For more than 25 years I have made my living placing words on paper, which means I should be able to express how I feel at this precise moment.
But I’m not sure I can.
At least not well.
Today marks the release of my ninth book. It’s a look back at the 1996-2004 Los Angeles Lakers titled, “Three-Ring Circus.” And though I have enjoyed (and, at times, hated) some of the highs and lows that come with a new offering, what I am experiencing is … well … the best way I can explain it is to go back in time a decade ago, on the night I was driving up the New Jersey Turnpike in a thunderous rain storm. In an effort to slow down, I tapped on the breaks of my Mazda and spun across two lanes. When I saw I was about to smash into the cement median, I braced my body for impact before absorbing a jarringly injurious blow.
Right now, as I write this, I’m again bracing my body for impact …
On Sept. 2, 2019, I submitted all 139,931 words of the “Three-Ring Circus” manuscript to my editor at Houghton Mifflin. Over the weeks that followed, the book was edited, fact checked, fact checked again, edited some more and — officially — approved. It was reviewed for clarity, and for legal issues. An index was created. A bibliography inserted.
Then, three months later, Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others died in a helicopter crash.
I received the news via text from a writer friend, Amy Bass, who, at 11:37 a.m. PCT, wrote: News reports that Kobe Bryant is dead.
I was plopped down inside a suburban Corner Bakery as I processed the information, and said aloud (to nobody) something along the lines of, “No way. No. No way. No, no.”
And here I sit.
No experience from my career has prepared me for this moment; for not merely releasing a book about a person who recently died, but releasing a book about a person who recently died and having said book offer myriad unflattering depictions. If I’m being blunt (and I am — if nothing else — being blunt), “Three-Ring Circus” is oftentimes the saga of a young, brash, egomaniacal basketball player who seeks no advice and believes he is the second coming of Michael Jordan. It’s a Kobe Bryant who treats rookies and free agents like yesterday’s trash; who sees all comers as enemies created to be destroyed; who wants to be feared far more than loved or even admired.
It’s also the Kobe Bryant who — again, being blunt — likely raped a hotel clerk in Eagle, Colorado.
It’s so fucking weird. The entirety of it. I think back to the 300 or so people I interviewed for the book, all of whom knew they were discussing a man very much alive and well. So when Samaki Walker, Lakers forward from 2001-03, described the details of a heated, physical bus brawl he and Bryant were once engaged in — well, it was uttered comfortably because Kobe was a living entity, able to look back and chuckle. And when a 2001 training camp invitee named Paul Shirley (understandably, based upon the experience) recalled Bryant as a “fucking psychopath,” … that psychopath was alive, and therefore the comment packed far less heat.
Truth be told, probably, oh, just 30 percent of the Kobe stories I heard in the process of reporting, the book would have been expressed to me after Jan. 26, 2020. Death changes everything when it comes to reporting; altering tone, and texture, and feel, and sensitivity. You can’t help but think about the wife and children left behind, and how they would respond to such anecdotes.
So … you’re me — the author of a book that took more than two years to complete.
What do you do?
My editor and I talked about pushing the release date back to early 2021, but does an extra three or four months make a difference? Not really. I had friends ask if maybe, just maybe, it makes sense to scrub all mentions of Eagle, Colorado from the manuscript. Act as if it didn’t happen. That, for me, was a hard no. You cannot write about the 2003-04 Lakers without writing about the alleged crime. Plus, what exactly is this profession if we don’t strive for the truest of tellings? Six years ago Mark Whitaker released what was billed as “the first major biography” of Bill Cosby — only the first major biography of Bill Cosby included nary a word about the multiple accusations of rape and sexually assault levied against him over the years.
Whitaker’s reputation was forever damaged.
Ultimately, I sat down and penned a three-page, front-of-the-book Author’s Note to explain that the immature Kobe Bryant of 1996-2004 was not the worldly, impressive Kobe Bryant who died earlier this year. It was, I must admit, part defense mechanism. Hell, the last thing I want/need is for a nation of Lakers fans to think I quick-wrote 426 pages to capitalize on tragedy.
But, mostly, it broke down how I genuinely feel.
It’s OK to learn about a hero’s shortcomings and struggles and flaws and deficits and still consider him to be a hero.
Kobe Bryant was painfully human.
As we all are.
Jeff Pearlman is an acclaimed sportswriter and New York Times best-selling author of nine books, including “The Bad Guys Won” on the 1986 Mets, “Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre,” “Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero and his latest “Three-Ring Circus: Shaq, Kobe, Phil and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty,” which can be ordered here.