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1997 NBA Playoffs - Round Two Game Two: Utah Jazz v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

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Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and those infamous playoff air balls in Utah

Shaquille O’Neal tried to offer Kobe Bryant some support after his rookie season air balls in the playoffs against the Utah Jazz. The way Bryant responded was an omen about the future of their partnership.

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Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is from “Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty,” a new book by Jeff Pearlman, which is on sale now.

How was he there? That’s the question, isn’t it? How was Kobe Bryant there, on a basketball court in Salt Lake City, ball in hand, season on the line?

How was he there?

Early on, the playoffs had unfolded so beautifully, even the most cynical Laker diehard was considering the possibility of a deep run. In the first round, Los Angeles squared off against a fifth-seeded Portland team that had taken three of four regular season games from them, and whose players had openly pined for a showdown with O’Neal and Co. Therefore, when the Lakers won in an uneventful three-games-to-one breeze, the normally reserved Harris turned toward the spectators inside Portland’s Rose Garden Arena and yelled, “Goodbye, folks! Nice to see you!”

The Lakers moved on to face the top-seeded Utah Jazz, whose 64-18 record trailed 69-13 Chicago for the NBA’s best mark. One season earlier, the Jazz had advanced to the Western Conference Finals, only to fall to Seattle in a crushing seventh game. Now that same team, powered by forward Karl Malone and point guard John Stockton, as well as the league’s deepest bench, was expected to steamroll the Lakers (even with a healthy O’Neal and Horry) and challenge for the franchise’s first-ever NBA crown.

The best-of-seven series opened as expected, with Utah taking the first game at home in a 93–77 blowout, then winning again two days later, though by a much smaller margin (103–101 after a painful no call on a foul by Malone on Van Exel). “We all knew that we were the better team,” said Adam Keefe, a backup Jazz forward. “As long as we went in and executed, it was reasonable to expect a win.” Jerry Sloan, the Jazz coach, had a somewhat simple yet impactful defensive approach to beating the Lakers: Give everyone some room to shoot, save for O’Neal, whose life needed to be made miserable. Jazz center Greg Ostertag was a stronger-than-steel 7-foot-2, 280-pound lumbering oaf who spared no elbow, knee, or fist to Shaq’s body. When he wasn’t on the court, backup Greg Foster went just as hard. “You had to run the floor and tire Shaq out,” said Foster. “Our whole thing was to sprint the floor, and on defense jump in front and contest the passes to him. Just make him work harder than he wants to, until you start seeing the heavy breathing.”

On offense, Sloan’s plan was even simpler. In Stockton and Malone, Utah possessed the best pick-and-roll tandem in NBA history. In O’Neal, Los Angeles possessed one of the most inept pick-and-roll defenders in NBA history. So the Jazz would pick and roll and pick and roll and pick and roll until there were no more picks and no more rolls. “To play the pick-and-roll, you either had to trap it or switch on it,” Jones said. “Shaq was so big, and he was coming off an injury. He just couldn’t react, and the Jazz exploited it nonstop. We could have come up with a better game plan. We certainly should have.”

The Lakers returned to the Forum for Game 3 and, before 17,505 fans, blew the Jazz out, 104–84, in a wildly entertaining ode to athleticism and up-and-down hoops. Wrote Kevin Modesti of the Los Angeles DailyNews: “If you want to be entertained, watch Shaquille O’Neal, Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones and Kobe Bryant. They’re the Lakers with the anaconda drives, the volcanic dunks and the 3-point spaceballs.”

1997 Western Conference Semifinals, Game 4: Utah Jazz vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Things weren’t always so bad between Kobe and Shaq.
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Harris was actually allotting Bryant solid minutes, believing his freakish athleticism might befuddle the station-to-station Utah rotation, and his 19 points on 3-of-7 shooting (he hit 13 of 14 free throws) led the team. “They had all the energy,” Stockton said. “They had everything. We couldn’t deal with it.”

Throughout the season, Kupchak and West had been nudging Harris to give Bryant slivers of playing time. They were thrilled with the overall manner in which the head coach had handled the kid, but they also knew an 18-year-old on the bench would grow restless and, perhaps, depressed. “There was definitely some pressure to get him experience,” Harris later said. “Which I understood. I don’t think it was easy being Kobe as a rookie, sort of isolated, much younger than the other people on the team.”

Against the methodical Jazz, Bryant served as an Energizer Bunny on speed. He was quicker, faster, more dynamic. Los Angeles dropped Game 4 at home, a dispiriting 110–95 setback that reminded NBA fans why these Lakers weren’t yet of championship stock. First, with a little less than two minutes gone by in the opening quarter, Harris yanked Van Exel, then watched as his point guard kicked a chair and engaged his head coach in an arm-waving sideline argument. Harris later explained to the media that he’d inserted Bryant for Van Exel so he could deliver a message to Campbell — a preposterous excuse that caused Van Exel to ask, “You believe that?” to assembled reporters. “I was on the court, I heard a horn, and I came out. He’s the coach. He makes all the good decisions.”

Two days later, the Lakers and Jazz returned to Salt Lake City and the floor of the Delta Center for Game 5. In order to advance to the Western Conference Finals, 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 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. Van Exel, starting at point guard despite the drama, was ferocious, charging straight at Stockton en route to 26 points and 4 assists. O’Neal, frustrated by Ostertag’s physicality, added 23 points and 13 rebounds. With Byron Scott out with a sprained wrist, Harris summoned Bryant as his first man off the bench, hoping the rookie could handle the largeness of the moment.

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 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 24.8 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 time-out, 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 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 and a collapsing Hornacek 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.

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 five feet — let loose a shot that rose . . . rose . . . rose . . .

And touched nothing but air.

Again.

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

1997 NBA Playoffs - Round Two Game Three: Utah Jazz v Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers were ahead of schedule, but that didn’t make the way they lost to the Jazz any less disappointing.
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

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 fuck 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 shit — 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 fuck?”

“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. In-stead, 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 BS on Jones’s 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.

You can follow Jeff Pearlman on Twitter at @jeffpearlman, and buy “Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty” on Amazon or at your local book shop now.

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