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J.A. Adande

He Has Every Reason to Stay

October 24, 2003|J.A. Adande

They came for Kobe Bryant, so how could he think about leaving?

The 18,298 fans at the Arrowhead Pond weren't there for the debut of the Quad Squad, the first time Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton, Karl Malone and Shaquille O'Neal all took the court in Laker uniforms.

They weren't even there for the historical precedent of the two most famous figures to be subjected to rape trials -- Bryant and Mike Tyson -- in the building at the same time.

They filled the Arrowhead Pond Thursday night, made sure they were in position with cameras ready in plenty of time to catch his first steps onto the floor. They cheered whenever it was his turn in the layup line, they cheered when the scoreboard video screen showed a close-up of him. They chanted "Ko-be, Ko-be" at random times throughout the night. Girls sounded like teenagers at a Backstreet Boys concert, shouting out "We love you Kobe." It was obvious that they were there to see Bryant.

(With the exception of Tyson, who said: "I'm just here to watch the game. Jerry Buss invited me. I just wish my girlfriend was here.")

Bryant had finally recovered from his knee surgery well enough to take the court, finally ready to play for the first time since he shed those tears in the Lakers' season-ending loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the playoffs.

And after the outpouring of love and support, it was enough to make you wonder: Why would he go anywhere else?

On Monday he said, as conclusively as ever, that he would exercise his right to opt out of his contract after the season.

If this were about money, maybe I could understand. I'll never blame a man for trying to make as much as he can in our capitalist society. But under the NBA's collective bargaining agreement no other team can pay Bryant more than the Lakers.

But this is about a franchise that has supported him and accommodated him ever since he was charged with felony sexual assault in July.

It's about a fan base that cheered him even after he tossed up those airballs in Utah, that watched him grow and celebrated along with him as he helped lead the Lakers to three consecutive championships.

It's about a fan base that bought Bryant's No. 8 jersey at an even faster rate after he was charged.

Could he leave the love? Sure. He played Thursday night in the same building where Paul Kariya won't be wearing a Mighty Ducks uniform this season. Kariya left Anaheim and took a $9.5-million pay cut because wanted to play with his buddy Teemu Selanne, and he wanted to play for a more consistent winner, the Colorado Avalanche. Last spring's fantastic playoff run aside, the Avalanche has a better shot of winning the Stanley Cup year-in and year-out than the Ducks.

Bryant would be leaving the dominant franchise and the dominant player of the new millennium.

If Bryant wants to see how he could fare on his own without Shaquille O'Neal, I guess that's his right too. But before he does that he should talk to Scottie Pippen about life without Michael Jordan, or ask Magic Johnson how many championships he won after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired.

No team with enough salary cap room to offer Bryant anything close to a four-year, $74-million contract the Lakers are willing to pay would have enough other good players to be competitive. So for Bryant to have a shot at passing Jordan's six championship rings he'd have to pull a Payton and go somewhere for the midlevel exception. At 25, he's far too young for that type of move. He also faces far too many legal bills.

Of course, all of this assumes that Bryant is found not guilty at trial. That's the scary part for the Lakers: Two of the three possible scenarios for next summer involve his not playing for them next season.

So there's one more subplot for this mini-series of a season. Just another example why there will be many nights like this one, when it takes 18 paragraphs to get to the basketball game.

On offense, the Lakers did look well acclimated (to use O'Neal's favorite new word). The best example came when Malone whipped a pass to Bryant, who lobbed a left-handed alley-oop to O'Neal for a slam dunk. The Lakers pushed the ball up-court, as promised. They just didn't play much of the defense they've been talking about throughout the preseason, which is why they lost, 107-101, to the Clippers It's far too early to be worried about that. As O'Neal said to Clipper Coach Mike Dunleavy when Dunleavy was arguing to the officials that a foul should have been called on Shaq: "It's a preseason game. Relax."

And relaxed the Lakers were before the game, with Payton mercilessly riding Horace Grant about an infection on Grant's head. It did have a different feel to it than your average preseason game. For starters, there were all the cameras, from TNT's broadcast crew to reporters from ESPN to Inside Edition.

Bryant, back in cool mode, said beforehand it would be the "Same old, same old, man." It looked that way during the game, when Bryant wound up with more shots than any Laker. He might look thinner, but it isn't because he lost his appetite for shooting.

Laker fans still haven't lost their love for Kobe Bryant, despite all of his legal issues this summer.

It's something he should remember next summer.

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com

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