With his main antagonists of the past five seasons out of the way, free agent Kobe Bryant re-signed with the Los Angeles Lakers yesterday, ending a tense period for the club's management as the all-star guard considered jumping to the rival Los Angeles Clippers.
"I've been a Laker fan since I was a kid. It's in my heart," said Bryant, a six-time all-star whose seven-year deal will pay him approximately $136.4 million. "This is the team I want to play for and I have an opportunity to finish my career out here."
The Lakers staved off an intense effort by a half-dozen NBA teams, most notably the Clippers. Other teams in the running at various times included the Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks.
Even by Lakers' standards, the team's campaign to retain Bryant was chaotic. Bryant announced his decision a day after the team traded superstar Shaquille O'Neal to the Miami Heat and a month after the team parted ways with coach Phil Jackson.
Many league observers believe the Lakers severed ties with the two men, with whom Bryant feuded for years, to appease their 25-year-old guard. At a news conference in Los Angeles to announce his new contract, Bryant played down his clashes with O'Neal and Jackson and denied exerting pressure on the team to make a move with either.
"I was comfortable playing with Shaq," Bryant said. "I was comfortable playing for [Jackson]. . . . If Shaq had stayed here, I'd still be back. . . . We had an incredible run together despite the ups and downs."
The run included three titles in the past five years. However, days before the opener this season, Bryant lashed out at O'Neal in the media, calling him "fat" and "out of shape" and he also questioned his leadership abilities. During an interview with the Los Angeles Times in February, Bryant said that he liked Jackson as a coach but not "as a person."
Now this is unquestionably Bryant's team. But there remains a heavy cloud over the player -- he is scheduled to stand trial on felony sexual assault charges in Eagle County, Colo., on Aug. 27.
Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said that Bryant's legal problems had nothing to do with the team's decision to re-sign Bryant. "If there is any risk, it was a risk we were willing to take," Kupchak said.
The 6-foot-6 Bryant, who has averaged 21.8 points, 5 rebounds and 4.3 assists since the Lakers obtained his draft rights from the Charlotte Hornets in 1996, must show he can lead the franchise to championships without O'Neal.
With the center gone, Bryant is the team's only all-star as it rebuilds around him and the players it acquired from Miami for O'Neal. The Lakers received forwards Lamar Odom, Brian Grant and Caron Butler and a first-round draft pick.
The Lakers suffered another loss last night when veteran guard Derek Fisher signed a six-year, $37 million contract with the Golden State Warriors, according to the Associated Press.
As Bryant continued to weigh offers, the Clippers were said to be one of Bryant's favorites because of his wish to continue residing in Los Angeles. On Monday evening, members of the Clippers' management met with Bryant in a final attempt to sway him. The Clippers appeared to up the ante on Wednesday when they traded Marvin Ely and Eddie House to the expansion Charlotte Bobcats, presumably to free up cash for Bryant.
Bryant said last night that he was willing to play for them. If he had, it would have been a massive triumph for the Clippers, an organization that has long languished in the Lakers' shadow.
Martin Dealt to Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets traded three first-round draft picks to obtain New Jersey Nets forward Kenyon Martin, bolstering a front line that already includes forward Carmelo Anthony and center Marcus Camby.
The sign-and-trade deal included a new seven-year contract for Martin.
Martin shined in New Jersey's transition offense and established himself as one of the East's best defenders. He averaged 16.7 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks last season.
Like New Jersey, Denver is a running team and the Nuggets expect Martin to thrive in the team's offense.
Anthony, in the District yesterday shooting a commercial on the campus of American University, said that he was excited about the prospect of playing with Martin.
Nuggets management "has done a great job," said Anthony, who came in second behind Cleveland Cavaliers guard LeBron James for rookie of the year honors. "Everybody knows what [Martin] can do."