Kobe remains with Lakers

LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant's journey through free agency
ended Thursday where it began -- with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Bryant chose the Lakers over the Clippers, remaining with the
team he joined in 1996 at age 18 and later helped win three NBA

"It feels great to be in the city of Los Angeles playing for
the Lakers the next seven years," Bryant said after Thursday's
news conference where he signed his lucrative contract. "It feels

The decision came a day after the Lakers traded fellow superstar
Shaquille O'Neal to the Miami Heat. Now, it will be Bryant -- along
with incoming coach Rudy Tomjanovich and Heat imports Lamar Odom,
Caron Butler and Brian Grant -- who will lead them into the future.

Bryant insisted he had nothing to do with the departures of
O'Neal and former head coach Phil Jackson.

"That upsets me. That angers me. That hurts me," Bryant said
of speculation that he was involved in the team's decision-making.

"They did what they had to do. That had nothing to do with me.
In a perfect world, we would have all come back and won another

Bryant, who said repeatedly this past season he wanted to be a
"Laker for life," is poised to fulfill that declaration. His
contract will be worth more than $136.4 million over seven years.

"I always wanted to be a Laker," Bryant said. "It's in my
heart. This is what I do, this the team I want to play for and have
a chance to finish out my career here."

One significant obstacle remains for Bryant before next season.
He has pleaded not guilty to felony sexual assault and faces an
Aug. 27 trial in Eagle, Colo. He claims he had consensual sex with
an employee, now 20, at the Vail-area resort where she worked.

If convicted, Bryant faces four years to life in prison or 20
years to life on probation, and a fine of up to $750,000. The trial
figures to take several weeks.

"Just leave it in God's hands," Bryant said when asked how he
was going to deal with the next couple of months.

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said that Bryant's legal
problems have nothing to do with the team's decision to re-sign

"If there is any risk, it was a risk we were willing to take,"
Kupchak said.

Bryant, who turns 26 next month, has averaged 21.8 points in 561
regular-season games over eight seasons. He averaged 24.0 points,
5.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists last season despite his legal problems
and a career-high 30.0 points in 2002-03.

The Lakers had an advantage over the Clippers financially, able
to offer a contract lasting one year longer and worth over $30
million more.

"We had every reason to believe our chances were just as good
as the Lakers' chances," Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor
said. "It's always disappointing to not get a player like Kobe
Bryant. Life goes on. We're looking forward to a good season."

Bryant said he made his final choice Wednesday night, calling it
a "tough decision."

"I could see myself playing for the Clippers. Ultimately, it
was in my heart to play for the Lakers," he said.

Bryant also spoke with representatives of the Chicago Bulls,
Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks, among others, before narrowing
the field to the two Los Angeles teams.

Bryant became an unrestricted free agent when, as expected, he
opted out of his contract June 17 -- the same day O'Neal demanded a
trade and Jackson was informed by Lakers owner Jerry Buss that he
wouldn't return as coach next season.

Bryant admitted that he feuded with both O'Neal and Jackson, but
said that wouldn't prevent him from working with them again.

"I told both of them that I enjoyed playing with them," Bryant
said. "I even said at the end of the season that I wouldn't mind
playing with them for the rest of my career. They each did what was
best for them."

Bryant acknowledged the Lakers face an "uphill battle" playing
without O'Neal.

"It's going to be a struggle," he said. "Dr. Buss has changed
the direction of the team. We, as soldiers, have to do our part."

Bryant became an unrestricted free agent when, as expected, he
opted out of his contract June 17 -- the same day O'Neal demanded a
trade and Jackson was informed by Lakers owner Jerry Buss that he
wouldn't return as coach next season.

Buss, vacationing in Europe, called Bryant on Wednesday.

"He did get the last word," Bryant said.

Bryant said he sought guidance from Jerry West, the former
Lakers' general manager who acquired the rights to Bryant from the
then-Charlotte Hornets for Vlade Divac in the summer of 1996. The
Hornets made Bryant the 13th overall pick in that draft.

"He tried to help me as best as he could," Bryant said of
West, now the president of the Memphis Grizzlies. "He's always
been a great mentor to me. Jerry said it's his feeling I should be
a Laker for life."

Bryant took a large step in that direction Thursday.

"I called and left a message and wished him the best," Bryant
said. "He has to do what's best for him and his family."

The Lakers hoped to re-sign three other unrestricted free agents
-- Karl Malone, Derek Fisher and Slava Medvedenko. Fisher's agent
Mark Bartelstein said Thursday that his client has agreed to a
6-year, $37 million contract with the Golden State Warriors.

Bryant said he has spoken with Malone this summer and plans to
do so again.

"I'll reach out to him and we'll talk a little bit," Bryant

Kupchak said plans call for the Lakers to be a younger, more
athletic team. Odom and Butler are both 24 -- younger and more
athletic than most of the players on the Los Angeles roster last

"We'd like to increase the tempo of the game -- more up and
down," Kupchak said.

The lack of an inside game might be a problem, though. The
32-year-old Grant, undersized at 6-foot-9 and with tendinitis in
both knees, isn't a true center although he might have to play

Bryant's decision was obviously a blow to the Clippers, who were
hopeful of transforming from perennial NBA doormat to playoff
contender. They've won one playoff series in their history and have
qualified for the postseason only three times since moving to Los
Angeles from San Diego in 1984 -- most recently in 1997.

With promising young players including Elton Brand and Corey
Maggette, there was reason for great optimism had Bryant signed.

Now, they'll have to go in another direction.

Quentin Richardson, the Clippers' shooting guard, signed a
6-year offer sheet with the Phoenix Suns worth $45 million that
could be worth an additional $3 million with bonuses.

The Clippers surely wouldn't have matched had they signed
Bryant. Now, they might.

"I've had conversations with Quentin, his agent, we will
continue to talk," Baylor said. "We still have 14 days left (to
match the offer sheet)."