This week, executive producer Jeanie Buss and director Antoine Fuqua's epic 10-part Lakers documentary "Legacy: The True Story of the L.A. Lakers," delves into the team's second dynasty under then-team owner Dr. Jerry Buss, featuring Hall of Famers Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Their tenure together kicked off with a lot of promise, but was not without its hiccups, as this episode explores. Episode six begins at the start of team training camp heading into the 1996-97 NBA season.
During All-Star center Shaquille O'Neal's first season as a Laker, and an adolescent Kobe Bryant's first NBA season at all, the dynamic duo was coached by Del Harris, who was just accepted into this year's Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend for his achievements in the game. Check out his speech here.
O'Neal and Bryant lined up with the incumbent "Lake Show" starting backcourt of point guard Nick Van Exel and shooting guard Eddie Jones. Reserve shooting guard Bryant, selected with the No. 13 pick that summer, wasn't the only important rookie L.A.'s front office, led by Jerry West, added in the 1996 draft.
L.A. also drafted 6'1" point guard Derek Fisher from the University of Arkansas – Little Rock with the 24th pick. Fisher would go on to enjoy an 18-year playing career, which included serving as Kobe Bryant's only constant co-star across all five of the Black Mamba's NBA championships. Fisher carved out a steady presence on the team, appearing in 80 regular season games, albeit in just 11.5 minutes a night. The 18-year-old Bryant was another key bench piece that year, though he didn't play much more frequently than Fisher, averaging 15.5 minutes a night in 71 contests.
Beyond Van Exel, Jones and Shaq, forwards Jerome Kersey and Elden Campbell occupied the team's other starting slots for the majority of the season. Byron Scott had returned to the club to wrap up his career as a Laker reserve. Power forward Robert Horry, who would go on to win three of his seven titles in L.A., was also a Laker by this point.
In a fun addition to the docuseries, Johnny Buss and Michael Cooper discuss the first season of the WNBA in 1997, and their role in that. Buss oversaw the L.A. Sparks team for his father, and Cooper, an eight-time All-Defensive Team honoree in his days as a Showtime Lakers swingman, served as the Sparks' head coach from 2000-2004. During his tenure, the Sparks would win two consecutive titles from 2001-2002, led by center Lisa Leslie on the floor. "If it wasn't for the physicality, Lisa could've played in the NBA," Cooper asserts.
The 6'5" Leslie, an eventual first-ballot Hall of Famer, was an eight-time WNBA All-Star, a 12-time All-WNBA selection, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, a four-time All-Defensive Teamer, and a three-time league MVP.
Jim Buss discusses his tutelage in the Lakers' front office under Jerry West starting in 1998. West and GM Mitch Kupchak both speak highly of Buss as an executive in modern interviews.
Meanwhile, Jeanie Buss details what sounds like an absolutely exhausting gig as president of the Lakers' home arena at the time, the Great Western Forum.
A bevy of all-time Lakers celebrity fans sits for interviews this time around, from Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube and Flea (who feel like they've been in every episode thus far) to Andy Garcia and Dyan Cannon, a courtside (ahem) staple
Finally, we get to the good stuff: Kobe's infamous three-point shooting gaffes during a do-or-die game five in the 1997 Western Conference Semifinals. Bryant apparently waved off a wide-open Eddie Jones (who at that point, remember, was the Lakers' All-Star starting shooting guard, not Bryant) for the chance to shoot a dagger jumper in regulation. The Lakers would go on to lose in overtime thanks in no small part to two late Bryant airballs. Utah, led by All-Stars Karl Malone (an eventual Bryant teammate, infamously) and John Stockton, would advance to the NBA Finals… where they would lose to the Bulls in six games, as basically everyone did in the '90s.
Shaq offered up a cogent note on the teachable moment, per his new interview. "I told him I said, 'Hey man, we lost. But one day, everybody's gonna fear you.'" And he was right.
In 1998, Bryant would join teammates Van Exel, Jones and of course O'Neal on the Western Conference's All-Star team. His older teammates relay now that they were frustrated with his occasional on-court selfishness, and would sometimes avoid passing him the rock. Rick Fox joined L.A. during the 1997-98 season as the club's starting small forward, and says in his interview that he registered the tension between Bryant, nicknamed "Showboat" by his L.A. colleagues, and the rest of the Lakers instantly.
Even as the team's Sixth Man during that second season, Bryant apparently believed he deserved to lead the Lakers. O'Neal, during what would be his inaugural All-NBA First Team season, pushed back, and rightly so, as the club's true alpha. Key Lakers personnel tried to talk Bryant down behind the scenes, though it fell on deaf ears. At one point, the duo got into a physical dust-up during their second year together, which Bryant acknowledged during a Jim Gray interview from the period.
Kobe and Shaq weren't the only Lakers who got into a heated altercation during the 1997-98 season. The documentary then details bubbling tensions between Del Harris and his players. L.A. Times/ESPN reporter J.A. Adande (now the Director of Sports Journalism at his alma matter Northwestern, in addition to continuing his ESPN commentating) offered up an incisive view of the problem with Harris: he had been a good coach for the chippy, over-performing "Lake Show" teams of the mid-1990s, but did not seem to be the guy capable of taking of the Lakers to the promised land under the weight of title expectations with their starrier personnel. Eventually, the beef between Harris and Nick Van Exel boiled over, to the point where Harris was challenging Van Exel to a physical fight.
In the interest of keeping his players happy (especially O'Neal), Dr. Buss eventually opted to fire Harris just 12 games into the 1998-99 NBA season. Buss made the choice to move on from Harris, a longtime friend of West's, without consulting West first. Harris reveals in the documentary that he felt he was let go too soon. Assistant coach Rambis was promoted to interim head coach and led the team to a 24–13 record the rest of the way. L.A. would get swept by Tim Duncan and David Robinson's San Antonio Spurs, who would prove to be one of their most enduring foes, in the second round of the Western Conference.
The Buss family decided to modernize their home court, moving from Inglewood's Great Western Forum into the deluxe new Staples Center (now Crypto.com Arena) downtown at the beginning of a pretty eventful 1999-2000 season. Because the Buss family didn't own Staples, there was no role in the operation of the arena for Jeanie Buss. Her father moved her into a role with the Lakers' front office. The Sparks, run by Johnny Buss, lingered at the Forum until the 2000-01 season.
Phil Jackson had just been canned from the Chicago Bulls for the apparent sin of winning three straight titles for the second time in eight years. Hiring the best coach in the NBA to replace Rambis was apparently Shaq's idea. 1999-2000 role players John Salley, Devean George, and Brian Shaw join the doc to discuss the season.
The Zen Master had his own unique (and winning) approach to the gig. Even during Shaq's recruitment pitch to Jackson at his tranquil offseason home in Montana, the coach put the All-Star through his paces. The documentary doesn't skimp on Jackson's long-lasting romantic relationship with Jeanie Buss (which we at All Lakers are hoping gets rekindled now that Jackson's days with the Knicks are over), and the resultant tensions that yielded within the L.A. front office and the Buss family.
Finally, the episode details Jackson's eccentric process, which included saging the team locker room to exorcise adverse influences, guided team meditations ahead of practices and games (which apparently helped the team deal with the asocial Bryant), and his infamous reading assignments to players. That season, Jackson gave Shaq a Fredrich Nietszche book, called "Superman." He won his lone MVP award at the end of the year.
Oh yeah, and the Lakers won the 2000 NBA title.