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T.J. Simers / NBA ALL-STAR GAME

Bryant Is Leaving ... His Options Open

February 15, 2004|T.J. Simers

Sat down with Kobe Bryant for his first one-on-one interview with The Times this season after Saturday's Western Conference All-Star practice and a few hours after Bryant had called the NBA to say traffic would keep him from meeting with the national media.

Before we began our little heart-to-heart on this Valentine's Day, I reminded Bryant, of course, that he'd be getting the "Boston parking lot attendant" treatment if I learned later he wasn't being completely forthright.

He nodded, so when I asked about his relationship with Coach Phil Jackson, he didn't seem to hold back.

"I don't like Phil as a person, but I love him as a coach," Bryant said. "Would I go to lunch with him? No, but I like playing for him."

He talked about Shaquille O'Neal: "I'd be lying if I said the challenge of playing on a team [without Shaq] doesn't interest me; everybody who knows me, knows how much I love a challenge, but that doesn't mean I'm leaving."

More than anything, Bryant said, he wanted to discuss the media's run-away conclusion that he had already decided that "he's outta here" at season's end because of his decision to opt out of his Laker contract.

"The people who are saying that haven't done their homework and are not being fair to me," he said. "The way I understand it, if I opt out of my contract with the Lakers I will have the chance to sign a contract that will keep me with the Lakers longer than if I accept an extension right now."

If Bryant signs a contract extension with the Lakers today, as some have suggested, he could extend his contract six years. If he opts out of his contract at season's end and then re-signs with the Lakers, he will be allowed to sign a seven-year deal.

Take it one step further. If he promises now that after opting out of his contract he will sign with the Lakers, he loses all leverage and the Lakers would be under no obligation, or pressure from other bidders, to offer him top dollar.

He said Saturday, "Money doesn't do anything for me," and wouldn't you like to see the look on the face of the Boston parking lot attendant after reading that?

Now I'm not buying the notion that money doesn't mean anything to Bryant because I've never meet a millionaire, or billionaire for that matter, who didn't want more money. The fact is, if Bryant accepted top dollar from the Lakers right now and signed a six-year extension, it'd cost him $30 million, which he could get from the Lakers if he opted out of his contract and then re-signed with the team.

Maybe money doesn't mean anything to him, but he's married.

"It's just business," Bryant said. "I promised the Lakers I wouldn't think about the contract until the off-season. I talked to Mitch [Kupchak, Laker general manager], and we're on the same page. He said we will get together at the end of the season.

"Listen, when you take everything I've said -- that I want to be a Laker, I want to be here forever, the option gives me the opportunity to be here for a longer period of time -- anything anybody else has to say is pure speculation."

*

Now, if you talk to the media here for the NBA All-Star game, a number of reporters will be happy to tell you they've "heard" that Bryant has told other players in the league: "I'm outta here."

None of these players has been identified, which makes you wonder if they really exist. I poked a finger in Bryant's chest, reminded him what happened to Kevin Brown in this space, and asked if he has told anyone he won't be back with the Lakers.

"Nobody. That's nobody," he said. "I've told nobody anything like that.

"Listen, I say I'm going to opt out of my contract and I say I'd be interested in the challenge of playing on a team without Shaq, and some [reporters] just run with the story thinking that it means I'm leaving."

*

The speculation that Bryant has already decided that his Laker career is over mushroomed when Bryant was quoted as saying, "I don't care," when quizzed about Jackson's contract status.

I offered him an easy out. Were you just being flippant? Or stupid?

"No, I felt I was speaking for myself and my teammates," Bryant said. "It's not a big issue to us because we have something to take care of right now, and speculation whether Phil is here or not doesn't matter. He's here. He's our general. Let's focus on that. We don't care about all that peripheral stuff or what might happen next year."

But what about Jackson? Did Bryant go to owner Jerry Buss and suggest something like it's Phil or me?

"No, I didn't talk to Buss," he said with a laugh. "I've got enough stuff to worry about without getting into something like that."

Some people have suggested, though, that Bryant doesn't want to play for Jackson, because he feels too confined.

"Do we get along man to man? No," Bryant said. "But it's a good relationship from coach to player. I think it's good to have some kind of push-pull relationship.

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