Bryant has L.A. guessing which way he’ll turn next
The morning began with a startling declaration from L.A.'s most recognizable athlete, a demand by Kobe Bryant on a radio show that he wanted to be traded from the Lakers, the only team he has played for since he was a teenager.
Before it could fully sink in with die-hard followers of the Lakers, Bryant’s ultimatum zigzagged as he appeared on two more radio shows, an apparent realization by the nine-time NBA All-Star that, well, things just might turn out OK after all and he might like to stay.
Then, late in the afternoon, Bryant told The Times that, sorry for the confusion, but he still wanted to be traded.
Somehow, Wednesday took the prize for the most chaotic part of a four-day span, the latest chapter of an unforgettable period in Lakers history, jump-started by Bryant’s remarks in Sunday’s editions of The Times that, “I’m still frustrated. I’m waiting for them to make some changes.”
It was a direct shot at the Lakers’ upper management, a warning note from the franchise’s cornerstone that he had been increasingly disenchanted since the team’s quick exit in the first round of the playoffs this month. The Lakers, accustomed to winning championships almost as often as presidential elections -- they’ve won nine since moving to Los Angeles in 1960 -- but haven’t earned one since 2002.
Bryant, who turns 29 in August, has already taken part in three championship parades, but, after three disappointing seasons, he was apparently too unhappy with the Lakers management.
So Wednesday morning, Bryant sighed deeply and said the words he never envisioned he would say.
“I would like to be traded, yeah,” he told ESPN radio. “As tough as it is to say that, as tough as it is to come to that conclusion, there’s no other alternative. They obviously want to move in a different direction as far as rebuilding.
“I just want them to do the right thing.... At this point, I’ll go play on Pluto right now.”
Not more than a couple of hours later, Bryant apparently came back to Earth and softened his trade demand in an interview with KLAC radio in Los Angeles.
“I can only hope that they do something because I don’t want to go no place else. I don’t want to,” he said. “I want to stay here. I hope they can do something.”
Bryant wants a few new teammates, some game-changing pieces to join him here in L.A., but the Lakers, already burdened with a big payroll, could acquire them only by making some eye-opening trades, which Bryant would endorse heartily.
After Bryant’s trade demand, it appeared that some soothing early-afternoon words from Lakers Coach Phil Jackson and a Lakers legend, Magic Johnson, also brought Bryant back from orbit.
Johnson, who won five championships in the 1980s while playing for the Lakers, sent text messages to Bryant, then left two voice-mail messages that were retrieved by Bryant, although the two superstars never actually spoke.
“You’ve got to give him credit because he said some things that were on his mind, and that’s OK,” said Johnson, who owns about 5% of the Lakers. “I think we want a better product on the court. We want to win too. Now it’s just got to come down to listening to what the young man said.
“Trading him is not an option. You don’t trade the best player in the world. What you do is try to make trades and try to make the team better.”
Jackson also took a turn talking with Bryant, an image dripping with irony: The coach and his player, adversaries a few years back, now propping each other up. Jackson, 61, who has won nine championships as a coach, criticized Bryant in a tell-all book in 2004, but has since mended fences with the player he once referred to as “uncoachable.”
The two discussed a passage from a story in Tuesday’s editions of The Times that infuriated Bryant. It read: “Nevertheless, as a Lakers insider notes, it was Bryant’s insistence on getting away from Shaquille O’Neal that got them in this mess.”
Bryant wanted to know the exact identity of the insider. Jackson asked him to relax.
“He told me, ‘I can’t blame you. I’d do the same thing. It’s messed up. We’re going to try and figure things out ourselves within this organization internally,’ ” Bryant said.
Together, at the best of times, O’Neal and Bryant were an unbeatable tandem, driving the Lakers to championships in 2000, 2001, and 2002. But at their worst, the two stars bickered incessantly and brought an end to what could have been a long-running dynasty. The Lakers have not won a playoff series since O’Neal was traded in July 2004 and have a 121-125 record the last three seasons, not including two first-round playoff exits.
Bryant also said Jackson told him to “just relax and just kick back, continue your training and enjoy your vacation. We’ll address the issues. We have to do something in terms of bringing in talent and looking internally into the organization.”
So Bryant went to see his young daughter in her ballet class. He tried to take his mind off of the events swirling around him but was continually hit with text messages and calls on his cellphone.
When he spoke to The Times at 5:27 p.m., he reiterated his position from earlier in the morning.
“Nothing’s changed,” Bryant said. “It’s just a matter of I don’t want to go no place else. I don’t have much of a choice. When things like this go down, you just sit back. What can I do? It’s like a broken record.”
When asked if he still wanted to be traded, he answered quickly and firmly: “Yes.”
The Lakers have no interest in trading Bryant, who has four years and $88.6 million left on his contract. But Bryant has the option of voiding his contract after the 2008-09 season. The two-time scoring champion, widely acknowledged as the game’s best player, has the NBA’s best-selling jersey and is a significant draw at Staples Center and on the road.
The Lakers were concerned enough to send a mass e-mail to season-ticket holders Wednesday, providing an e-mail address to “voice your concerns to Lakers Management.”
In fact, most of the Lakers’ brain trust was in Orlando, Fla., for a camp showcasing young players for next month’s NBA draft. The Lakers officials included General Manager Mitch Kupchak and Vice President of Player Personnel Jim Buss, son of team owner Jerry Buss.
The younger Buss, in the late morning, said it was too early to formulate a game plan.
“We’re trying to build a championship team and Kobe was part of that,” Buss said. “I have to talk to Mitch and my dad and also listen to Kobe as to why he’s demanding the trade. Trading Kobe wasn’t in our plans in any way, but we have to listen to him and see what this whole thing’s all about.”
Then, an hour later, came a statement released by the team that carried a similar theme from the elder Buss, who gave the go-ahead in July 2004 to sign Bryant to his seven-year, $136.4-million contract.
“We are aware of the media reports,” Buss said. “However, Kobe has not told us directly that he wants to be traded. We have made it very clear that we are building our team around Kobe and that we intend for him to be a Laker his entire career. We will speak directly to Kobe and until we do that, we will not comment publicly about this.”
Jerry Buss is expected to talk with Bryant before leaving the country today for a vacation to an unspecified destination. A lot could be riding on it.
Buss, known as a first-rate poker player and the overseer of one of the most successful franchises in pro sports history, has a reputation for making the right move at the perfect moment. Or, as a source close to him said Wednesday, “His timing is pretty damn good.” Regardless, it won’t be a simple transaction if the Lakers decide to trade Bryant.
He will obviously waive a no-trade clause in his contract, but he has a trade kicker in his deal that will add $9.5 million to his contract, to be absorbed by any team that acquires him.
If the Lakers do satisfy Bryant’s wishes, they would almost certainly send him to an Eastern Conference team to avoid having to play against him four times during the regular season.
The Lakers will assemble in Honolulu for training camp on Oct. 3. Will Bryant be there?
“That’s an if for me,” he said. “I don’t know. There ain’t much I can do, bro.”
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What he said
Wednesday morning, to ESPN radio’s Stephen A. Smith:
“I would like to be traded, yeah.... At this point I’ll go play on Pluto.”
Midday, with ESPN’s Dan Patrick:
“I don’t want to go anywhere else. I want to be here for the rest of my career.”
Later, on L.A.'s AM 570 KLAC:
Phil Jackson said, “ ‘Let us try to work that out.... ' That made me feel a lot better.”
Finally, in a Times interview:
“It’s just a matter of I don’t want to go no place else.” But asked if he still wanted to be traded: “Yes.”