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Talking With: Roland Lazenby, author of the "The Show" (Part 1)

January 11, 2006 |  2:31 pm

For quite some time, more than a few readers have requested an interview with basketball journalist and frequent Lakers Blog poster Roland Lazenby. Well, request ye no more, folks. We IM'ed yesterday for around 90 minutes with Lazenby (whose books include Mad Game: The NBA Education of Kobe Bryant, Mindgames: Phil Jackson's Long Strange Journey, and Blood on the Horns: The Long Strange trip of Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls). His new book, The Show: The Inside Story of the Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers in the Words of Those Who Lived It, is a comprehensive history of the franchise from the days in Minneapolis to the second Phil Jackson era. It's a great read, guaranteed to satisfy even the most hardcore fan's purple and gold Jones. Here's the first part of our discussion.

Andrew Kamenetzky: How long did you spend researching and writing this book? What was the biggest challenge involved with writing a book spanning this much time and history?

Roland Lazenby: Well, I've spent about 18 years covering the NBA, so a lot of interviews I've done over the years. Always when I was doing projects, there were lots of extra things discussed in the interviews that never made it into the projects. So when I finally got a chance to do an oral history about the Lakers, I did new interviews, but I also went back and re-transcribed dozens of taped interviews, some of them from the late 80s and early 90s.

It was fun to realize the stuff I overlooked the first time. Like the time that Jerry West told me he thought Joe Dumars was better than Isaiah. I could have had a major story out of that one, but I let it slip by, only to discover it and other things when I gave the tape another listen.

AK: That is something of a conversation stopping statement, “Isaiah over Dumars.” I imagine it must be interesting to revisit what seemed innocuous at the time, but looking back on it becomes, "Wow!"

RL: Especially when it comes to West. He always drops bombshells in the midst of what he's saying in interviews. The had long protected West. He never seemed to worry about what he was saying. During the 1999 series against San Antonio, I was interviewing him after practice in the Forum. I mentioned Phil Jackson, and he said, "F#@#, Phil Jackson!" I said, "Wait, you don't understand." He said, No, F@#@ Phil Jackson." A month later he hired Phil. When I reported what West had said in the Forum in my book on Kobe, some Laker officials got mad that I hadn't protected him.

As a journalist, it's not my job to protect Jerry West. He's perfectly capable of protecting himself. It's my job to get the best information I can for Laker fans, because they're the ones spending their time and money following the team.

AK: I agree. These guys have been around long enough. They know the drill when it comes to the media. So many of the interviews you needed were already on hand. But it still must have been a pretty big undertaking editing everything into a cohesive narrative.

RL: It was a big undertaking, followed by a huge battle with my publisher. I ended up cutting out about 200 pages, some of which needed cutting. But there was a lot of stuff, tons of interviews that needed to stay. At the time you're arguing, you're so close to the book you think you know it all. After you look at it, you say, “They were pretty smart to cut that down… But why didn't they leave that good stuff there?” There are so many elements to the Lakers story, so many layers of the truth. Especially with a guy like Phil Jackson. Or Jerry West.

Brian Kamenetzky: The Lakers have had so many personalities like that.  Mega-star types, both on the court and behind the bench. Is that at least one reason why you can take their franchise, from start to finish, and get into the kind of depth you did... and still make it interesting?

RL: Yes, because it's Hollywood, because the personalities are so big. Even the little things they do can be major productions. It is the Show, the major production, with all the attendant complications. That's why we care. The drama on the court is big. Sometimes the drama off the court is bigger. As I say at the end of the book, it's a tragedy of postmodern basketball that Shaq and Kobe couldn't see how important they were to each other. I don't think that's an overstatement.

BK: No disagreement here.  How did the rift between the two of them compare to the others you outline in the book?  Pollard/Mikan, Kareem/Magic, etc.?  How much different would those relationships have been in today's 24/7 sensationalized media culture?

