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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Kobe Bryant's contract extension completes greatest turnaround jump of his career

Almost gone in 2004, and again in 2007, Bryant is now looking like a Laker for life, right there with Jerry West and Magic Johnson, after Friday's announcement of his three-year extension.

April 02, 2010|By Mark Heisler

To get right to it, what does Kobe Bryant's extension mean for me, Mark Heisler?

There go those easy columns making fun of people speculating on Kobe opting out, power plays with Phil Jackson, trades sending him to Cleveland for LeBron James, et al.

Aside from that, Friday's announcement merely made official the agreement both sides have been signaling since last spring.

Bryant being Bryant, there weren't a lot of signals and anything was still possible.

Nevertheless, it was what it looked like, what made sense — where else could he match what he had with the Lakers? — and what insiders said was happening.

Bryant actually announced he would stay after last spring's victory parade ("I know I ain't going nowhere. It just wastes our breath just talking about it") as his agent, Rob Pelinka, initiated extension talks.

Friday, General Manager Mitch Kupchak said the deal was done two weeks ago and basically agreed to two months before that.

The real significance is Bryant's formal acknowledgment of how much all the things that had changed so that fortune seemed to be using him for a piñata, have changed back.

To understand what this extension means, you have to go back to July 15, 2004, the day he signed his present contract.

The day before, July 14, Shaquille O'Neal had been traded to Miami.

Bryant, who had set July 15 as his deadline, still hadn't decided . . . and wouldn't until a phone conversation that night with Lakers owner Jerry Buss, vacationing in Europe.

Bryant said later he'd intended to sign with the Clippers until that moment.

That ended the most hellish week in Lakers history, after trading O'Neal with no assurance Bryant was coming back.

(Friday night, Kupchak said he has long had the sense Bryant wanted to stay, adding wryly, "I didn't have it four years ago.")

July 15, 2004, the day Bryant returned to the Lakers, was also the day he learned, to his amazement, that people were saying he had run off O'Neal.

That possibility had never occurred to Kobe, who a) thought he was leaving, and b) had been told by Buss months before that he wasn't bringing Shaq back.

Of course, Bryant couldn't imagine a lot of things that were about to happen, like the team's drop to 34-48 that season under Rudy Tomjanovich.

With Jackson back the following season — another surprise for Bryant, who wasn't as close to Phil as he is now — they got back to the playoffs but were eliminated in the first round two seasons running.

Mt. St. Bryant then erupted, sending Lakers officials back into their bomb shelters for an even more hellish off-season that lasted all summer of 2007.

Then, after Buss said he'd trade Bryant if that's what he wanted, and Kobe went back into orbit, getting permission to arrange his own trade, which he and Pelinka tried to do with Chicago for weeks, it all turned around.

The 20-year-old Andrew Bynum began to happen that season. When he went down, they got Pau Gasol in a one-sided deal with Memphis, which was dumping salary, and wound up playing the Celtics in the Finals.

Then came last season's breakthrough for Bryant's long-sought and once-improbable fourth Lakers title.

Now he's a Laker for life, just like Jerry West but with more titles, with more four more years to match or surpass Magic Johnson's five.

"Now he measures the game," Jackson said, comparing Bryant to the untamed 21-year-old he first met in 1999.

"Before, he wanted to put his imprint on the game."

And those who regard him so skeptically?

"I don't know those people," said Jackson. "There are always going to be naysayers but I think people generally recognize his influence on this game. . . .

"He has always thrown his heart and soul into the game. He actually needs to take a summer off [with Bryant set to play with the U.S. team at the world championships in Turkey]. . . .

"But he is by far one of the hardest-working athletes I've ever been close to."

Actually, some of the naysayers are Lakers fans, who staged a mini-uprising when Bryant broke West's franchise scoring record, offended by the suggestion Kobe was the greatest Laker ever.

Whatever Bryant is, he isn't done being it. He's still Kobe Bryant, so what isn't possible?

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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