The story of the Lakers’ early 2000s three-peat can be told through the prisms of two people: Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. On the movie poster, they are the headliners, both agents of chaos and order, protagonists and, sometimes, antagonists. Likewise, years from now the story of the 2020 championship Lakers will be told through the team’s two alphas—LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Yet in both cases, the rotating characters that filled out the roster not only had front-row seats, but were crucial contributors, too.
The Lakers had a lot riding on the 1999-2000 season, with a newly installed Hall of Fame coach, outsized title expectations with Shaq and Kobe, and a new arena to boot. Given where the relationship of their star duo was headed, the rest of the ingredients needed to be near perfect or else the chemistry could have exploded in a flash. Twenty years later, the Lakers are back on top after winning the franchise’s 17th title, and in some ways, the two teams share a thread. Led by two superstar figures, shouldering great expectations, and under the tutelage of a new coach, this year’s Lakers also needed to nail the peripheral pieces to win it all. And they did.
It’s now been 20 years since that first Shaq-and-Kobe title tipped off the 21st century, and once again the Lakers are starting a new decade with a ring. So to glean some insight into the challenges and triumphs of the season that started it all, I talked with Robert Horry and John Salley—both of whom played supporting roles on the 2000 Lakers team, but whose previous experience on championship teams made them proper purveyors of what a title team was supposed to look like—about the memories, moments, and stories that have stuck with them.
1. The way Salley tells it, the wheels for the 1999-2000 title team were already in motion before the season even began. Salley recalls getting on the phone with Phil Jackson, his former coach with the Michael Jordan–led Bulls and at the time a free agent, and talking to Jackson about what the Zen Master could do for a roster with Kobe and Shaq. In short: win a title, and maybe more than one. Jackson was surprised that Salley knew so much about the Lakers, given that he’d been out of the league for the past three seasons. But Salley made his case to be a part of the team if Jackson got the job.
“I told Phil ‘You’re gonna need me on this team,’” Salley said. “And he goes ‘Are you in shape?’ and I say, ‘You know I stay in shape.’”
Salley would go on to play a mere 303 total minutes that season, plus 78 minutes in the playoffs. He took up residence at the end of the bench, but his presence off the court as someone who had been there before and knew Jackson’s coaching quirks was significant. (One time he had to be the one to ask Jackson to get Shaq some rest.) In the end, it was enough to make him the first player to win three titles with three teams.
2. From the moment the Lakers convened for camp in Santa Barbara, Horry said Jackson “brought a sense of awareness to the team that they had to be on point.”
One thing stood out to Salley: It seemed like Jackson had already convinced Shaq to buy in before even getting there. That season, Shaq showed up in shape rather than playing his way into it like the three previous years. And he wasn’t the only one. “Shaq came in shape, Kobe came in shape,” Horry said. “Everybody came into camp in shape. And so that was the biggest key, when you come into camp, you’re ready from day one. And I think everybody was ready.”
When Jackson addressed the team for the first time over breakfast, Shaq said he was committed to doing whatever Jackson asked. “And if the big man does that,” Salley said, “then everybody follows it too.”
3. Despite the already brewing dysfunction between Kobe and Shaq—there was even a physical altercation between them during the 1998-99 lockout—the Lakers had a noticeable freshness and fullness to them.
“Every player does this, they don’t want to admit it, but you look around the league, you know, you assess yourself,” Horry said. As someone who had seen two title teams already and would be part of four more after 2000, Horry was particularly qualified. “When I sat down and looked at that team and what we had, I’m like, ‘OK, we got a shooter, Glen Rice, Derek Fisher defense. Then Brian Shaw and Shaq worked really well in Orlando. AC [Green], myself and [Ron] Harper, the old heads of the team that won championships. OK, we have no weak points.’ Then you look around the league and say, ‘What team would give us trouble? They’re not smart enough. They’re too young. Or they’re too old.’ And I said, ‘This is a perfect opportunity for us to do some damage.’ And I thought what we could do, we actually did. It wasn’t surprising to me.”
4. Jackson’s approach to coaching the Lakers was nontraditional, to say the least. On one road trip during the season, Jackson decided to play a joke on his players. Literally. Following that night’s game, Jackson made the players get on the bus and took them to a Gabriel Iglesias comedy show. According to Horry, the event and the chance to see teammates in a non-basketball environment loosened everybody up and set a positive tone.
“I think that was the one time when we really realized that we could hang out as a team,” Horry said. “I think when we realized that we got to be human beings first and just not live and die basketball, it became a better workplace for us and a better team.”
