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‘Three-Ring Circus,’ part 5: Kobe Bryant’s first Lakers season ends with air balls, determination

Editor’s note: This is the final 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 1996-97 Lakers were a flawed-yet-entertaining-yet-underperforming team. Led by the dominant Shaquille O’Neal, they completed the regular season with a 56-26 mark, good for second in the Pacific Division. After getting past Portland in the first round of the playoffs, Del Harris’ club faced the powerful Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Semifinals.

It was neither a good nor memorable series for Los Angeles – the team fell behind 3 games to 1, and took the court for Game 5 in Salt Lake City in deep trouble. Yet what could have gone down as merely another playoff game became known for the youthful antics and misdeeds of Kobe Bryant, the talented, cocky rookie who never shied away from a big spot.


On May 12, 1997, the Lakers and Jazz returned to Salt Lake City and the floor of the Delta Center for Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals.

In order to advance to the next round, Los Angeles would need to win three straight (“It’s a challenge,” O’Neal said, “and I love challenges.”), which was somewhat less likely than a manned mission to Pluto. The Jazz were, simply, the superior team – more experienced, more cohesive, more skilled, better coached. (Jerry Sloan, in his ninth season as Utah head coach, seemed to have answers for everything Del Harris tried.)

The game commenced at 7:30 p.m., and after Utah jumped out to a 53–45 halftime lead, it was fair to assume that the fragile Lakers would meekly fade away. But they didn’t. Nick Van Exel, starting at point guard despite the drama, was ferocious, charging straight at John Stockton en route to 26 points and four assists. O’Neal, frustrated by Utah center Greg Ostertag’s physicality, added 23 points and 13 rebounds. With Byron Scott out with a sprained wrist, Harris summoned Kobe Bryant as his first man off the bench, hoping the rookie could handle the largeness of the moment.


Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant charges into Utah Jazz Antoine Carr as he drives to the basket in the overtime period during game five of the NBA Western Conference Semifinals. (Photo by ROBERT SULLIVAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The results were mixed. On the strength of a 10-point fourth-quarter surge, Los Angeles returned from the dead, tying the score at 70 with 8:01 remaining. But when O’Neal – trying to block a Malone jumper in the paint – fouled out with 1:46 left in regulation, and with forward Robert Horry long gone after being ejected for forearming Jeff Hornacek, Harris needed to devise a revamped scoring strategy on the quick.

His offensive options were plentiful: Van Exel, lightning-quick and a deadly three-point gunner; Eddie Jones, not playing particularly well but owner of one of the best first steps in the game; Jerome Kersey, a bit battered by age but a man who had averaged 19.2 points per game in his Portland heyday. “We were really, really talented,” recalled Jones. “Not the best team yet. But we weren’t lacking guys who could put the ball in the hole.”

That’s what makes what followed so bewildering. With 40 seconds on the clock, Stockton found himself guarded by Bryant just outside the three-point line. A year earlier, the youngster in charge of keeping the NBA’s greatest point guard in check had been attending prom. Hell, he wasn’t even that great a defender at Lower Merion. Stockton licked his chops, took a mini-step, then burst left past the rookie for an uncontested layup and a tied game at 89. It wasn’t merely poor crunch-time defense. It was nonexistent crunch-time defense.

Yet if Bryant wasn’t ready for the stage, his coach didn’t see it. Earlier in the year, Harris had sat down with the rookie to ask how things were progressing. He meant adjusting to Los Angeles, life with his older teammates, navigating the highways. Bryant wasn’t that type of conversationalist. Small talk wasn’t a go-to. Without pause he replied, “Coach, if you can get Shaq out of the paint and give me the ball, I’ll beat anyone in the league one-on-one.” The answer was preposterous, but also oddly inspiring in its confidence.

The Lakers regained possession with 11.3 seconds left and the score knotted at 89. During a timeout, Harris looked around the huddle and decided that the man to take the final shot in regulation would be the untested, undeserving, untrustworthy Kobe Bryant. He received the inbounds pass from Elden Campbell and methodically dribbled up the court. Three times with his right hand. Two times with his left. Right. Right. Right. The time was ticking away. With 6.5 seconds remaining, Bryant crossed half-court. Bryon Russell, Utah’s small forward, stood before him, crouching in anticipation. Van Exel, to Bryant’s left, clapped twice. Not enthusiastically. Casually.

With 4.2 seconds left, Bryant drove to his right, dribbling toward the paint, where Russell awaited. Standing at the three-point line, Van Exel could not have been more wide open. Standing along the baseline, Campbell could not have been more wide open. Jones, just outside the three-point line by the Lakers bench, was all alone. In fact, as the team prepared the possession, Harris had urged Bryant to get it to Jones. “The play was designed for me,” Jones recalled years later. “There’s this myth that none of us wanted the ball. Not true. I was ready to shoot, I wanted to shoot. Kobe had his own plan.” Bryant charged toward the paint, then stopped, planted 14 feet from the hoop, and shot a jumper over Russell that rose … rose … rose …

And touched nothing but air.

