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Bryant Gets Irate Mail

Times Staff Writer

Karl Malone, the second-leading scorer in NBA history, will not play for the Lakers if he decides to play again because he is infuriated by comments made publicly and privately to him by Kobe Bryant.

Malone had been favoring a return to the Lakers, but that was before Bryant’s comments Monday in a radio interview that his Newport Beach neighbor would retire.

Bryant also said it was tough for teammates “to be looking over their shoulder, wondering if [Malone]'s going to come back and then everybody is going to disappear.”

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Despite playing only one season for the Lakers, Malone, 41, said Tuesday he had developed strong feelings for the organization and its fan base, but insisted he would never again play for the Lakers. He also turned down a consulting job that was offered to him in October by Laker owner Jerry Buss.

“As much love as I have for the organization and for its fans, when your star player doesn’t want you there, I take hints easily,” Malone told The Times. “I want to be there but he doesn’t want me there.

“It’s not about the Lakers, I love the Lakers. It’s about your main guy saying he doesn’t want me. I’m a big enough man to understand that, so I’m going to get on with my life, and I’ve got a great life.”

Malone had maintained an interest in the franchise while recovering from off-season knee surgery. He had appeared at a training-camp practice and an exhibition game. More recently, he sat courtside for the Lakers’ Nov. 23 game against the Milwaukee Bucks.

But Malone’s agent, Dwight Manley, said the 14-time All-Star could not get past Bryant’s comments to XTRA. Bryant also said that “it’s not really fair to hold [Malone’s situation] over the guys’ heads that are here.... They are here giving me 110%.... I mean, you can’t sit up here and speculate for the remainder of the season whether or not he is going to come back.”

Said Manley: “Karl is furious and irate and said this is unacceptable, coupled with some personal comments Kobe made to Karl recently in private that have eliminated the Lakers from his choice, which is counter to what the owner, general manager and several stars on the team have been hoping for, as well as some of the fans. It’s pretty obvious with what happened with Phil [Jackson], Shaq [O’Neal] and now Karl, there’s a pattern of tearing people down. This was a clear statement.”

Manley declined to disclose details of the private conversation between Bryant and Malone.

Manley and Laker General Manager Mitch Kupchak had dinner on Friday before the Lakers’ game against Golden State, and progress had been made in discussing Malone’s future with the team, Manley said.

“This is a pretty emotional, traumatic thing,” he said. “We were really working toward doing a deal with the Lakers that was really moving in an off-court capacity and potential on-court capacity. All those discussions have stopped at Karl’s direction.”

Earlier Tuesday, before Malone spoke to The Times, the Lakers released a written statement from Kupchak.

“We are aware of the comments made today by Dwight Manley, and hope that they do not accurately reflect Karl Malone’s feelings about returning to the Lakers,” Kupchak said. “If so, it is unfortunate that he would make such a decision based on the reason given. Kobe Bryant’s interview [Monday] on Mychal Thompson’s radio show merely reflected his personal opinion that Karl would probably not return to play this season. Kobe did not at any time state that Karl was not returning, nor was Kobe speaking on behalf of the Lakers’ management or organization.”

Upon learning The Times had reached Malone, the Lakers declined to comment further.

Manley said the Bryant-Malone relationship “no longer exists” despite the fact they live six blocks from each other in a gated Newport Beach community.

Manley also said Malone had fully recovered from off-season surgery on his right knee and would decide next month whether to return to the NBA or retire. The leading candidate to sign Malone, if he chooses to play, is the San Antonio Spurs, who have the best record in the Western Conference.

The Lakers had courted Malone often since the day he declined to pick up a one-year option on his contract for this season. Malone acted as a liaison last season for Bryant and O’Neal, providing a voice of reason in the locker room and contributing 13.2 points and 8.7 rebounds.

Almost five months ago, Malone supported Bryant when he signed a seven-year, $136.4-million contract to stay with the Lakers.

“I’m so proud of Kobe,” Malone said at the time. “The way this kid worked his butt off, he deserves it. He’s proven himself. There’s not a lot of guys who deserve the money they’re making in this league. He’s one who does.”

When Malone arrived at Laker practice during training camp, he and Bryant embraced, and Bryant pretended to spar with Malone’s son, Karl Jr. Malone, who has remained in peak shape, felt the bulked-up Bryant’s biceps and they shared a private laugh.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Deal Breaker

Comments from the Karl Malone fallout:

* Malone: “As much love as I have for the organization and for its fans, when your star player doesn’t want you there, I take hints easily.”

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* Dwight Manley, Malone’s agent: “This is a pretty emotional, traumatic thing. We were really working toward doing a deal with the Lakers ... “

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* Mitch Kupchak: " ... It is unfortunate that [Karl Malone] would make such a decision based on the reason given. Kobe Bryant’s interview [Monday] on Mychal Thompson’s radio show merely reflected his personal opinion that Karl would probably not return to play this season.”


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