Karl Malone became a free agent yesterday by not informing the Lakers that he was exercising the option on his contract.

His agent, Dwight Manley, said it was strictly a business decision and that if Malone plays for anyone next season, it will be the Lakers.

Lakers spokesman John Black said the team expected the move because Malone would have locked himself into a lower salary than he likely will be able to negotiate should he decide to play.

"His options are unlimited now," Black said.

* RATINGS GAME: ABC's ratings for the Pistons' NBA Finals victory over the Lakers rose 62 percent from last year's record low, though the ratings remained the fourth-worst since games were switched to prime-time 22 years ago.

The Walt Disney Co. network's telecasts of the five-game series, which ended Tuesday night, were watched in an average 11.5 percent of the 108.4 million U.S. households with televisions, according to Nielsen Media Research Inc.

The Pistons' 100-87 clinching home victory drew 13.8 percent of viewers in U.S. households, the highest rating in the finals this year.

The Detroit market, the 10th-largest in the country, had a 49.8 rating for Game 5. Los Angeles, the No. 2 media market, drew 29.9 percent.

Last year's 6.5 average rating for a six-game victory by the Spurs over the Nets was lower than every Super Bowl, World Series and college basketball and football championship game.

* ALBERT IS OUT: The voice of the Knicks is changing for the first time in more than 30 years, as longtime announcer Marv Albert has left MSG Network.

Albert, 63, had provided play-by-play for the Knicks and the Rangers since 1963, except for a brief hiatus in 1997-98 after he pleaded guilty to biting a lover during a sexual episode. The conviction was later expunged.

"The timing of his departure is right for Marv, and thus is right for the network," an MSG official said.

-- From News Services