Kareem's Insider Secrets of Episodes 5 and 6 of "Legacy: The True Story of the LA Lakers"
Lakers' Losing Streak, the Return of Magic, Kobe and Shaq at Each Other's Throats, and Phil Jackson Helps Win Championship
Episodes 5 and 6 cover eight of the most chaotic years in the Lakers’ history. After most of the Showtime Lakers retired or were traded, the team fell into a funk that saw ticket sales drop and a general abandonment by fans. By the end of Episode 6, the Lakers have finally returned to their former glory by winning the 2000 NBA Championship. But the road to that triumph was a long and tortured one. Following are some of my insights into the challenges depicted in the series.
Byron Scott backlash after commenting on the Rodney King uprising.
In 1992, a Los Angeles jury found four cops—three White—not guilty of the brutal beating of Rodney King, despite overwhelming evidence. A video showed the cops beating him for 15 minutes while other cops stood by and watched. After the acquittal, LA erupted into six days of rioting, resulting 63 deaths and over 2,000 injuries.
Byron Scott said in an interview that he understood how the protestors felt, which resulted in a huge backlash of hate against him. What White people wanted was for Byron to be a Good Negro and condemn protestors and rioters alike, as if they were the same people. That hasn’t changed today. During the Black Lives Matter protests a couple summers ago, looters took advantage of the chaos to do what they do. Politicians who didn’t want to address the underlying cause of the protests—systemic racism that resulted in the unnecessary deaths of unarmed Blacks—distracted people by claiming protestors were also looters. Those who want to deny widespread racism exists are easy to convince.
Back then, the popular consensus was that cops could do no wrong and that racism was an excuse Black people used when they weren’t successful. But every Black person living in Southern California then was well aware that the cops here had a long tradition of misconduct toward People of Color and that they got away with it. Every Black person on the Lakers—and across America—understood how the protestors felt: angry, frustrated, unsafe, hopeless. Saying so publicly took a lot of courage, something Byron has in abundance.
Fast forward to 2016 and Colin Kaepernick starts to take a knee during the national anthem to protest the same police brutality and police-sanctioned murder of Blacks. Colin could have remained silent, played ball, and collected his millions. But like Byron Scott, he wasn’t built that way. Sadly, 30 years after Byron’s “controversial” statement, we’re still watching videos of police abusing and killing unarmed Blacks. And the deniers still deny.
The influence of rap culture forever changed the NBA.
My idols were Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Arthur Ashe because they spoke out against racism when no one wanted to hear what an athlete had to say about social or political issues.
But it is undeniable that rap culture brought with it a defiance of the social norm that was attractive to young NBA players as well as the rest of the youth culture of the time. Rap artists like NWA articulated the anger and frustration with passion and style and that encouraged Black athletes to add their voices to the general song of discontent. Protest became not just a statement, but a lifestyle. It made serious inroads into pop culture, though mainstream culture still resisted. Still, it was clear that the change in how athletes would proceed was inevitable. True heroes would arise out of the trendiness and speak out, even when it threatened their career. Rap culture helped accelerate that process.
How did “The Lake Show” compare to “Showtime”?
When you have a team that was as successful as the Showtime Lakers, it’s very difficult to play afterward. Nick Van Exel and the others were young men in search of their own identity. They wanted to be judged on their own talents and not compared to an entire team that had created a legacy. The result was a lot of individuals playing their own games, wanting to be noticed. But the best way to get noticed is to win a championship and they didn’t have the teamwork or the talent to do that.
I’m spilling my guts here, folks. Least you could do is reach over my guts and subscribe.
Magic comes out of retirement to coach the Lakers.
That made me cringe at the time. Not that Magic couldn’t have done an amazing job—he certainly had the brains and personality to excel—it was just that he had so much going on in his life that I didn’t think he could devote the time necessary to be successful. He had many business interests to attend to as well as the constant requirements of dealing with HIV. Magic could do much more than most people, but coaching is an all-consuming job that takes a huge physical and mental toll.
In the end, he wasn’t successful. That wasn’t his fault. Even if he had been able to devote all his time to the team, he just didn’t have the right players. And he would have had to play point guard himself.
Jeanie Buss faced relentless sexual harassment and demeaning behavior.
I didn’t know anything about that at the time, but it’s infuriating to see her talk about it and understand what she went through. She had to not only do everything a male executive would have to do to be successful, she also had to fight against their attitudes and obstacles. She had to run the same race as men, but while juggling flaming torches. Like the racism of the time, not enough has changed. Racism and misogyny thrive in silence, counting on our fear, humiliation, and powerlessness. That’s why we have to speak out every time we encounter it.
Del Harris just couldn’t get the Lakers to a championship.
Del Harris was a very good coach with that rare quality of knowing how to talk to players in a personal but effective way. He just didn’t have the right combination of players. The challenge is always trying to find a way to get the most out of what you have.
Del Harris did have some good players. I have a lot of respect for Vlade Divac. He came in with everyone expecting him to fill my footsteps. Constantly comparing one player to another is a sure way to stunt their growth because they have to always look over their shoulder at the past rather than looking forward at who they want to become. Nevertheless, he did a wonderful job.
Nick Van Exel’s bad attitude.
Van Exel was frustrated that the Lakers weren’t a better team and when he expressed that—verbally or otherwise—he got labeled as having a “bad attitude.” Kobe did the same thing. So did Shaq. The difference is that when you are exceptionally talented that attitude is labeled as perfectionist. Van Exel wasn’t talented enough to build a team around.
Magic rejoining the Lakers to play was a glorious mistake.
