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He doesn’t wait two years to opt out of his L.A. deal

Looks like I’m leaving The Times at the right moment. If Kobe Bryant goes away, he’ll take most of the good column material with him.

Bryant always dominated the news, so it’s appropriate that he takes over my farewell column as well. And in a way it fits in with the approach I took to this valuable piece of L.A. Times real estate -- that this was always about the players and the issues, not about me.

There’s a reason none of my 1,700 stories for this newspaper started with the word “I.” You’re more interested in the games and the big names. And there’s no name like Kobe.

Only Kobe could overshadow the NFL conference championship games (when he scored 81 points) and the NCAA tournament (when he dropped 65 on Portland). Only Kobe could make the Lakers’ signing of two Hall of Famers the secondary story of the week (when he was charged with sexual assault).

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Now he has rendered the NBA playoffs, the Stanley Cup finals and every other sports story irrelevant with his non-stop media parade that crested Wednesday when he said he wanted to be traded.

A conversation with Phil Jackson soothed Bryant slightly, but he still sent mixed signals when I talked to him Wednesday afternoon.

“I want to stay,” Bryant said. “I want to stay. But I can’t be at a place where [people] are going to do this [impugn him anonymously].

“I don’t want to go nowhere. But how can I stay?”

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He can stay because he has to wait two years to exercise the escape clause in his contract. He can stay because the Lakers learned firsthand from the Shaq farce that an NBA team never benefits from trading a superstar. He can stay because the Lakers can’t expect fans to pay crazy ticket prices for a faceless team. (Already I’m getting e-mails from season-ticket holders such as the one who said, “I’m not paying to see the Atlanta Hawks every night.”)

My prediction: He’s here for another year, then there’s another frustrated outburst when they don’t improve, and the Lakers trade him rather than have him walk as a free agent. For now, the Lakers can’t -- can’t -- send him anywhere in the Western Conference, even though that’s where most of the talent is. The one Eastern team with an abundance of good young players -- Chicago -- needs a low-post player more than a guard. And Bryant will come to realize that if you’re going to be on a rebuilding team, it’s much better to be in L.A. than some place like Milwaukee.

Here’s one thing I can say with certainty: This is my last column for The Times. I have accepted a buyout offer and I’m exploring other options.

These are changing times in the building on Spring Street, a point hammered home during NBA All-Star weekend in Las Vegas, when Bill Russell looked at my press pass and said, “Los Angeles Times. ... What’s going on there? What is it, editors who keep leaving or publishers?”

“Both,” I replied.

Just like Bryant, it’s hard to imagine leaving the franchise I dreamed of joining as a kid.

I switched my goal from playing for the Lakers to covering the Lakers in eighth grade, when everyone else hit their growth spurts and I got stuck on the wrong side of five feet. At first, I wanted to take Chick Hearn’s spot high above the Western sideline. I figured writing would be a step toward the radio booth -- but I got sidetracked.

I loved the idea of telling a variety of stories, not just who made the shot and who got called for the foul. Growing up in Santa Monica, I had the best training manual an aspiring sportswriter could ever ask for: the L.A. Times sports section, outside my door every morning. My teachers included Jim Murray, Scott Ostler, Mike Downey, Gordon Edes and Rick Reilly.

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In 1997, I followed in their font-steps when I started this column at the Orange County edition of The Times.

I still remember the excitement from Sept. 25 of that year, the first time my column ran on the front of the main sports section. I drove to Inglewood, to the corner of Manchester and Prairie, where the dream began. Maybe I never played in the Forum, but I could buy my work from a Times newspaper box outside of it.

Before I get out, I’d like to thank some of the public relations people who helped me do this job over the years: Mike Altieri with the Kings, John Black with the Lakers, Marc Dellins at UCLA, Tim Mead with the Angels, Josh Rawitch (and all of his predecessors) with the Dodgers, Michael Roth at Staples Center, Joe Safety with the Clippers, Tim Tessalone at USC, and Steve Brener and Toby Zwikel.

And a shout-out to my favorite athletes and coaches who passed through L.A. while I was on the job: Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Robert Horry, Lawrence Jackson, Phil Jackson, Jason Kapono, Eric Karros, Shaquille O’Neal, Carson Palmer, Dave Roberts, Luc Robitaille, Mike Scioscia, Teemu Selanne and Gary Sheffield.

And finally, the most exciting, frustrating, intriguing, witty, stubborn, combative, insightful and, ultimately, fascinating player I’ve ever been around: Kobe Bryant.

He was a part of the biggest moment of my decade at the Times: his alley-oop pass to O’Neal that sealed the amazing comeback against Portland in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals. It literally brought me out of my seat -- ask Plaschke.

At that time it seemed the dynasty had arrived, that they were about to win the first of an unlimited number of championships.

Now O’Neal is gone and Bryant appears to be on his way out. There’s one thing you quickly realize while covering the transitory world of sports, something that even applies to sports columns:

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Nothing lasts forever.

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J.A. Adande can, for a little while longer, be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com


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