Bryant Still Draws Interest, Even With Trial Looming
By CHRIS BROUSSARD
Published: June 30, 2004
n off-season already rife with suspense will reach another level tomorrow, when N.B.A. teams will be allowed to begin contacting free agents. Although players like Kenyon Martin, Rasheed Wallace and Steve Nash will be available, by far the most intriguing and unusual scenario will be the one that unfolds around Kobe Bryant.
Bryant, the Lakers' all-star guard, has opted out of his contract and is excited about testing the free-agent market for the first time. The Lakers can offer Bryant the most lucrative contract and even appear willing to trade Shaquille O'Neal to appease him, but Bryant has made no commitment to them.
The Phoenix Suns will attempt to woo Bryant, and Atlanta, Denver and San Antonio may also try. Bryant might even join the Lakers' forlorn next-door neighbors, the Los Angeles Clippers.
But any team that pursues Bryant also has to confront uncertainty. He will go on trial Aug. 27 in Eagle, Colo., on charges of felony sexual assault, which carries a potential sentence of four years to life in prison.
Bryant's suitors appear to be undeterred, eager to pursue him - and in the Lakers' case, to deconstruct a dynasty - in order to land a player who might not be available for several years, or perhaps ever.
"He's universally looked at as one of best players in the league," Rod Thorn, president of the Nets, said. "Other than this instance, he's never had any scandal attached to him at all in the course of his life. This is certainly a sad thing, but he's a terrific player that kid."
The Lakers appear ready to put their franchise in the hands of Bryant, who, at 25, is an eight-year veteran. The team has already offered him a seven-year deal worth about $130 million, depending on where the league sets next season's salary cap.
The team has its reasons for hoping Bryant will be able to play next season. Last July, shortly after he was charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman, the Lakers hired a criminal lawyer in Colorado to advise them on the pretrial proceedings. Almost from the beginning, the lawyer has been indicating that Bryant has a good chance of being acquitted, according to an agent who has been dealing with the team.
"The lawyer has been optimistic from the start that this case was not going to end in a conviction, and everybody in the organization has moved in that direction," the agent said. "Early on, he was telling the Lakers there were problems with the case."
Although teams may approach Bryant with the expectation that he is likely to be acquitted, they, of course, cannot be certain of the outcome of a trial. And no one knows what the ramifications would be if he were convicted.
Would Bryant's contract be terminated, or would he be suspended without pay and remain bound to a club upon his release? How would a conviction affect a club's payroll in relation to the salary cap?
Even the National Basketball Association's lawyers, who were not made available for comment, are unsure. According to officials from the league and the players union, the N.B.A. plans to handle the situation as it unfolds, because it has no precedent for dealing with such an incident.
Every N.B.A. contract includes a morals clause, which gives teams the right to terminate a player's contract under certain circumstances.
One of the provisions states that a team may terminate a contract if a player "at any time fails, refuses or neglects to conform his personal conduct to standards of good citizenship, good moral character (defined here to mean not engaging in acts of moral turpitude, whether or not such acts would constitute a crime), and good sportsmanship, to keep himself in first-class physical condition, or to obey the team's training rules."
In Bryant's case, a team will know before signing him that he may have violated the morals clause. "In this case, you know this going in," Thorn said. "This is not a case where a team signs a guy and then he does something. Everybody knows what's going on with him before they sign him. It's kind of like when we signed Alonzo Mourning. Everybody knew he had a kidney condition. And when that condition sidelined him, after the fact, it was like, 'That's your tough luck.' "