The news that Magic was going to suit up again for the Lakers made everyone’s heart gladden. But those of us who loved Magic knew that it was an enormous undertaking. When you’re away from playing on a professional level for a few years and try to come back, it’s as if you’ve never played at all. Playing at 36 is hard enough, but playing point guard, with all the running back and forth, is like being Methuselah.
I felt for him. But I had no desire to return myself. I wanted to leave my legacy intact, not listen to people complain about Kareem stumbling around the court.
The Lakers sign 17-year-old Kobe Bryant.
I’d known Kobe since he was a baby because I was friends with his dad, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, a well-regarded NBA player. I visited the Bryants once in Italy when Kobe was about twelve. I told him to start taking the game seriously, to learn everything he could from his dad. Clearly, he did.
I’d seen a lot of promising players fold when they started to play in the pros. The physical and emotional pressure of game after game is relentless. And the expectations of the fans is like a tidal wave rising and rising as you anticipate it dropping on you. Kobe showed remarkable maturity and poise for a teenager coming onto a team of veterans. He never seemed intimidated but was eager to play and to excel.
Lakers sign Shaq for $120 million.
Man, that was a lot of money back then (and still is). I’ve been asked a lot whether or not I felt jealous of that huge amount only a few years after I retired. Not really. But I did wish my parents had waited a few more years to have me.
I couldn’t begrudge Shaq the money. He was in the right place at the right time—and he had the right talent. I wasn’t sure that Shaq would be enough to carry the Lakers to championships. I’d seen Hakeem Olajuwon dominate Shaq when he was with Orlando. But to Shaq’s credit, he came out of that confrontation with a new fire and purpose. Still, I knew he wouldn’t be enough to carry the team to a championship anymore than I could. He would need a few more key players. Kobe certainly had the potential to be one of those key players.
Byron Scott returns to the Lakers in 1996.
Byron was 35 when he returned, so I had the same feelings about that as I did about Magic’s return: trepidation. Byron was a magnificent player who’d crafted an enviable legacy. I didn’t want to see that tarnished. But he brought a level of maturity and experience to the team that they needed, especially with a young Kobe around.
Every elite athlete thinks they can come back and still play with the gusto and fire they had before. The still feel inside like they’re twenty years old. But that’s just the mind playing tricks on them. The body has taken too much punishment that the brain refuses to acknowledge.
Teammates were frustrated with “Showboat” Kobe.
Kobe was brought up in Italy where he was used to being the most talented player in his group. Kobe was so dominating there that he could take matters into his own hands and win the game for his team. That was his mindset. But things don’t work that way in the NBA, which is filled with the best players in the world. He had to learn to trust his teammates more.
Great players evolve over time, especially when they start at seventeen.
The riff between Shaq and Kobe affected the entire team.
There’s a great scene in the episode showing Magic saying that it was Kareem’s team and he was just there to help me out. When asked about Shaq as the team leader, Kobe’s response was, “Fuck that motherfucker!” That pretty much sums up why the team struggled so much to win.
Part of Kobe’s anger stemmed from his belief that Shaq did not take the game as seriously as he did. Kobe was dedicated to staying in shape and improving his game in every way he could. For Kobe, Shaq waited until the last minute to get into shape for the season. Shaq postponed foot surgery so it kept him out of much of the season instead of getting the surgery done well before the season. If I had to play with someone of his less intense work ethic, I’d be torn too. But when he was ready, Shaq brought a lot to the table.
In the end, their losing was less about their petty drama than about the lack of a strong supporting cast. They needed more players they could rely on.
After Del Harris was fired, Kurt Rambis was over his head as coach.
Kurt was a great player and teammate. And he had the talent and brains to be a head coach. But he lacked that one personality trait that the best coaches have: the ability to talk to the players. Sure, Kurt could talk to them, but not in the intimate and inspiring way that a Pat Riley or Phil Jackson could. The way that makes players completely trust you and willing to do whatever you say, no matter how weird. It’s not a trait that can be learned—you either are wired that way or you aren’t. I’m not. Neither is Kurt.
Phil Jackson changed the Lakers’ world.
What made Phil Jackson special was not just his calm demeanor in the face of adversity, nor his vast knowledge of the game. He was an elite coach because he knew how to manage exceptionally talented players who are at the same time arrogant about their ability and insecure about how they are perceived. He knew how to get them in shape and be ready to step up when they had to. Good players want to be lead because they know smart leadership will allow them to become an even better players. Phil was able to earn that level of trust because he brought his players to the next level.
The famous Zen mindfulness that Phil brought to the Lakers was a clever form of team-building. It assumes a level of intellect and character depth in the player, which flatters them. Kobe was an especially good candidate because he had an intellectual curiosity that not all the players had. But I’m sure no one wanted to be thought of as being less intellectual than the next guy so it brought them together.
I’d been doing yoga and meditation for many years, dating back to my time studying martial arts with Bruce Lee. It made a big difference in focusing my mind as well as keeping my body healthy and free of injuries (mostly). I’m sure those who took it seriously benefited from the practice.
I don’t know if that was the reason Kobe and Shaq were finally able to do the Vulcan mind-meld in the fourth quarter in game seven of the 2000 finals and pull out a miraculous come-from-behind victory, but it probably helped. The key to any good relationship is that each person must surrender some of their ego and identity to form something greater than each individual. In that game, Shaq proved to everyone that he had the maturity, work ethic, and dedication to his profession to be a champion. And Kobe proved he could put team ahead of himself.
Although I watched most of these events from the sidelines, just like the rest of the world, I had a special interest in the Lakers because Jerry Buss’s legacy wasn’t just making the Lakers a great team, it was making them a true family. And like any family, we followed each other’s lives, gossiped about whoever wasn’t in the room, and laughed and cried over the triumphs and tragedies of our friends. We cared about championships, but we cared more about the people.