.

O’Neal began referring to him as “Show-boat,” and if the nickname wasn’t direct ridicule per se, it was anything but a compliment.

What struck some of the Lakers as most odd was the kid’s mimicking of Michael Jordan, the legendary Bull whose VHS tapes Bryant watched growing up in Italy. It wasn’t just a basketball thing. It was an everything. Bryant licked his lips like Jordan, shrugged his shoulders like Jordan, patterned his speech like Jordan. Homage was one thing. But this was not so much homage as stalker. “He clearly wanted to be Michael Jordan at the beginning,” said Knight. “In every way imaginable.”

With Bryant sidelined, the team jelled at a rapid pace. The Lakers opened the preseason on Oct. 10 with an evening game against the Denver Nuggets inside Honolulu’s Special Events Arena, and anyone expecting gradual growing pains was terribly mistaken. Wearing his new No. 34 purple-and-gold uniform and slimmed down from a week of sweaty gym work, O’Neal played 26 minutes, scoring 25 points on 11-of-13 shooting, with 12 rebounds and, in the words of Mike Fitzgerald of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, “several thunder dunks that could have caused tsunami warnings.” During one thrilling second-quarter sequence, he scored 6 points in less than 60 seconds, with a blocked shot and a rebound tossed in. Los Angeles won, 111–101, a meaningless victory that was anything but meaningless. With 10,225 spectators on hand, Van Exel and Jones seemed at ease dumping the ball down low, spreading out, letting O’Neal dictate the pace. Even Ceballos, selfish as the sun is bright, stayed free of the paint, granting the big man his space. Afterward, O’Neal stood in the joyous locker room and bragged of his greatness.

“No one can out-surf me!” he said. “I am the Big Kahuna!”

Coming Friday: The Lakers’ stars first season together ends in memorable fashion.

Excerpt from THREE-RING CIRCUS: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty by JeffPearlman. Copyright © 2020 by Jeff Pearlman. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin HarcourtPublishing Company. All rights reserved.

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