Bryant says he’s staying with Lakers
AP Sports Writer
WL SEGUNDO, Calif – Kobe Bryant said he plans to stay with the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers even he if opts out of his contract this summer. Phil Jackson said his health will dictate whether he returns as coach.
Bryant met with Jackson and general manager Mitch Kupchak for an individual exit interview Friday.
The finals MVP can terminate the last two years of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. He’s spent his entire 13-year career with the Lakers, winning four NBA championships. But he could get a new, more lucrative and longer deal if he opted out.
Asked by reporters if he would opt out, Bryant said, “I’ve been deflecting that all year and I ain’t going to stop now.”
Pressed to explain, he responded, “I’m not going anywhere. I know I ain’t going nowhere, so it’s just a waste of our breaths just talking about it.”
Bryant turns 31 in August. He averaged 32.4 points, 7.4 assists and 5.6 rebounds during the finals, when the Lakers defeated the Orlando Magic in five games.
Kupchak met with reporters before Bryant did and said, “We have no indication of what he may or may not do.”
Jackson, who turns 64 in September, said he’ll decide about next season after he gets some health issues checked out.
This season, he missed two West Coast road games because of pain and swelling in his lower legs caused by plantar fasciitis, an issue “that concerned me a little bit,” he said. He blamed late-night flights that aggravated the condition.
He has undergone two hip replacement operations since October 2006 – using a cane at various times – and walks with a noticeable hitch in his step.
“I’m feeling good,” said Jackson, who was scheduled to appear on the “Tonight Show” Friday night, the same show Bryant visited two days earlier.
Jackson signed a two-year contract extension last season and holds the option on a second year. The contract contains a date by which he is required to tell the Lakers if he plans to return, but Kupchak said the team is willing to give Jackson the time he needs to see a doctor.
“That date is fast approaching next week,” Kupchak said. “We’re talking about hopefully getting him to indicate to us in the next week or two or three his decision.”
Bryant wants Lakers management and owner Jerry Buss to bring back starter Trevor Ariza and sixth man Lamar Odom, who both become unrestricted free agents on July 1.
“Extremely critical,” he said about bringing both players back. “Those are pieces that are tough to find. We have such a great team. It’s rare that you find a collection of guys that are so talented and willing to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the group.
“Now it’s just about keeping this group together so we can keep on winning this thing.”
Jackson also wants to see the team remain intact, including Ariza and Odom.
“I’m convinced that we can get both of these guys back,” he said. “Obviously, it’s going to take sacrifice on many parts.”
Bryant’s exit interview wrapped up a hectic week in which he led the Lakers to their 15th NBA title, made the cover of Sports Illustrated, hit the talk-show circuit and visited Disneyland.
His daughters, ages 6 and 3, who called him Grumpy because he frowned so much during the playoffs, are happy he’s home again.
“They just want me around all the time. They’re jumping on my back,” he said.
Bryant’s offseason plans include a trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, trying scuba diving, and attending a game between his favorite soccer team FC Barcelona and the Los Angeles Galaxy on Aug. 1.
“It’s going to be very relaxing. No evil flashbacks,” he said, referring to last season’s loss to Boston in the finals.
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