Sun, Apr 24, 2005 - Page 24 News List

Kobe now decides that he would like to be a contender

AP , EL SEGUNDO, CALIFORNIA

Kobe Bryant says it doesn't matter who coaches the Los Angeles Lakers next season. His main concern is being prepared to help the NBA team return to prominence.

"I don't care. I trust their track record," Bryant said on Friday, referring to Lakers owner Jerry Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak. "Whoever they bring in here, I'm going to be ready. I'm just open to whoever they feel like is going to get the job done.

"It is priority No. 1."

Bryant spoke after his exit interview with Kupchak and Frank Hamblen, who served as interim coach after Rudy Tomjanovich resigned suddenly on Feb. 2, citing health concerns.

Tomjanovich stepped down barely halfway through his first season after signing a five-year contract last summer. He succeeded Phil Jackson, who coached the Lakers to four berths in the NBA Finals and three championships in his five years on the job before leaving last June.

Jackson's name was brought up when Tomjanovich resigned, with the Lakers acknowledging at that time that he was a candidate for the job at some point.

Kupchak repeated that on Thursday, saying Jackson was at the top of the Lakers' list of potential coaches.

When Jackson's name was mentioned in February, Bryant seemed receptive, if not enthusiastic, about his possible return. Jackson chronicled his differences with Bryant in a book released last year. Bryant said during the 2003-2004 season that while he respected Jackson as a coach, he didn't care for him as a person.

Kupchak said on Thursday that Bryant wouldn't be consulted concerning the new coach, and Bryant said he really didn't expect to have an impact on who the Lakers hire.

"Everybody has an opinion," Bryant said. "If they ask me, I'll give it to them."

With Jackson and Shaquille O'Neal gone, the Lakers became the seventh team to reach the NBA Finals one year and miss the playoffs the next, finishing this season with a 34-48 record. They missed the playoffs for the first time in 11 years and just the second time since 1976.

"The Lakers' organization is the basketball version of the Yankees," Bryant said. "We're all extremely committed to working extremely hard this summer."

Because of injuries, the Lakers' nucleus of Bryant, Lamar Odom and Caron Butler played together in only 47 of the team's 82 games. Bryant pointed to that as a key factor in the team's difficulties.

Hamblen said he expects Bryant, the NBA's second-leading scorer with a 27.6-point average, to "come back with a vengeance" next season.

"I'm hungry. I'm very hungry," Bryant said. "I have six months now to train and really be ready. I'm going to be ready."

Hamblen said he believes the players learned they're going to have to play better defense next season to be successful, and believes Bryant will lead the way.

Bryant was named to the NBA's all-defensive team during each of Jackson's five years as coach. The Lakers had many problems this season, but defense was the most glaring. They allowed the opposition to score 100 or more points in 49 of their 82 games and ranked as one of the league's poorest defensive teams, giving up an average of over 101 points per game.

Hamblen said as far as the coaching situation was concerned, it was up to the organization and Jackson to make that determination.

"If Phil is coaching next year, it will be an honor to be on his staff," Hamblen said.

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