RL: No question those earlier conflicts would have been much bigger. (Lakers Public Relations executive director) John Black got really mad at me in 1999 when I explained in Mad Game the level of conflict between Shaq and Kobe. He said I damaged the club. But here was this very talented Lakers team that would show flashes of brilliance, and then play just terribly. No one would say why they were playing so badly. It was because of their chemistry. I thought Laker fans had the right to know. I still do.

The Lakers have their ways of keeping a pretty good grip on local media. Once I wrote about it, it became easier for others to write about it. And obviously it got to the point that the media made much of it. But that's because Shaq and Kobe aired their opinions repeatedly in the media. Too bad Phil Jackson didn't keep George Mumford, the psychologist, around. I thought they could have ridden through it, except for this thing of Shaq wanting his megabucks.

BK: Did that sort of thing- players and coaches using the media to the extent that they do now- sometimes to fight with each other, sometimes to put seeds in the minds of opponents, etc.- happen back then?  I'd imagine people still used reporters to deliver messages.  It just feels different, even for the two of us, who can only go back to the 80s, really.

RL: There were so many fewer outlets then. More papers but still fewer outlets. Jerry West complained that Jack Kent Cook had columnist Melvin Durslag to write negative things about certain players whenever he wanted. Those tactics were obviously available then. The options weren't as delicious or tempting, as they are with a Karl Rove type player like Phil Jackson, who has delighted in media games over the course of his career.

I should add that the conflicts between Kareem and Magic were kept well under wraps, mainly because Kareem and Magic were too professional to get into it publicly. They found a way to co-exist. I think Shaq was guilty of a certain lack of professionalism. From the early days, he kept slipping little jabs in at Kobe.

BK: So it's as much on the players as it is on reporters to respect some sort of boundaries (if any exist anymore)?

RL: I think it's more on the players (and coaches). Everyone wants to blame the media, but the media are an empty vessel. The big winners in post-modern culture, a Karl Rove, knows how to fill that vessel, to play the media. Jordan was very good at it. So was Phil. Shaq could play games, but a lot of his was petty sniping that was purely unprofessional. Childish, really. Imagine the Lakers today if Shaq had chosen a different tactic to deal with Kobe.

As Tex Winter points out, Kobe took those tactics from Phil and Shaq for a long time before he finally began lashing out during the 2003-04 season. Then Phil very smartly used his lashing out against him, never mind the fact that Kobe had spent several years trying to be the professional one, letting his play do the talking.

BK: You don't think Kobe's personality had anything to do with it?  There are plenty of people who believe that his attitude, generally perceived as aloof, had a lot to do with the troubles he had, not just with Shaq, but with the rest of the locker room.

AK: Not to mention play on the court some have perceived as selfish...

RL: Of course Kobe wasn't guilt-free. He was, however, a 17-year-old kid. Shaq led the rest of the locker room. He was the big guy in the school house. Kobe came in full of ambition, willing to work hard. Very much an alpha male even at that age. His work ethic didn't match the older players around him. As Derek Fisher explained to me, we should have had Kobe's work ethic, we should have worked that hard. Kobe set a tone that wasn't in synch with the team.

On the court Del Harris had no real offensive structure or plan, other than to get the ball into Shaq and mostly have everyone spaced around him. His practices were hardly greatly organized affairs. Don't get me wrong. Del Harris is a fine coach. The business as usual in pro basketball wasn't ready to deal with players as young as Kobe, much in need of guidance. So the circumstances play a role in that. My point, though, is that Kobe wasn't going public with some petty beef.
RL: The reality is that the Lakers were one good rebounder away from winning it all in ‘04 and keeping it all together. If they had better relationships, they would have survived perhaps. But Shaq was really pushing for a huge pay raise that simply strapped the Lakers, which is a small organization. Phil wanted more power, more say so. Kobe had always been their foil, the representative of how Jerry Buss envisioned basketball. Shaq pushed his agenda, Phil pushed his, and Kobe simply wanted out. He was fed up. He was fed up with all the pettiness and criticism and games. People say that Kobe has always studied and created his image. I think in most ways, he's been pretty naive about his image. All this Shaq and Phil stuff is minor compared with Eagle and all that. That's what put Kobe on a lot of people's hate list. I spent the past two days rereading The Last Season, and Phil really smeared Kobein that book at a time when he was facing a lot of challenges. Very sanctimonious stuff, really.

