Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty

Here are some highlights from this new book by Jeff Pearlman:

* 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 Bry ant’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.

* Magic Johnson saying, “Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers.”
Yes, many other celebrities had died before our eyes from AIDS, but this was different. Freddie Mercury, Liberace, Anthony Perkins, Gia Carangi—they were people who shared our dimensions and gravitational limitations. Plus, we had our own built-in excuses. They were gay. They were drug addicts. They screwed around. They lived lives of ill repute. They asked for it.
The idea of bearing witness to a superhero like Magic Johnson devel oping lesions, losing most of his weight, needing a walker, fading to dust before our eyes . . . well, it was too much to handle. Wrote Gary Nuhn of the Dayton Daily News, “I guess we’re going to watch Magic Johnson die just as my father’s generation watched Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth die. Slowly. Painfully. Irreversibly.”
So when Magic Johnson didn’t develop lesions and lose most of his weight, when he didn’t need a walker or fade to dust before our eyes—it felt almost biblical. And as the years passed and Johnson opened movie theaters and coffee shops and shook 10 million hands and hugged 10 million babies and smiled that 10-million-megawatt smile, there was this growing idea that if anyone could accomplish the unaccomplishable, it was Magic.
Especially on the basketball court.

* Over the next few minutes, Bryant offered his version of the story. Which was pretty much [Jessica] Mathison’s version of the story. They met. They flirted. They flirted some more. They kissed. When the narrative turned specifically to the intricacies of sex, however, things became uncomfortable. Bryant admitted that he had a hand around Mathison’s neck, and when Loya asked about the firmness of the grip, Bryant said, “My hands are strong. I don’t know.”
It turned worse.
There was this:
LOYA: Did she, did you get any blood on you or anything like that?
BRYANT: She didn’t bleed, did she?
LOYA: Yeah, she had, she had a lot of bleeding.
BRYANT: What, you got to be kidding. From where?
LOYA: From her vaginal area.
BRYANT: Did she cut herself or something? There’s no blood on me whatsoever, man. Matter of fact, I still have the boxers. They’re all white, they’re all white, there’s nothing on them.
And this:
LOYA: Did you ever ask her if you wanted, if you could cum in her face?
BRYANT: Yes. That’s when she said no. That’s when she said no. That’s when she said no.
LOYA: So what did, what did you say?
WINTERS: What did you say, how did that, how did that come about?
BRYANT: Um, you know, that’s when I asked if I could cum in her face. She said no.
LOYA: So you like to cum in your partner’s face?
BRYANT: That’s my thing. Not always. I mean, so I stopped. Jesus Christ, man.
And this:
WINTERS: Um, did she give you oral sex or anything like that?
BRYANT: Yes, she did.
WINTERS: She did?
BRYANT: She did.
WINTERS: For how . . . when did that happen?
BRYANT: For like five seconds. I said, um, give me a blow job, um, and then kiss it. She gave me a blow job.
LOYA: So the blowjob lasted about five seconds?
BRYANT: Yeah, it was quick.
LOYA: Then what happened?
BRYANT: Wait, not . . . I mean like she was, kept on doing, I just told her to get up. She didn’t know what she was doing.
And this:
BRYANT: She must be trying to get money or something.
LOYA: Are you willing to pay that if she is?
BRYANT: I got to. I got to. I got to. I’m in the worst fucking situation.
And this:
LOYA: So when you penetrated her, was it a simple penetration? Was there difficulty there?
BRYANT: No, it was . . . it was easy. It just slid in there.

* In the minutes that followed, Bryant (who, it can be said again, would have been wise to keep quiet and call an attorney ASAP) told Winters that (a) Mathison “wasn’t that attractive”; (b) he masturbated after she left; (c) he had repeatedly cheated on his wife with a woman named Michelle; and (d) he liked grabbing Michelle by the neck from behind, and she had the neck bruises to prove it.
He consented to allowing the detectives to call in a colleague who’d collect evidence from his room in a series of plastic bags as part of a sexual assault examination kit. At approximately 2:30 a.m., Bryant was driven 52 miles in a sheriff’s patrol car to Glenwood Springs and Valley View Hospital. Once there, he provided DNA samples, then checked into the nearby Hotel Colorado. He flew back to Southern California that evening, hoping the worst of it all had passed.
It was naive thinking.
“I knew he was guilty,” Winters said years later. “And I still know it.”

* Kupchak’s familiar first six words (“You’re not going to believe this”) were simply untrue. Though Jackson had never literally thought of his star guard as a rapist, he knew him to be immature, emotionally stunted, and fueled by an unhealthy rage. For Christ’s sake, he was in Colorado undergoing a procedure without the organization’s consent. Phil Jackson did believe this. “Kobe can be consumed with surprising anger,” Jackson recalled, “which he’s displayed toward me and toward his teammates.”

* Wrote Winters in a sealed file: “Bryant made a comment to us about what another teammate does in situations like these. Bryant stated he should have done what Shaq (Shaquille O’Neal) does. Bryant stated that Shaq would pay his women not to say anything. He stated Shaq has paid up to a million dollars already for situations like this. He stated he, Bryant, treats a woman with respect, therefore they shouldn’t say anything.”

* There was an unspoken code among NBA teammates, and it read (inexactly): What happens with the club stays with the club. Whether or not O’Neal had paid women up to a million dollars was beside the point.

* Along with a play-by-play of the night, Winters and Crittenden presented as evidence a T-shirt found in Bryant’s hotel room that was stained with Mathison’s blood.

* Bryant listened as his defenders argued why they needed to tell the jury all about Mathison’s sexual history, as well as her past psychiatric records (highlighted by antipsychotic drug treatment) and two suicide attempts. Mackey argued that the alleged victim had brought the charges against Bryant as a way of “creating drama in her life to get attention.”

* Nearly 15 years later, both Mark Hurlbert, the Eagle County district attorney, and Doug Winters, the lead detective, remained convinced that Kobe Bryant had raped Jessica Mathison. They didn’t think it might have happened, or it perhaps happened. There was no misunderstanding. “There’s zero doubt in my mind,” Winters said. “He raped her.”
“I’m 100 percent certain,” said the DA. “He did it.”
That’s why Hurlbert was so furious when, on August 10, Mathison ignored his advice, hired an outside attorney, John Clune, and filed a civil suit against Bryant, seeking unspecified damages. It was a crippling move for the criminal case, in that it allowed people to wonder whether, in fact, Mathison was all about the money. “When her attorney called me I said, ‘You need to hold off on this!’ ” Hurlbert recalled. “ ‘It’s just giving them one more avenue of cross-examination that she’s only in it for material gain.’ ” Around this same time, Mathison penned a letter to Gerry Sandberg, a state investigator, admitting that some of the initial details she’d provided to Winters might have been a tad off.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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