5. Beyond the team-bonding trip to a comedy club, Jackson also brought unconventional practices into the fold, like meditation before shootarounds, weekly yoga sessions, and book recommendations for players. “The guys thought they had to write a book report about it,” Salley said.
“I didn’t read it, I went to Cliffnotes.com,” Shaq said in 2016 of a book Jackson gave him by Friedrich Nietzsche. The following season, however, he did read the book recommendation—Siddhartha, this time—and actually did a book report on it.
Kobe, who was initially skeptical about meditation and the mental health sessions with George Mumford—Jackson’s mindfulness coach of choice—said in Roland Lazenby’s book, Showboat, that he came around to Jackson’s emphasis on the mind.
“It was good because it gave people a chance to talk about things that might be on their mind, the hype, the pressure,” Kobe said in the book. “I think it’s good for them to talk about those things. It increased our performance a lot. It really has. I’m surprised other teams don’t do that kind of stuff. Working with George helps us to get issues out of the way before they even start.”
6. Horry recalls a particular oddity from a road game in Sacramento when Jackson brought in “some kind of sage” before the game as the players were getting ready, and he was putting crosses in front of everybody’s locker. “Everybody was like, ‘What the hell is happening here?’” Horry says. “So I think that’s the only thing that I don’t think any coach in his world would ever do. Come in and try to get out all the demons.”
“He wasn’t a typical coach,” Horry said. “He had his quirks and his ways of handling things, and he had to learn how to put up with us too. So it was a back-and-forth type of thing and went on.”
7. Yet nowhere were Phil’s unique fingerprints more vivid than on the court, where he deployed his trademark triangle offense. At the beginning of camp, Jackson made it clear that this would be the way they would not just play, but win.
“Phil started off by saying the reason we’re here is to win an NBA championship,” Salley said. “You had to practice [the triangle] to win, and if you submit to this—learning the offense—this system will take us to championships.”
As Salley recalls, Jackson made it clear: If you didn’t know the triangle, you wouldn’t play. Tex Winter (Jackson’s assistant and one of the architects of the offense), Salley, and Ron Harper were the conduits for getting the rest of the Lakers to learn the triangle.
Though this offense eventually formed Kobe into the player he became, the adjustment wasn’t easy for him. Shaq called it out at the time by branding Kobe as selfish. And in Jackson’s book The Last Season, Jackson wrote that Kobe was “uncoachable.”
“He wanted more freedom, and I wanted him to be more disciplined,” Jackson said in a series of conversations with Charley Rosen on ESPN. “But when I came back for my second stint with the Lakers, Kobe and I worked it all out. I gave him more of a license to do his thing, as long as it stayed within the overall context of the triangle.”
“I was like a wild horse that had the potential to become Secretariat, but who was just too fucking wild,” Kobe said in a 2015 GQ piece. “So part of that was him trying to tame me. He’s also very intelligent, and he understood the dynamic he had to deal with between me and Shaq. So he would take shots at me in the press, and I understood he was doing that in order to ingratiate himself to Shaq. And since I knew what he was doing, I felt like that was an insult to my intelligence.”
8. In Phil’s world, the terminology for things as simple as a back screen was different, and so there was an acclimation process that was not unlike learning a new language. Still, even in the teaching process, there were more Jackson curveballs. Film sessions, according to Salley, often included movie interjections between studying play sets because Jackson believed one could concentrate for only 15 minutes at a time.
“Guys weren’t understanding Phil, but at the end of the day they realized that we had been in there for two and a half hours,” Salley said. “He would put things in our brain, watching what we were gonna do and talking it through, and the next thing you know a movie was playing. It’s like ‘What the fuck is happening?’”
9. On a road trip while in Phoenix, Salley remembers Phil taking the team to the movies. The entire theater was rented out and the Lakers watched Gladiator. The near-three-hour movie concluded with a Jackson-led questionnaire:
What was his sacrifice?
What did he have to give up?
How did he stay focused?
“And then he goes, ‘We’re gladiators against everyone else,’” Salley said. “And guys felt that way, felt like we were the warriors against everybody when we were in the pit.”
10. Jackson reenergized Shaq with the triangle offense, but he didn’t mince words when discussing Shaq’s biggest weakness on the floor.
