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Buss says Bryant isn’t untouchable

Times Staff Writer

HONOLULU -- Jerry Buss looked relaxed in a seashell-print shirt and khaki shorts as he sat down near lush hotel grounds of botanical gardens and koi ponds, a paradoxical setting for his frank discussion of the very real possibility that his star player might not be on the team in two years, if not sooner.

The owner of the Lakers spoke publicly for the first time since his team’s off-season of disarray, providing details of his involvement and his deepest thoughts during several months’ worth of distress signals emitted by Kobe Bryant.

The conversation Wednesday also steered in other directions, touching on his opinion of his front office, whether he would sell the team in coming years, and Coach Phil Jackson’s unclear future with the franchise.

Buss, who has presided over eight championships and five other NBA Finals appearances in his 28 previous years of ownership, acknowledged considering offers for Bryant over the summer -- none of them deemed remotely good enough to act upon -- and also conceded that the gaping hole in Bryant’s contract could make the nine-time All-Star an ex-Laker by 2009.

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Buss, 74, also said Bryant was not necessarily off the table now that the new season had started. Offers will inevitably continue to trickle in, particularly if the Lakers struggle before the February trade deadline.

“I would certainly listen,” Buss said. “At any time, I think you have to do that with anybody. It’s just part of the game, to listen to somebody who has a dissatisfied player that you think is going to fit. You can’t keep too many loyalties. You’ve got to look at it as a business. He looks at it the same way I look at it.”

Bryant has four years and $88.6 million left on his contract, although he can end his Lakers career by terminating his deal in two years. Such a move by Bryant would leave $47.8 million of his money on the table, but would also leave the Lakers without one of the most dynamic players in their 60-year history.

“I tend not to think in basketball terms that many years down the road because things change so dramatically, but he could test the waters at that point,” Buss said. “If he still is in that frame of mind, then hopefully we can do a sign-and-trade and get some comparable talent. I would like to think that we win between now and then so that it doesn’t come up.”

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This will be Bryant’s 12th season with the Lakers, the former child prodigy now 29 and coming off an eminently vocal summer in which he requested to play for any other team, even if it meant being shipped to Pluto.

Buss tried to talk Bryant out of his mind-set at a June meeting in Barcelona, but Bryant continued to voice concerns about the direction of the franchise and reiterated his demand to be traded.

His unhappiness had steadily grown from the time the Lakers were eliminated by Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs, making it two consecutive first-round knockouts to go with a 121-125 regular-season mark since reaching the NBA Finals in 2004.

“He was very, very respectful,” Buss said. “I told him when I walked in that I was going to try to talk him out of it. And he said, ‘I’ll listen carefully.’ And he did.

“He listened very carefully for 30, 45 minutes. I tried to explain to him how much the city of Los Angeles loved him, and that to leave 10 million sweethearts for unknown territory might not be the right thing to do. But when I was finished, he said he basically felt the same way. And I said, ‘OK. With that, I will proceed to see what’s available.’ ”

Declining to give specifics, Buss said he might have pulled the trigger on a trade offer that was “within reason.”

“You have to get comparable value when you make a trade,” he said. “It’s very hard to trade somebody like him because people who have enough material to make it worthwhile are usually contenders and they don’t want to make the trade.

“What was offered was not ever under consideration. And I told Kobe that. I told him I would try my best to accommodate his wishes, but that I could not afford to let him go unless we got comparable talent, if there is such a thing. . . . I even told him occasionally what I was offered and I said, ‘You have to know that this is not in favor of the Lakers. This would just be terrible to do.’ And he said, ‘I understand.’ ”

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Buss said he never saw the amateur video in which Bryant referred to him as “an idiot.” Nor did he read a late-May website entry in which Bryant suggested he had been misled by Buss, who in the summer of 2004, Bryant wrote, “promised me that the Lakers would do everything to build a contender NOW.”

“I heard it second- or third-hand,” Buss said. “In that we haven’t been winning, the criticism of me, I think, is natural. . . . Quite honestly, since I did not read any of those other comments, I was a little surprised at him because certainly he’s never said anything to me like that. Always very respectful.”

Buss also addressed the fact that he might be losing his coach, something he would rather not experience.

Jackson, 62, is in the final season of a three-year, $30-million contract and has repeatedly said he would wait to sign an extension until properly gauging his health while recovering from a second hip-replacement surgery in a year.

“If he feels up to it, then he will sign an extension,” Buss said. “And hopefully, that’s what’s going to happen. I’m very fond of him. . . . If he feels up to it, I think he would probably declare himself for a couple of years.”

Jackson appeared to side with Bryant during the off-season, granting a series of interviews last month in which he tweaked the Lakers’ front office for not making big changes.

Buss acknowledged frustration at losing out to old rivals in Boston for Kevin Garnett’s services -- “I personally feel that we made a better offer than the people who were successful,” he said -- and also gave a vote of confidence to his often-criticized front office, specifically his son, Jim -- the team’s vice president of player personnel -- and General Manager Mitch Kupchak.

“I think Mitch does a terrific job because I’m right there and I know what’s happening,” Buss said. “Mitch has done everything humanly possible. Our team does not have a lot of tradable players. Hopefully we will have some in time, but currently we do not.

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“We’ve got two or three players that people would like to have, but they want them giving us not comparable returns. I am aware of every single trade that he has tried to make. What we had to offer just wasn’t sufficient for them.

“One of the big problems we had was that Kwame [Brown] and Lamar [Odom] were both injured at the end of the year so that nobody knew how they would come back. The other guy that was good was [Andrew] Bynum and nobody knew, ‘How good is he?’ Nobody knows yet, really.”

Buss also defended his son, crediting him for insisting on drafting Ronny Turiaf; casting an important vote in favor of drafting Bynum; and, more recently, bringing sharpshooting undrafted rookie Coby Karl to training camp.

“Jim, I think, is in the same boat as Mitch,” Buss said. “I think he is criticized for everything and I’m not so sure what any of us have done [wrong].”

Near the end of the 38-minute interview, Buss temporarily shrugged off the summer of discord and all the questions surrounding the upcoming season.

He said he thought the Lakers would win “50-plus games” if the roster were healthy, and he relayed a big-picture message. Despite the soap opera that his franchise can become on a moment’s notice, he is not selling the team any time soon. The plan is still to turn it over to his daughter, Jeanie, and Jim.

“People I trust offer me incredible amounts of money -- far more than you’d imagine,” Buss said. “These are credible people. I keep thinking, ‘OK, [if] I sell it now, I pay the taxes, I put the money in the bank and now I’ve got to decide what to do. I ought to do something with all this money that would be a lot of fun. I’ll buy the Lakers.’ It always comes back to there’s nothing I could do that would be more fun.”

mike.bresnahan@latimes.com


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