It has been twenty years. It has been twenty years since the coroner’s dullish voice. It has been twenty years since the weight of what was said over the telephone. It has been twenty years since that Saturday morning and the blank stare and the numbness which was followed by shock. It has been twenty years since Brian Shaw was a young man who took for granted- as all of us do- the celebration of his youth, what it means to be carefree. It has been twenty years since he knew what it was like to wake up in the morning, stare out the window, see the sunrise and not think of them- his father Charles, the mechanic, who worked two jobs, his mother Barbara who exposed him to opera and the classics, his sister Monica, his best friend.
Whoever said death be not proud, whoever the poet was who wrote though some have called thee was knowingly speaking of Brian’s Shaw’s family, his father and mother and sister who died on Interstate 15. And in a sense of cruel irony the poet was also addressing Brian Shaw himself. The son who had to become a man, the man who would deliver for a spectacular team, the uncle who would raise his motherless niece, the leader who would nurture feuding players, the coach who would teach work ethic, the brother who would suppress his guilt, the husband who would share his pain, the human being who would accept the truth: life is not always fair.
When Brian Shaw joined the Lakers in 1999 he was six years removed from his family’s death and of course he was not the same Brian Shaw. How could he be? He wept over three caskets in an Oakland church. He was the one who delivered the eulogy. And he lived with the blame. As if that was not enough pain, as if burying his mother and father and sister, and then collecting his sister’s daughter, the lone survivor, this beautiful niece of his who was named after him, if gathering her from the hospital wasn’t enough to turn his life upside down, something else happened. His best friend in the NBA, the one who had been with him from the start of his NBA career, dynamic wing player and teammate Reggie Lewis, collapsed on the basketball court during a practice game. He died too and Brian delivered another eulogy.
So many things happen to a person you just cannot explain. One thing leads to another thing. So Brian Shaw joined the 1999 Lakers team which would provide the blueprint for the rest of his life, the drama, the trauma, the struggle, the celebration, the stars, the hype, the winning. The team was a collection of iconic players and role players and a couple of journeymen and a legendary coach. The stars acted as children in need of punishment or a sermon. Brian’s role was as Kobe’s backup. Brian, a six foot six perimeter shooter who played best under pressure, was rarely rattled. In the 2000 Western Conference Finals, against the Portland Trailblazers, he made two 3-point shots to lead a furious comeback. The Blazers were overwhelmed by the Lakers rage. Shaw along with Kobe who in that game led the team in points, rebounds, assists, and blocks, devoured everything the Blazers had accomplished up to that point. It no longer mattered, the Blazers 13 point lead. The furious chase was capped off by a Kobe to Shaq dunk that was more metaphor than it was a score. The Lakers had slammed their way into the NBA Finals against the Indiana Pacers.
In the Finals, in game 3, Kobe sprained an ankle courtesy of Jalen Rose and Brian took his place. He shot 30% and missed all his three point shots. He had 6 points and 5 rebounds and 1 assist and the Lakers lost to the Pacers by 9. In the next game, Kobe returned to the lineup. The game went into overtime. Shaq fouled out and Kobe scored every basket except for one Brian Shaw put back. The game was Kobe’s bold emergence: he was a superstar now. For Brian Shaw, it was all so bittersweet, every moment of that championship ride. It was an orphan’s sweet sorrow, the agony of missing parents, of a vanished life.
But the thing is you never know what it is planned, what is in store, what heartbreak in one year will lead to celebration in another year, why bad things happen to good people, why guilt torments the blessed, why his parents had to drive to Las Vegas that night, why they could not wait until the morning, then his father would not have fallen asleep. But these are the things that make you crazy, the eternal question of why me or the desperate question of why not me. Brian celebrated four more times, two as a player, two as a coach. As life went on, as his niece grew older he told her stories about her mother just so she could get a sense of where she came from, of whom she belonged to, why she was cherished.
He must have known. He was a natural leader, someone born to coach. It was 2011. Brian’s parents had left him eighteen years earlier. His mentor and confidant and friend and advocate, Phil Jackson was retiring. Brian had spent eight years at Jackson’s side, his primary assistant, his gatekeeper, his defender, his student, his second brain. The transition would be seamless, Brian to take over the duties of Phil. Kobe publicly supported him, was on board, so were the rest of the players who depended on Brian. But the antagonist and empire destroyer was Lakers co-owner Jim Buss. He did not see the point. He wanted to purge the Phil Jackson era, the Phil Jackson years. He was in charge now and he was going to do it his way.
There is a benefit to having your heart broken when you are 27 years old. Nothing that follows will ever contend with that sort of paralysis and sorrow, the type of pain that is peerless, that has no friends. The Lakers cut ties with Brian so he interviewed for the Cleveland Cavalier job but Byron Scott was hired. He found it difficult in NBA front offices to be taken seriously as he was attached to Phil Jackson and the triangle offense. Few were willing to give him a chance. And then Indiana Pacer coach, Frank Vogel, offered him a position as an assistant. Vogel who is charismatic and intense, a defensive coach, never played in the NBA which put him at a disadvantage with his players. It was a different kind of respect players had for former players and for former champions.
Brian and Frank Vogel had instant rapport, a connection, absorbed with the process of winning they talked for hours about the Lakers title teams and what was planted, what was grown, what were the roots, how it was dug up, how it was torn down. Vogel wanted Brian to nurture his special talent, Paul George. Paul grew up in Palmdale and idolized Kobe Bryant. Brian used this as his wedge, his advantage, something to get Paul’s attention. Younger players are hungry to hear the Kobe stories, the relentlessness and sacrifice and commitment tales. Like a broken record, Brian reminded Paul of Kobe’s habits, his ethic. What he had accomplished had everything to do with the process, the work, and nothing to do with the fame. Paul absorbed the attention, washed himself in it, clung to the tales of surrender and obligation and began to mirror them in his own habits because he really wanted to be great. And yet, even with what Brian did for the career of Paul George, he still found himself looking through a shuttered window. A head coaching job was always out of reach and for peculiar reasons. It was rumored that he was the target of the Brooklyn Nets. But then in a mysterious move they hired Jason Kidd who had never coached a game. Once again Brian was out of luck or so it seemed. Until the Denver Nuggets hired him after they fired legendary coach George Karl. It was a team with an intriguing roster, speed in Ty Lawson, toughness in Kenneth Faried, stupidity in Javale McGhee, experience in Andre Miller.
And yet it was the experienced one, not the immature one, who erupted on the bench, cursing out his coach. For that infraction, the Nuggets suspended Andre Miller for Friday’s game against the Grizzlies and Sunday’s game against the Lakers. It wasn’t the words Andre used as much as the lack of dignity and respect, the erosion of professionalism, the forgetting of time and place. The behavior mattered and it didn’t. Brian had been here before, exposed to driven and competitive players who felt persecuted and were at the end of their rope. After all, he survived Kobe and Shaq.
His survived the car crash too, the one in which his parents and sister died. It was his beginning, his second birth and the irony of that is overwhelming: they died and a different Brian was born. Now they are his conscience, his guide, his truth teller, a tiny light that can never dim. Sometimes he wants the one thing he can never have, he wants them back, Charles and Barbara and Monica, the Shaw family, the most perfect people in the world. Sometimes he wants himself back, the 27 year old and all he was before this terrible thing happened. And sometimes he just wants the Nuggets to do what he has done his entire life, to remember and then to forget, to capitalize on the moment at hand, the job they have to do which is to execute perfectly and to win.