“Because of his free throw situation, he can’t be the leader,” Jackson said in a Sports Illustrated piece from November 1999. “You’ve got to deliver in the clutch if you’re going to be the leader, and if you can’t make free throws … “
The triangle, however, effectively turned Shaq’s poor free throw shooting into a moot point and helped him to a near-unanimous MVP season: a league-high 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, and a career-high 3.8 assists per game. Shaq paced the Lakers during the regular season. He averaged exactly 40 minutes a game and fueled winning streaks of 16 games and 19 games as the Lakers went on to win 67 total.
“When you got a guy like Shaq, it wasn’t about him trying to fit in,” Horry said. “It’s us, trying to make it work best for him.” That understanding was essential to the Lakers’ ensuing three-peat. They tried to cater to the best aspects of Shaq while Shaq became a willing participant in the process that was the triangle.
“He was so humbled by Phil,” Salley said. “That really got me, and he believed and trusted Phil was gonna get him the championships and he did.”
11. Salley didn’t get much playing time during the season, but he was a focal point in practice, serving as one of the many bodies to put in front of Shaq. The perspective gave him insight into just how Shaq was exploiting the position the triangle placed him in.
“Imagine that you’re taking the most dominant player and you’re making him into a screener,” Salley said. “Shaq, he modified it by taking the one step forward and if the guard came off the top the big man would have to step to the top and bump him and Shaq would step to the basket. Even though that’s not the play, it would give Shaq almost a dunk every time.”
12. As Salley puts it, the triangle made Shaq an impossible force to stop in one-on-one situations, but it also led to an evolution from opposing defenses: Enter Hack-a-Shaq. Horry contends that the Lakers never really worried about the strategy because Shaq was getting to the line so much that he only really needed to make about 50 percent of his free throws to be effective. Both Salley and Horry practiced free throws with Shaq, sometimes even on free weekends, and Horry even had his own ideas for how to help the big man.
“We would play this game where you get one point if it hits the rim, two points if you hit all swish. And of course, we used to play this game up to 11 all the time,” Horry says. “And a lot of times when he went to the free throw line, you’ll see me always walk up to him and talk to him. And I would always say … ‘Man, we’re in practice. Knock this down.’”
13. Horry remembers the ice baths. They were short, 10 to 15 minutes long, but they were moments that forced stillness and, by default, conversation. After going at 100 miles per hour in practices as only Kobe could, the ice baths froze him in place, opening him up in ways that other settings did not. As they walked around the locker room before going home or ordered food, Horry listened and talked about everything and anything. And Kobe would join in, too.
“We would talk about kids, cars, the night before the game or something that happened in practice that was funny, or how bad we hate Phil, or how much we love Phil or whatnot,” Horry says. “It was those moments when we got to know each other, I think those are the moments where he allowed us to get to know him.”
14. Horry understood why Kobe was standoffish at times. The league at that time was not exactly ready and willing to embrace young players, especially not ones who went straight from high school to the pros at 18. And though Kobe contends he wasn’t selfish, his brashness branded him as a polarizing figure.
“I knew what I could have done individually,” he said in the 2015 GQ piece. “I could have gone to another team and averaged 35 points a game. I could have gone anywhere and destroyed people. I gave that up to win championships. So it was infuriating to hear people say I was selfish. It was very, very maddening.”
By the 1999-2000 season, Kobe was still only 21, and he’d played with teammates in previous years who, Horry says, didn’t fully embrace him. His youth still showed in many ways despite his talent.
The funniest manifestation of this was in the card games. Like any NBA team, the Lakers killed time on flights by playing a whole host of games. But while most guys would get in on the action and even Chick Hearn would stand and watch, Kobe wasn’t really a participant, in part because he didn’t know how to play.
“I was shocked that he didn’t know how to play spades,” Horry says. “You come from a Black family, you don’t play spades? So it was weird because he was always trying to learn new things. And so he sat down, we taught him how to play spades.”
15. One trait that both Salley and Horry vividly remember about Kobe is his propensity to be a sponge for information, from spades to footwork. Salley, in particular, described Kobe as “quiet and introverted,” but when it came to wanting to improve, there was no one more committed or curious.
On the road, Kobe made sure to have a VHS connector set up in his room, and Salley would often catch Kobe studying old tapes of players.
“I would sit there and watch like, ‘How’d you get the tape?’” Salley said. Kobe would respond: “‘You know I got the hookup.’ I don’t know if he got them from the NBA or where, but he would have old game tape,” Salley said. “Of Chicago, of whomever. Mike, Magic. He would just watch as much as he could.”
