Q&A with Jeff Pearlman on his new book, Kobe, expecting a beatdown, idiots and more
Jeff Pearlman is a fellow University of Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hen and an author of nine books, including “Showtime,” about the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers dynasty. Continuing the Laker theme, Pearlman’s new book, “Three Ring Circus,” covers the Kobe and Shaq years. I chatted with Pearlman about “Three Ring Circus,” which comes out this month, as well as writing, the journalism industry, the “stick-to-sports” crowd, and just a bit of politics.
Q: What’s it been like finalizing the book after Kobe’s death?
A: I feel like living (in Southern California) really allowed me to see and feel the anguish that came with his death. I would’ve been struck by it even if I weren’t here, but you really see it here in a visceral way. Then, you’ve just completed two years of writing a book, and this guy was the central character, and suddenly this guy doesn’t even exist anymore. It’s really jarring from a personal standpoint. From a book standpoint, and from a promoting-a-book standpoint, it’s kind of scary because the book was completed before he died. A lot of the people I interviewed did not care for him as a teammate or had issues with him as a teammate and felt pretty free to talk about it because he was still around, and they didn’t feel like it was a violation of anything. Now, this book is coming out to rabid Kobe fans, and I’m definitely a little worried about what the backlash might be.
Q: How do you hope fans will receive the book?
A: I don’t have grand aspirations that people are going to read this book and come away with a changed life, but I feel like we’re all living through this hell right now that’s 2020 where nothing’s going right, so if this book provides a little nostalgic vacation or basketball education or whatever for people, then I’m pretty happy.
Q: When you look back at other teams with a ton of talent, there’s usually a honeymoon period, but the Kobe and Shaq power struggle started in their first season together. What or who kept them together as long as they lasted?
A: Number one is contracts. They factually were under contract to play for the Lakers, so it’s not like they had a choice. Number two was they were winning. They were actually good. It’s not like you were bound together with Yinka Dare or Spud Webb. These were two of the top five players in the league on the same team, so yeah, they didn’t get along, but they were both really talented and really exceptional at what they did, so I don’t think—it just wouldn’t have made sense to break them up. It only ended because Kobe was about to be a free agent, and he didn’t want to play with Shaq anymore, and he didn’t want to play under Phil anymore.
Q: How would you define Phil Jackson’s role?
A: They’d been a good team under Del Harris and Kurt Rambis, but not a great team. A big part of that was tuning out coaches. Like, Del Harris just talked too long. He talked and talked and talked, and people started to tune him out. And Kurt Rambis didn’t have experience as a head coach, and he definitely tried to coddle Kobe, and that did not go over well. Well, Phil Jackson comes in. He’s got six championships as a coach. He coached the greatest player ever to live; he coached him well. I think he showed up with a lot of respect from people and a little bit of fear from some players—definitely admiration. I also think he handled Shaq and Kobe really well, which was kind of similar to the way he was with Dennis Rodman in Chicago where he wasn’t overbearing, and he wasn’t a babysitter, and he let it play out a little bit.
Q: What made writing this book different compared to writing any of your other books?
A: I had some real bouts of misery writing this book. I like how it came out, so it’s not a reflection of the book, but dealing with modern athletes can be hard and more challenging. Some of these guys are guys who grew up being coddled more than their forebearers… There were parts of it that were really tough, but the highs were—I mean, Shaq is as good a guy as I’ve dealt with. Phil Jackson gave me eight hours driving through Montana.
Q: Who gave you your favorite interview?
A: It was like I was the highest bidder on some win-a-day-with-Phil Jackson raffle prize. I flew out to Montana. I didn’t know how much time I would get with him. You figure maybe you get an hour. He meets me at a coffee shop. I thank him for meeting with me, and he says, “I’m just doing it for Jeanie,” because Jeanie Buss had set it up. So I thought, well this isn’t going to go well. Then he’s like, “Well, why don’t we drive around a lake,” and we take three or four hours driving around a lake. We stop for lunch. At the end, he’s like, “You want to just come back to my house?” I’m like, “Well, yeah, sure.” We go back to his house, sitting out on the back porch. Then he’s like, “I’m going to take a nap.” I thought that was it, then he’s like, “Why don’t we meet for dinner later.” We go out for dinner later. So, it was like eight hours with this interesting, nice guy. We probably talked 40 percent about basketball and 60 percent about politics, books, Montana.
Q: What interview was the most difficult?
