Sat, Jul 17, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Kobe Bryant agrees to seven-year deal with the LA Lakers

AP , LOS ANGELES

Kobe Bryant played the free agency game and wound up back where he began, saying he's a Laker at heart.

Bryant swears he had nothing to do with the Lakers' recent overhaul -- the exits of coach Phil Jackson and fellow superstar Shaquille O'Neal -- and would have returned, no matter what.

"That upsets me. That angers me. That hurts me," Bryant said.

"They did what they had to do. That had nothing to do with me. In a perfect world, we would have all come back and won another [championship]. I even said at the end of the season I wouldn't mind playing with them for the rest of my career."

That won't happen. Jackson is in Montana and O'Neal in Miami.

And Bryant is back with the Lakers after signing a seven-year contract worth around US$136.4 million late Thursday at a news conference at team headquarters in nearby El Segundo.

Bryant chose the Lakers over the Clippers, remaining with the team he joined in 1996 at age 18 and helped win three NBA titles.

"It feels great to be in the city of Los Angeles playing for the Lakers the next seven years," he said.

"It feels unbelievable. Ultimately, it had to do with what I felt was right, what I felt in my heart was best for me and my family. Playing for the Lakers was it."

Bryant's decision was announced a day after the Lakers traded O'Neal to the Miami Heat -- a day he referred to as "a sad day for me, a sad day for everybody."

"We had an incredible run together despite the ups and downs," Bryant said.

Now, it will be Bryant -- along with incoming coach Rudy Tomjanovich and Miami imports Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Brian Grant -- who will lead the Lakers.

When asked if the Lakers could win without O'Neal, Bryant replied: "I don't know. We don't have the most dominant player in the game, so things are going to change drastically for us. It's going to be a struggle. It's an uphill battle for us. [But] I'm not sitting in front of you guys believing we're not going to win."

One significant obstacle remains for Bryant before next season. He has pleaded not guilty to felony sexual assault and faces an Aug. 27 trial in Eagle, Colorado. He claims he had consensual sex with an employee, now 20, at the Vail-area resort where she worked.

If convicted, Bryant faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation, and a fine of up to US$750,000. The trial figures to take several weeks.

"Just leave it in God's hands," Bryant said when asked how he was going to deal with the next couple months.

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said Bryant's legal problems had nothing to do with the team's decision to re-sign him.

"If there is any risk, it was a risk we were willing to take," Kupchak said.

Bryant, who turns 26 next month, has averaged 21.8 points in 561 regular-season games over eight seasons. He averaged 24.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists last season despite his legal problems and a career-high 30.0 points in 2002-2003.

The Lakers had an advantage over the Clippers financially, able to offer a contract lasting one year longer and worth over US$30 million more.

Bryant said he made his final choice Wednesday night and called it a tough decision.

Bryant said he sought guidance from Jerry West, the former Lakers' general manager. West is now the president of the Memphis Grizzlies.

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