Bryant denies report he's leaving Lakers

He will opt out of contract, but wants to stay in L.A.

Pro Basketball

February 14, 2004|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

LOS ANGELES - Kobe Bryant has already proven that he can play the game well on the offensive end in an All-Star Game, but he spent a good chunk of yesterday on the defense, batting down reports that he has decided to leave the Los Angeles Lakers after the season.

Bryant, 25, who was the top vote-getter among Western Conference guards in fan balloting for tomorrow's game, strongly denied a report in yesterday's Los Angeles Daily News that he will leave the Lakers after this season.

"I want to be a Laker. I've been a Laker fan for my entire life, and I want to be a Laker for the rest of my life. That hasn't changed," Bryant told the assembled media yesterday at a Los Angeles hotel.

At the same time, however, Bryant reiterated that he would opt out of the final year of his contract, which would pay $14.6 million, to test free agency.

"I want to opt out because I want to look at different options," Bryant said. "I've never had the opportunity to look at different options. As I said, [general manager] Mitch [Kupchak] and [owner] Jerry [Buss], they know I want to be a Laker for the rest of my life. I've been a Laker fan since I was 6. It's been a dream come true to play for the Lakers, and I want to continue that dream."

Bryant, who is facing sexual assault charges in Colorado stemming from an offseason incident in Vail where he is accused of raping a 19-year hotel employee, has been a key component of the three championships the Lakers won from 2000 to 2002.

But Bryant has chafed at playing a secondary role to center Shaquille O'Neal. The two players feuded during the Lakers' title runs and were thought to have reached a truce, only to squabble again before this regular season, when O'Neal said Bryant "needs advice on how to play team ball."

Bryant responded by calling the 7-foot-1, 350-pound O'Neal "fat and out of shape," and suggested that if he did leave the Lakers, "a major reason for that would be Shaq's childlike selfishness and jealousy."

Bryant has also had difficulties with Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who mediated the feud between the superstars, but has criticized Bryant for attempting to take over games.

Just this week, Bryant, who yesterday called his relationship with Jackson "dicey," was quoted earlier in the week saying "I don't care," about reports that Jackson and the Lakers had broken off contract talks.

Bryant said he wants Jackson to return and said the "I don't care" phrase was in regard to a question over whether he considered Jackson's contract talk a distraction to the Lakers, who added future Hall of Famers Gary Payton and Karl Malone in the offseason.

"It's always been kind of a push and pull kind of relationship with me and Phil, because he knows I like to challenge everything," Bryant said. " ... Our relationship has always been that way, but it's been successful."

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