16. While on a road trip in Miami, Salley remembers going out with Kobe, which was in itself a minor miracle because the youngster mostly kept to himself. But soon after midnight, Kobe told Salley he had to go back to the hotel. His trainer had flown in and they were going to work out at 6:30 a.m. the next day.
“I don’t know if people understood that a lot of his things were coming from him watching past players,” Salley said. “Kobe always wanted a lot of competition. He is the second coming of Michael. This guy wanted to practice all the time, he wanted to scrimmage, he wanted to play one-on-one.”
17. But after breaking his wrist in preseason, Kobe had to wait until December to make his debut in the vaunted triangle offense. For an individualist who was already getting on his teammates’ nerves with his commanding style of play, it ended up being the perfect scenario. For the first two months of the season, Kobe saw the Lakers thrive without him in the new offense, and it created pressure on him to fit in and perform when he returned.
“It was a good time for him to learn, watching it, and it was a good time for everybody to realize that you had to up your game until Kobe came back,” Salley says.
Kobe still went on to have an All-Star season, averaging 22.5 points per game. But even as Kobe rapidly ascended, it was still Shaq’s team. And even though trouble eventually lay ahead, the Kobe-Shaq duo was now a proven commodity on the court.
18. The Lakers’ cast of characters ended up being the perfect mix to put alongside Kobe, Shaq, and Jackson. Whether from a basketball perspective or a relationship one, everyone filled their role and did their part throughout the season.
“It was, if everybody does their job you win, and it’s just like there’s no weak link,” Salley said. “I remember Derek Fisher being a man among boys. I couldn’t believe how mature he was. Ron Harper was the other veteran, Brian Shaw, Rick Fox, Glen Rice, Robert Horry, these are guys who had played and understood what the focus was. The real big guy was A.C. Green, coming from a system with Magic and those guys, and being able to pick up the offense and really play it spot on. So I mean there were no weaknesses.”
“[Ron Harper] was the one that was quarterbacking everything,” Horry said. In Roland Lazenby’s book The Show, Harper was also credited with helping the Kobe-Shaq relationship survive its toughest times. “And when things got frustrating, he was the one that would talk to guys, tell him what Phil’s philosophy was, his way of thinking,” Lazenby wrote. “Ron was that guy that nobody ever talks about, that kept everybody together, kept everybody doing things the Phil way, sort of thing.”
19. Horry, who stayed on with the Lakers for their eventual three-peat, can recognize now that not only was this the honeymoon year for the squad, but it was the most fun he had on any of the seven championship teams he was a part of.
“Everything on the court was fun,” Horry said. “Our road presence was good. We all hung out. We went to dinner together. We talked, we had fun on the bus ... this one was just when everybody was just relatable, having a good time. We’re all the same age, it was just a fun time. And plus who doesn’t have fun in L.A.?”
Salley added that it helped that most of the players were around the same age. It meant bigger dinner groups to random places like P.F. Changs, it meant guys could get along off the court if they wanted to and it seemed like “everything fit.”
“At the end of the day, we had smart guys,” Horry says. “We had guys who could adapt. We had guys who could learn on the fly.”
20. With a new head coach, learning on the fly was the only way the Lakers were going to win the title. And adjusting on the fly was also what got them over their biggest hurdles. Shaq’s free throw shooting problems nearly sunk them in the Western Conference finals, when the Blazers took to hacking Shaq and putting him at the free throw line 14 times per game. The result was a hard-fought seven-game series that culminated in a memorable Game 7 when the Lakers were down double digits in the fourth and on the edge of failure.
“The focus, [we] had it, but that whole Hack-a-Shaq shit against Portland was really dampening,” Salley says.
“We started getting mad,” O’Neal said in Jeff Pearlman’s book, Three Ring Circus. “Kobe was mad, B-Shaw was mad. That’s exactly what we needed: that anger. That was the one time all year when they really saved my ass, because I was getting quadruple-teamed and playing like shit. I needed help in the worst way.”
With the Lakers down 13, Salley recalls a timeout when he encouraged his teammates to shoot 3s because of how the Blazers were playing Shaq. Horry and Shaw delivered immediately, Shaq started making his free throws, and the Lakers delivered the final blow with the most iconic play of the franchise’s era:
“I watched Steve Smith be so upset,” Salley said with a laugh. “And I watched Rasheed Wallace look at his teammates like they were crazy. I knew that was it.”
The dagger would be etched in Lakers’ lore, and the series would end with the Lakers on top. They would go on to beat the Pacers in the Finals, and so began the three-peat.