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Lakers, Clippers await choice

LOS ANGELES -- Kobe's L.A. decision? Thursday could be the day.

ESPN's Jim Gray reported Wednesday that the NBA's premier free agent is expected to announce his choice between the Lakers or Clippers around 3 p.m. ET Thursday, when he is expected to contact both teams.

Earlier Wednesday, the Clippers, in an effort to clear out enough cap space to offer Bryant the maximum they are allowed (approximately $100 million over six years), agreed to trade center/forward Melvin Ely and guard Eddie House to the Charlotte Bobcats for second-round picks in 2005 and 2006.

"We have no idea whether Kobe will come back," Lakers general
manager Mitch Kupchak told The Associated Press on Wednesday after completing the Shaquille
O'Neal trade. "We're hopeful that he'll re-sign, but we don't even
know that.

"I think [signing with the Clippers] is a real possibility with
the cap space they've created."

Both L.A. franchises made their final presentations to Bryant on Monday night. Lakers spokesman John Black confirmed that Kupchak and new coach Rudy Tomjanovich met with Bryant in suburban Newport Beach while Clippers spokesman Joe Safety confirmed that team officials met with Bryant, but wouldn't elaborate.

"The meeting went well. I don't have a better feel what he may
or may not do," Kupchak told the AP. "Do we have a replacement player in
place? No, we don't. You can't replace a Kobe Bryant.

"I'm hopeful that he'll make a decision sooner rather than
later."

Bryant, who turns 26 next month, has played his first eight NBA seasons with the Lakers, who have the advantage of being able to sign him to a seven-year contract worth about $130 million. He also now could have the Lakers to himself, as the Lakers and Heat finalized a deal to send Shaquille O'Neal to Miami for Brian Grant, Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and a future first-round pick.

Both the Lakers and Clippers have said they're not concerned
about Bryant's legal problems, expecting him to be acquitted.

Bryant has pleaded not guilty to felony sexual assault, saying
he had consensual sex with a Vail-area resort employee, now 20, in
his hotel room in June 2003. If convicted, he faces four years to
life in prison or 20 years to life on probation. The trial begins
Aug. 27.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.