Utah’s Karl Malone grabbed the rebound and the clock expired. There would be overtime.

“It was a very weird moment,” said Stephen Howard, a Jazz forward. “You have this guy right out of high school and you’re putting the entire faith of the team in him breaking down Bryon, our best defender. That’s your play?”

The extra period began well. Without O’Neal, Campbell won the tip and got it into the hands of Bryant, who – following a brief, indecisive pause – flipped it to Van Exel. The point guard pump-faked, moved in past Stockton, failed to look toward an open Jones, started to shoot – then heard a wide-open Bryant calling for the ball behind the three-point line. Van Exel passed to Bryant, who bent his knees, lowered his shoulders, and – with no Utah player within 5 feet – let loose a shot that rose … rose … rose …

And touched nothing but air.


“My bad … my bad,” Bryant mouthed aloud as the sellout crowd delighted in the chant of  “Aiirr balllll … Aiirr balllll!”

Harris, pacing the sideline, clapping reflexively, looked exasperated. As did the other Lakers. Once again, Jones believed he would be getting the ball. “I mean, it was supposed to be mine,” he recalled. “I would have loved for it to be mine to make or miss. But … Kobe.”

This made no sense. Even the last man in the rotation, rookie center Travis Knight, had played in some big games during his four years at the University of Connecticut. Why, with the heat turned up to 500 degrees, was Kobe Bryant launching shots?

“What the (expletive) are you shooting for?” asked Laker reserve forward Corie Blount. “That’s what it was for me. It had to be Eddie or Nick – not Kobe. Nobody expected Kobe to take that shot, because in the flow of the game you swing the ball, swing it some more. You expect it back. Then it’s up in the air, and then it’s ‘Holy (expletive) – he just shot an air ball.’ We knew we couldn’t control his need to force his will on the game, but … man. What the (expletive)?”

“Kobe had a lot of talent,” said Knight. “But he was not a very good jump shooter at that point. He definitely wasn’t the guy on our roster to take those shots.”

Over the next 3:09, the Jazz opened up a 96–93 lead, and the clock read :45 when Van Exel passed yet again to Bryant, two feet behind the three-point line. “We were on the bench saying, ‘Give it to Kobe again,’” recalled Howard. “‘Please give it to Kobe again.’” Had he looked right, even for a second, Bryant would have observed a wide-open Van Exel. Instead, he jumped into the air, extended his right arm, and let loose a shot that rose … rose … rose …

And touched nothing but air.

Sean Rooks, the backup center, standing beneath the basket, turned to flash Bryant a death glare. Bryant, walking back on defense, licked his lips and gazed straight ahead. “Once you shoot one air ball, you crawl into a hole,” said Howard. “He kept shooting.”

Surely this time Bryant was done. Surely this time Bryant had learned his lesson.

The Lakers got the ball back for one final chance. Down 96-93. Fifteen seconds remained. Van Exel dribbled up the court, where he was met by Stockton and Russell. He dribbled to his left before bounce-passing to Bryant. (Asked why he continued to pass to Bryant, Van Exel said, “He was my teammate and he was out there and he was open. What other choice is there?”) Jones stood alone in the corner, waiting for the pass that failed to come. With seven seconds left and Hornacek closing in, Bryant let loose a shot that rose … rose … rose …

And touched nothing but air.

On the Utah bench, Howard flashed a look of stunned disbelief as Foster and Chris Morris high-fived. The Jazz were moving on, the Lakers were going home.

And Kobe Bryant was … what?

As the Los Angeles players walked off the court, Bryant felt a large arm drape his shoulders. It was O’Neal, who later called B.S. on Jones’ claims of wanting the last shot. (“He’d freeze up in a tight situation, then act like it was no big deal,” he once wrote.) Having been the centerpiece of an Orlando team that was swept by Houston in the 1995 NBA Finals, O’Neal understood public sports humiliation.

“Look at all these people laughing at you,” he told Bryant. “One day we’re going to get them back. Don’t worry. Someday everybody’s going to be screaming your name. Take this and learn from it.”

The words, meant to comfort, were the soothing whispers of a franchise centerpiece trying to act the part of a leader. To the youngster, however, they mattered little. Bryant didn’t require coddling.

That night the Lakers returned home to Los Angeles for a long off-season of repair and introspection.

The next morning, Kobe Bryant was in the gym.

Taking 14-foot jump shots.

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.

Source: Orange County Register

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