It's interesting you bring up Shaq and money, because I've always thought Shaq actually could have accepted it eventually becoming "Kobe's team," with the offense revolving around Kobe. But he never could have dealt with Kobe making more money than him, which I believe would have been the case if he didn't get the extension he wanted and Kobe got a max deal. In Miami, at least with my understanding of the new CBA, Shaq can take a "pay cut," but still out-earn a Wade max deal, post-CBA. It may become "Wade's team," but Shaq is still the big man when it comes to dollars. I don't think the potential money discrepancy between Shaq and Kobe was the prime reason he wouldn't renegotiate, but a tipping point. Any validity to that theory?

RL: Yes, the hard part in all of this is that Shaq, despite his immaturity, is a great guy, a good person, a funny and likeable guy. Without Jerry West, he felt he had no protector in the organization. He wasn't close to Jerry Buss. So he became fearful and aggressive over his future. Again, the blame goes back to Phil Jackson, because he chased West off. They both might try to deny this now, but it is true. I've reported it with attribution. Phil knew what would drive West out and he took those steps.

Phil and West didn't trust each other. I got in more trouble for reporting that Phil asked West out of the locker room during that 2000 playoff series with Portland. But it happened. I reported it with attribution. It was the truth. Phil knew when he did it that it would drive West crazy and out of the organization. I took a lot of heat for reporting that. I still do take that heat. But it's true and it was a huge factor in the breakup. Before Shaq and Kobe coexisted, Phil and Jerry had to coexist.
When one didn't happen, the other relationship seemed guaranteed to fail. A tragedy for Lakers fans, a tragedy for Phil (although I don't think he thought so) because he coached them to one short of the all-time record for titles. And a tragedy for West, because he put them together, and now he's exiled in Memphis, a stranger in a stranger land.

AK: Does that reflect Phil being more a "Shaq guy," and West more of a "Kobe guy?"

RL: West was for both of those guys, and they knew it. Why shouldn't he have been? They were all on the same team. Phil was definitely not a Kobe guy for his first tenure in LA. The things he did to undermine Kobe we only know a fraction of that story. In Phil's defense, Kobe wasn't the easiest situation for any coach. But Phil was wrong about Kobe, or so he seems to admit now. He still won't do everything for him in the triangle that he did for MJ.

, though, isn't a complainer. As Tex told me yesterday afternoon before he headed up to Portland to meet with the team, Kobe wants one thing as his top priority: To Win. He shoots as much as he does, Tex says, because he believes right now that that's the best way for the team to win. And it is.

BK: So much energy in LA now is spent trying to assign blame for the breakup of the team. What will it take to move past it? Can lessons be learned from how previous championship runs ended?

RL: Doing fewer interviews like this. Ha. Just kidding. I think the loss is great, so the healing takes a while. Plus it's one of those debates for the ages. I think Kobe is settling a bit of it as we speak. But it will never be put to rest unless he leads the Lakers to a championship or two. Shaq carries a similar burden in Miami, but it's nowhere near the load that Kobe faces in L.A. In the minds of many, they may come to share that spoiled, temperamental space together. These things tend to run on for years.

I've written a lot of sports history, which means calling up a lot of old guys years after their careers are over. It's amazing how many of them sit around and stew once they’re out of the spotlight, over things that happened long ago that nobody cares about or even remembers any more. But a lot of guys never let those conflicts go. If they don't let them go, and Shaq clearly isn't ready to put it behind him, then the fans won't either.