If any team could have pulled Kobe Bryant out of the Los Angeles Lakers' locker room at Staples Center, it would have been the Los Angeles Clippers, Bryant said. In the end, all that Lakers tradition, and $30 million more were enough to keep the five-time NBA All-Star in purple and gold, rather than red, white and blue.
"I've been a Laker fan since I was a little kid, and being a Laker is part of me," Bryant said in a news conference last night. "Watching Magic [Johnson] growing up and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and James Worthy and all these fabulous players ... is in my heart. This is what I do, and this is the team that I want to play for."
Bryant, who signed a seven-year contract worth at least $130 million, will become the face of the most glamorous team in basketball without having his frequent sparring partners, former coach Phil Jackson and teammate Shaquille O'Neal.
But Bryant, who was perceived as secretly engineering the departures of O'Neal and Jackson, said he had nothing to do with either. Bryant said the perception that he did grease the floor under them "upsets me, it angers me. They did what they had to. They did what was best for their families. It had nothing to do with me."
Three days after losing in the NBA Finals to the Detroit Pistons, the organization parted ways with Jackson, who led the Lakers to three titles and four Finals appearances in five seasons in Los Angeles, but he ran afoul of Bryant, who wanted more shots.
The team made a run at Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, a favorite of Bryant's, earlier this month, reportedly at Bryant's behest, though the guard said he didn't recruit the Hall of Fame coach. Krzyzewski turned down the Lakers, and the team turned last week to former Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich to replace Jackson.
Then, on Wednesday, the team completed a blockbuster trade, shipping O'Neal to the Miami Heat for center Brian Grant, forwards Lamar Odom and Caron Butler and a future first-round pick.
Bryant and O'Neal had squabbled over their roles in the Lakers' offense over the five seasons of Jackson's tenure, with the former coach usually siding with O'Neal.
Bryant acknowledged that he and O'Neal had had disagreements, but said he would have been willing to continue playing with O'Neal, adding that he would have re-signed with the Lakers even if O'Neal hadn't been traded.
"It was a sad day in Los Angeles [Wednesday] for everybody," Bryant said.
Lakers owner Jerry Buss denied that any of the moves were made primarily to appease Bryant.
Under league rules, the Lakers held the advantage over all potential suitors for the services of Bryant, an unrestricted free agent.
The maximum that any other team could offer Bryant was a six-year, $100 million contract, while the Lakers could, and did, give Bryant, a seven-year deal worth at least $130 million.
Still, the Clippers, who have run a poor second to the Lakers in the hearts and minds of Los Angeles fans since moving north from San Diego in 1984, waged an apparently spirited competition for Bryant, who said he made the decision late Wednesday night.
"I could see myself being with the Clippers. They have a good young nucleus, but in my heart, I'm a Laker," said Bryant, whose eight-year career has been spent entirely with the Lakers.
On Wednesday, the Clippers traded two players to the expansion Charlotte Bobcats for draft choices to free up salary cap space to offer Bryant the maximum allowable deal. In addition, the Clippers reportedly agreed to move as many as 12 home games from Staples to the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, which is closer to Bryant's home in Newport Beach, Calif.
With O'Neal's trade, Bryant becomes the marquee player on the NBA's most visible franchise, but a significant obstacle still exists for Bryant before next season.
Bryant, who will turn 26 next month, faces a sexual assault trial next month in Eagle, Colo., on charges that he raped a 19-year-old hotel worker in June 2003. Bryant could face up to 20 years in prison if he is convicted, though officials from both the Clippers and Lakers were convinced that he would not be found guilty.