KOBE HAS HIS EXIT PLAN LAKERS INSIDERS CLAIM GUARD'S DEPARTURE IS INEVITABLE.
Kobe Bryant will slip on a new uniform Sunday evening, shake hands with new teammates and in the process provide a staged simulation of what NBA insiders now say is an inevitable event this summer: The departure of the Lakers' most popular player.
According to multiple league sources, Bryant has already decided this season will be his last in purple and gold. Sunday's All-Star Game at Staples Center, which figured to be a celebration of the Lakers' star guard - in the city he's called home for eight years - will instead be the first step on an unofficial farewell tour.
``He is absolutely going to leave. Everybody knows it,'' a league source who has regular contact with Lakers officials told the Daily News.
The Lakers' dynamic 25-year-old guard already has declared his intent to cancel the final year of his contract and become a free agent this summer. Bryant has insisted his first choice is to re-sign with the Lakers, but has not ruled out leaving.
Yet Bryant's true intentions are well known, the sources say, because he is no longer hiding his feelings. Four sources - including three within the Lakers organization - have said Bryant is declaring to teammates, coaches and others he will leave.
``There's no way he's coming back. He's saying that more and more,'' said a team source who has regular contact with Bryant.
On Wednesday night in Houston, Bryant categorically and angrily denied that, telling the Daily News, ``That's bull. It's not fair. They're way off-base.''
Since announcing last spring he would opt out of his contract, Bryant has gone the diplomatic route. Unlike other marquee free agents in recent years, he has not outwardly encouraged speculation about where he might sign, and the buzz surrounding his pending free agency has been relatively quiet.
Intensely private, Bryant rarely addresses the issue, and when he does, he skillfully deflates any concerns about leaving Los Angeles with a benign - yet noncommital - response: ``My preference is to stay here.'' That's the statement he gave to two media outlets in December, and he hasn't wavered from that posture. But in private, he is ``boasting'' about leaving, one source said.
Where Bryant ends up won't be known for months - he cannot officially terminate the final year of his contract until June - but there will be no mystery about his reasons for leaving.
Bryant telegraphed his agenda on the eve of the season opener in October, when after years of holding his tongue, he blasted fellow star Shaquille O'Neal in a scathing interview with ESPN.
In that interview, conducted entirely off-camera, Bryant ripped O'Neal for being ``fat and out of shape,'' derided his leadership skills and ``unprofessionalism'' and accused him of exaggerating injuries.
Tellingly, Bryant concluded his seven-paragraph broadside by saying if he does leave the Lakers, ``a major reason for that will be Shaq's childlike selfishness and jealousy.''
Bryant's ire was stoked by O'Neal's own brutally honest critique a day earlier, during which O'Neal said Bryant ``needs advice on how to play team ball.'' O'Neal also declared the Lakers were ``my team,'' and said if Bryant ``doesn't like it, he can opt out'' of his contract.
As caustic as the 48-hour verbal warfare was, it was quickly forgotten amid an 18-3 start, and has been overshadowed since then by Bryant's sexual-assault case, a series of injuries to Karl Malone, O'Neal and Bryant and by the Lakers' struggles to overcome those setbacks and distractions.
On the court, O'Neal and Bryant have appeared to work well together.
None of that is surprising to longtime observers. O'Neal and Bryant feuded throughout the Lakers' string of three championships from 2000-2002, sometimes publicly and sometimes privately. At times, it appeared they had resolved their conflict.
Yet as one longtime Lakers staffer said in late October, when the feud suddenly and surprisingly flared in full public view, ``Those two people will never like each other. (The feud) will always keep cropping up.''
The issue goes beyond Bryant and O'Neal. Bryant continues to frustrate coaches and teammates with his occasional solo forays on the court, though all are hesitant to say so on the record for fear of alienating him, and out of respect for his personal ordeal. But there were unmistakable signs of tension earlier this season.
During a November loss at Memphis, Bryant tried to take over the fourth quarter and misfired on five of his last six shots, stunting a potential comeback. Coach Phil Jackson disapprovingly said the effort ``was not by design.''
A month later, after an entire day spent in a Colorado court room, Bryant arrived late for a home game against Denver and hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer. But the final play was not designed for Bryant, who again had tried to take over in the final minutes. Rather than praise his clutch performance, Gary Payton, Malone and O'Neal all left without speaking to reporters.
Bryant's relationship with Jackson also has suffered strains, with the player often resisting the coach's attempts to play within a system that features O'Neal as its focal point. When the team announced this week that it was suspending contract talks with Jackson, making him a free agent this summer as well, Bryant offered an icy, ``I don't care.''
And witnesses said Bryant was furious last month, after Jackson told the Daily News that if Bryant wanted to return to the Lakers, he would have to conform to his coaching.
``I think, ultimately, what's going to be one of the understandings about Kobe coming back and being part of the Lakers, is: To what extent does he want to be a coachable player in the structure that we have as a team in the present day? ... which would include Shaq being here,'' Jackson said then. ``Shaq's going to be the focal point.''
But team insiders say the suspension of talks with Jackson is not specifically related to Bryant, and negotiations would have continued had the sides been closer financially. However, the general uncertainty surrounding the Lakers' future - they have nine potential free agents, including Bryant, Malone and Payton - did contribute to the decision to postpone negotiations.
Although team officials are aware of Bryant's determination to leave the Lakers, there are no planned attempts to trade him by next Thursday's trading deadline. Officials, particularly owner Jerry Buss, are not prepared to shut the door entirely on Bryant's return, and his trade value would be impaired by his legal troubles.
There is nothing simple about determining Bryant's future, and there are forces that could conceivably keep him in a Lakers uniform for at least another year.
Legal experts do not expect Bryant's sexual-assault case to go to trial until June or July. If the proceedings stretch deep into the summer, the uncertainty over Bryant's status could spook general managers who would be understandably hesitant to tie their entire franchise's fate to him, league sources said.
There are also hefty legal bills to consider, and Bryant has already lost millions of dollars in endorsements and potential endorsements since his arrest last July. He is due to make a guaranteed $14.625 million next season, the final year of the contract he signed in 1999.
If Bryant becomes a free agent this summer, the Lakers will have the ability to offer him the longest and most lucrative deal - seven years and $141 million. Barring a sign-and-trade deal, the maximum other teams can offer - provided they have salary-cap space - will be six years and about $98.6 million.
A source close to Bryant once said not to assume he would be driven by money, that he might even accept a team's midlevel exception - about $5 million in the first year of the contract - if the situation were right. But that was before Bryant's legal troubles began.
Among the teams expected to have significant salary-cap room this summer, the Clippers are most often mentioned as a likely destination for Bryant, and those who know him say it is a realistic scenario, despite the sorry legacy of L.A.'s other franchise. San Antonio, Phoenix and Atlanta also have ample cap room, and an interest in Bryant. Memphis, though unable to offer a maximum contract, will be a factor because of Bryant's close relationship with Grizzlies president and Lakers legend Jerry West.
In all likelihood, nothing will become clear until the Lakers' season concludes and Bryant announces his intentions. Teams cannot begin negotiating with free agents until July 1.
Until then, Bryant will be scouting potential new homes and potential new teammates, making Sunday's All-Star Game in L.A. a virtual recruiting trip in reverse, with the NBA's best players all coming to Bryant's home and making their pitch.
Howard Beck, (818) 713-3607
2 photos, box
(1 -- color) `He is absolutely going to leave. Everybody knows it,' a source says to Kobe Bryant.
(2) Kobe Bryant's public feuding with Shaquille O'Neal is one reason he may not be back next season.
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Feb 13, 2004|
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