A: J.R. Rider was with them for one year. I didn’t have a phone number for him. I just had an address. I was in Arizona anyway, so I drove to his address, and I knocked on the door, and a little kid answered, and then a woman came to the door. I explained to the woman, “I’m writing a book about the Lakers,” that I was looking for J.R. Rider. She closes the door. I hear some arguing behind the door, and then J.R. Rider shows up. He’s not happy to see me. He’s like, “Bro, what the hell? You just show up at my door? You just knock on my door? Bro, what the hell? No. No. No.” And I’m like, “Fuck, this isn’t going to end well,” and he opens the door and comes out. I had my USFL book I’d written with me, and he’s like, “What is that?” And I’m like, “Oh, I wrote a USFL book.” And he’s like, “That’s the Trump league?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” I gave him the book. He’s like, “So, your book you’re doing now, what’s it about?” I’m like, “The Lakers.” He’s like, “Alright, I’ll talk to you.” He gave me like two hours. He was great, but it was hard earned. I literally drove to Arizona, knocked on his door, thought I was going to get beat up, got the interview.
Q: What do you think your strengths are as a writer?
A: I actually like hearing people’s stories, and I like listening, and I do not try to interrupt people with my own points. That’s one thing my mom always said, that I was curious, and I think that comes in handy as a journalist. It’s not fake curiosity. It’s real curiosity.
Q: How about weaknesses?
A: I definitely use too many analogies. There’s no doubt about it. It drives me freakin’ crazy… Also, I’m like every writer. I’m definitely insecure, and I think everything I write sucks. It’s hard for me to get satisfaction out of it sometimes. It’s not like I pick up my book and think it’s the greatest book ever. It’s almost the opposite. I read it and think, “Fuck, what a mess.” And then people tell you it’s good, and you’re like, “Oh, maybe it’s good.” It’s that insecure, thin-skin thing. But I love doing it. I actually love it. I love the craftsmanship. It’s not craftsmanship, but I love piecing together this book and I love the reaction when my parents get a copy and it means something to them. And I never have to wear shoes.
Q: Where do you get most of your writing done?
A: Coffee shops. But now I can’t because of frickin' COVID. It’s killing me.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: I’m doing a Bo Jackson biography.
Q: How has COVID made that different than past books?
A: I think I’ve been more productive. And also, people tend to be home, so that’s a little helpful. You call people, and it’s not like they’re out at a million different places or flying or whatever.
Q: What do you think is the biggest mistake journalists make?
A: We take ourselves way too seriously, which makes me crazy. A lot of people enter this business because they want to be celebrities, or they want to be known or they want to find themselves on ESPN or CNN. I can’t stand those people. I just think it’s the wrong reason to be in this business.
Q: What do you love about the journalism industry?
A: I’m a sucker for details, so I want to know what the cup of coffee looked like and what it smelled like and if there was lipstick stained on the rim or if there was a crack in the handle and if it was beige or white or off-white. I love all that stuff. I love little, little, little stuff that paints a picture, and I don’t care if there’s a picture next to the story, I like reading the details.
Q: Who were some of your favorite writers growing up?
A: There was a writer named Peter Golenbock, who was probably the most influential writer of my youth because he used to write these books and I would just read them and read them and absorb them, and I friggin’ loved them. I had him on my podcast a couple months ago, and I don’t think he realized how much his writing meant to me.
Q: What book are you reading?
A: A book called “Still Writing” by Dani Shapiro. My wife had bought it, and I just picked it up. I’m only on page 24. It’s “The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life.” That’s the subhead.
Q: What do you say to those who preach the stick-to-sports philosophy?
A: I think they’re idiots. And the truth of the matter is, it actually goes both ways. Like, Curt Schilling. I cannot stand Curt Schilling’s political positions. Can’t stand. I think he’s an idiot, but I would never tell him, “Stick to sports.” He has every right to express his opinion, and I’m actually glad he does it, as much as I can’t stand his opinions. A bunch of members of the 1980 Olympic hockey team appeared at a Trump rally, and I was horrified. I was actually horrified because to me that team meant a lot more than this guy, but they certainly have the right to do it.
Q: If you got to, or I guess maybe were forced to, sit down with Donald Trump, what would you say to him?
A: I’d just tell him what I see: a con man. And I would freakin’ beg him, beg him to reconsider what he’s doing environmentally to this country and beg him to open his eyes. If he wins, he’s going to be in his second term. He doesn’t have to impress anyone anymore… He has kids, and he has grandkids, and even if you’re trying to win over this base, do something right for at least, if nobody else, your grandkids, because we’re looking at apocalyptic-type futures for this planet. So, maybe that’s what I’d say. Or I’d just tell him to “fuck off.” One or the other.
This interview was edited and condensed. "Three Ring Circus" is available for pre-order, and if you're lucky like me, it might just randomly ship before the release date.