Editor’s note: This is the second 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.
Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty
On the morning of July 16, 1996, readers of the Orlando Sentinel were greeted by a front-page poll question: Is Shaquille O’Neal worth $115 million over 7 seasons?
The ineloquently phrased inquiry was the brainchild of Lynn Hoppes, an editor at the paper who wanted to engage readers in what was an increasingly heated debate throughout central Florida: Should the Magic spend big money to keep its star, Shaquille O’Neal?
In the pre-Internet world of polling, consumers were asked to call 420-5022 to vote yes, 420-5044 to vote no. When polling closed, 91.3 percent of 5,111 participants voted no – Shaquille O’Neal was not deserving of $115 million for seven years. The whole enterprise was simultaneously preposterous, misleading and grade D journalism. There was no context. Was Shaquille O’Neal worth $115 million over seven years? Of course not – because no one on the planet is worth $115 million over seven years. Not Pamela Anderson, not Bill Clinton, not Stanley Herz, America’s finest executive search recruiter. The money was silly, and even O’Neal and Leonard Armato, his agent, would admit as much. But in the context of the National Basketball Association, where Alonzo Mourning and Juwan Howard were making $105 million, was Shaquille O’Neal worth $115 million? Yes, he was.
Later that day, Rex Hoggard, a 27-year-old Sentinel staff writer who had been with the newspaper for only a couple of months, was told by Hoppes to write a piece about the poll results. “It wasn’t until after lunch that I first actually glanced at the question and thought, Oh, this won’t go well,” Hoggard recalled. “It was just so negative.” In particular, Hoggard recalled a good number of the respondents leaving racist voice messages. It was gross stuff – How dare the entitled Negro not be grateful for all we’ve given him?
On July 17, Hoggard’s piece, headlined SHAQ ATTACK: CALLERS JUST SAY NO, ran in the paper. The writer knew there would be some backlash. But not this level of backlash. Readers who wanted O’Neal to stay with the Magic were livid. Executives with the Magic were also livid. Worst of all – O’Neal was incensed. “It stung a lot,” he said years later. “A lot. I wouldn’t say it hurt me, but I don’t like being underappreciated.”
That summer, O’Neal was a member of the United States men’s Olympic basketball team. The Games, being held in Atlanta, were set to begin on July 19, and in the lead-up, the squad was training in Orlando.
When Hoggard’s piece on the poll came out, O’Neal’s Olympic teammates – NBA veterans who knew the importance of getting paid – teed off. In particular, Charles Barkley, the Phoenix Suns forward and resident trash talker, refused to hold back. “Are you (expletive) kidding me?” he told O’Neal. “You bring glory to this redneck, one-horse town, and this is what they think of you? Get out as soon as you can. (Expletive) these people.”
It was harsh. But it was also correct. “I picked up the phone at one point and called [the team],” said Dennis Scott. “I screamed, ‘What the hell are you doing? What the hell are you people doing?’ It was crazy. But as poorly as the Magic handled it, that poll was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Shaq can deal with a lot. He can. But when the whole city is saying he’s not worth it … nope. He was gone. And I didn’t blame him.”
The Magic still believed they could appease O’Neal. So, for that matter, did Jerry West, the Lakers general manager who was wooing the center to Hollywood. Right around the time the Sentinel poll was being conducted, he reached out to Stu Jackson, general manager of Vancouver, to make an offer he believed could not be refused. In exchange for two future second-round draft picks, the Lakers would surrender forward George Lynch and shooting guard Anthony Peeler.
Both men were talented, committed, and in their mid-20s. Both men would serve as automatic upgrades to a franchise that finished a league-worst 15-67 the prior year. And, from West’s vantage point, the departure of both men would clear up another $3.63 million in salary cap space to add to the O’Neal offer. “Those guys were good players,” West said. “They weren’t super players, but they were good players. They were NBA players. But we needed to get Shaquille, and that was the only way. Finding creative methods to have more available money.”
The Grizzlies were hesitant to pull the trigger. Then Lakers coach Del Harris called Larry Riley, his former assistant coach in Milwaukee who was now Vancouver’s director of player personnel. The men went back – Riley had coached two of Harris’ children; Harris had delivered a eulogy at the funeral for Riley’s son. “I was at a payphone in Long Beach,” Harris recalled. “I said, ‘Larry, this is a no-brainer. You’re trying to develop a team and we’re about to hand you the sixth and eighth men off a team that won 53 games. Don’t be stubborn.”
