Bryant Remains a Sore Subject

Times Staff Writer

For the first time since they sat down three months ago in a Newport Beach hotel room, 48 hours before he would announce to the world a decision that would maintain the status quo among the local NBA franchises, the Clippers and Kobe Bryant will share a building today.

In an exhibition doubleheader in Staples Center, the Clippers will play the Denver Nuggets at 4:30 p.m., and the Lakers will face the Golden State Warriors at 7:30.

For the Clippers, who play the Lakers on Friday night in the downtown arena, this could have been a watershed event, a time to shout from the Staples suites that the tide had turned, that Bryant had switched sides.

They still have a hard time believing that Bryant got away.

Some in the organization are of the opinion that Bryant, at the time an unrestricted free agent weighing multimillion-dollar offers from both teams, reneged on an oral commitment to the Clippers after an 11th-hour, transcontinental phone conversation with Laker owner Jerry Buss.

They resent the implication that they never had a chance, that Bryant was never going to entrust his future to Donald T. Sterling, who has presided over two decades of Clipper failures. They scoff at the widely held belief that Bryant simply used the Clippers as leverage to get exactly what he wanted from the Lakers, i.e. Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson out of his life.

"It wasn't a pipe dream," a high-ranking team executive said of the Clippers' pursuit, which included a roster purge to get them under the salary cap and, for the most part, throwing in the towel on last season.

Bryant made it clear a year ago that he would consider signing with the Clippers, who spent the next nine months preparing to make a run at him, resisting moves that might have improved the club last season but limited its cap flexibility.

And after Bryant opted out of his contract July 1 and became a free agent, they heard him say he wanted to play for Coach Mike Dunleavy. They heard him say he loved the Clippers' young talent. They heard him say, "I want to be a Clipper."

And then, after taking a phone call from Bryant telling them they'd lost the sweepstakes, they watched him re-sign with the Lakers in a televised news conference July 15. Accepting an offer of about $136 million over seven years, Bryant rejected the Clipper bid of about $106 million over six, the Laker offer more lucrative only because of rules in the NBA's collective bargaining agreement.

Tonight, for the first time since, they'll cross paths again.

"It's not going to be awkward at all," Dunleavy insisted Wednesday. "It was strictly a business deal. It didn't work out the way we wanted, and we're back on opposite sides again."

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Marko Jaric is expected to make his exhibition debut today after having his broken left thumb re-examined Wednesday.... Elton Brand, sidelined because of a sore left knee, is eyeing a Wednesday return against the Warriors at Oakland.... Corey Maggette said that he probably would have to wear a splint on his broken right pinkie for three to four weeks.... Jerry Holman and Marcus Fleming were released, leaving 17 players on the roster, four with non-guaranteed contracts: Rick Brunson, Terence Morris, Trajan Langdon and rookie Kaniel Dickens.

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