Malone declines $1.65M option

LOS ANGELES -- Karl Malone became a free agent Wednesday by not informing the Los Angeles 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.

After earning around $19 million in the 2002-03 season with
the Utah Jazz, Malone joined the Lakers last summer, signing a two-year contract with a player option for the second year. He earned $1.5 million this season and would have made $1.65 million next year had he exercised his option.

Retirement is a distinct possibility for Malone, who turns 41
this summer and is the second-leading scorer in NBA history. He
missed 39 games after tearing a ligament in his right knee last
December, and injured the same knee again in the playoffs.

"The first priority for him is we're going to meet with doctors
this week and have MRIs done on both legs, specifically his right
leg," Manley said. "He has made it clear he won't play if he's
not 100 percent healthy.

"I believe his heart and his competitive juices are in L.A.
because he came so far and was such a factor in the Lakers'

Malone, who played the first 18 years of his career with the
Jazz, signed with the Lakers in hopes of winning his first
championship. But it didn't happen as they lost to the Detroit
Pistons in the NBA Finals in five games -- the finale a 100-87
setback on Tuesday night.

Malone watched from the bench in street clothes because of the
knee injury.

Injured in the Western Conference finals against Minnesota, he
had his knee drained five days before the finals began. He was hurt
again in Game 2 of the finals and was clearly hampered in Games 3
and 4, limited to a total of 39 minutes.

He then decided to sit out Game 5. The Lakers were a different
team without Malone at full strength.

"I just couldn't go (in Game 5)," he said. "Those were two of
the most difficult games I've ever played. I got hurt on a freak
accident. I made a cut and it just went out on me."

Manley said Malone doesn't regret signing with Los Angeles.

"He's very sure he made the right choice," Manley said.

Malone was close to Shaquille O'Neal before joining the Lakers
and became even closer afterward. He also bonded with Kobe Bryant.

Malone, Bryant and Manley, who all live in Orange County, flew
home together from Detroit. The 25-year-old Bryant has said Malone
is like a big brother to him.

Malone's career in Utah was virtually injury-free -- he played in
1,434 of a possible 1,444 regular-season games with the Jazz.