The trade was consummated on the morning of July 16. One of the first to learn it might have gone down was John Gabriel, the Magic player personnel director, who called Jackson’s office in Vancouver, desperately hoping the rumors were incorrect. The executive assistant to the general manager answered.
Gabriel: “This is John Gabriel, down in Orlando. Is Stu there?”
Assistant: “I’m sorry. He’s not available right now.”
Gabriel: “Please don’t tell me he’s at a press conference. Please don’t . . .”
Assistant: “I’m sorry, John.”
The blowback was fierce. Jackson, desperately trying to create a winning organization from liquid sludge, was hammered for taking two salaries off the Los Angeles payroll and allowing the Lakers to now offer O’Neal (gulp) $120 million. “But what was I supposed to do?” he said years later. “I had so little talent. We weren’t going to be challenging for a championship. We just needed to improve.”
Yet of all the anger the trade created, nothing matched the reactions of people inside the offices of the Orlando Magic, who understood the intent behind Lynch-and-Peeler-to-Vancouver. Shortly after the deal was completed, the Magic sent Alex Martins, the media relations director and a man who maintained a solid relationship with O’Neal, to the Disney Institute, where the Olympic squad was wrapping up before departing for Atlanta.
Richard DeVos, the Magic owner, had written a letter to O’Neal and placed it inside an envelope with the organization’s final offer – $115 million over seven years. Martins was instructed to hand the note to Shaq. So he did. “I begged him to read it,” Martins recalled. “He took it and walked out to get on the plane to Georgia. I honestly don’t know if he looked at it.”
Gabriel wasn’t willing to go down without a last fight. He reached DeVos and said, “We need to get a G4 in the air as soon as possible!” Armato was already in Atlanta with his girlfriend, the Olympic beach volleyball star Holly McPeak. DeVos hedged a bit at the request. Earlier that day he’d told an Orlando Sentinel reporter, “If they are trying to squeeze another million or two out of this, then the Lakers can pay it.” He was sick and tired of the whole back-and-forth. But, with DeVos’ grudging blessing, Gabriel and Bob Vander Weide, the team president, made the 1-hour, 25-minute flight to the Peach State and found Armato in the sand by a lake, decked out in T-shirt and sweatpants and collecting the errant balls his love hammered over a net. Gabriel was wearing a suit and tie. He walked across the beachy surface and told Armato the Magic would pay Shaquille O’Neal $115 million. The agent listened but didn’t really listen. It was too late.
“Thanks for nothing,” Gabriel said as he walked off.
“Why do you say that?” Armato replied.
“Because,” Gabriel said, “I know it’s over.”
On July 17, 1996, at precisely 2:15 a.m., O’Neal agreed to play with Los Angeles for $120 million over seven years, the biggest contract in the history of professional basketball. The news was a bombshell across the sports landscape. There were big signings and bigger signings. This was right there with Reggie Jackson joining the New York Yankees, Nolan Ryan becoming a Houston Astro.
Because the agreement coincided with the first full day of the Olympics, O’Neal chose to say nothing. His Summer Games teammates, on the other hand, couldn’t stop talking. Magic guard Penny Hardaway learned the news and buried his head in his chest. “It’s kind of devastating,” he admitted, then came a pained pause – probably to consider the Magic with Jon Koncak at center. “You have to wish him the best.”
The following afternoon, West and O’Neal convened a press conference in Atlanta at the Reebok corporate tent near Centennial Olympic Park. The newest Laker would switch numbers from 32 (which belonged to Magic Johnson) to 34. Ticket prices at the Forum would bump up a bit. He was excited to play with Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones. He liked purple and gold. He smiled a lot. He waved. He … lied.
“It was a very, very tough decision,” O’Neal said with a straight face. “I said all along that Orlando was my first option, and this was one of the hardest decisions of my life. It was very hard, but I think I made the right decision.” He added that the move had nothing to do with the newspaper poll (wrong). Or money (wrong). Or celebrity (wrong). Or the dullness of Orlando (wrong). That he thought the Lakers’ high-flying, fast-moving system was more befitting of his talents than the Magic’s, um, high-flying, fast-moving system that perfectly befitted his talents.
“It was all nonsense in my opinion,” said George Diaz, the Orlando Sentinel columnist. “He left because California offered something Orlando couldn’t.
“He left for the glory.”
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.