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Sat down with Kobe Bryant for his first one-on-one interview with The Times this season after Saturday's Western Conference All-Star practice and a few hours after Bryant had called the NBA to say traffic would keep him from meeting with the national media.
Before we began our little heart-to-heart on this Valentine's Day, I reminded Bryant, of course, that he'd be getting the "Boston parking lot attendant" treatment if I learned later he wasn't being completely forthright.
He nodded, so when I asked about his relationship with Coach Phil Jackson, he didn't seem to hold back.
"I don't like Phil as a person, but I love him as a coach," Bryant said. "Would I go to lunch with him? No, but I like playing for him."
He talked about Shaquille O'Neal: "I'd be lying if I said the challenge of playing on a team [without Shaq] doesn't interest me; everybody who knows me, knows how much I love a challenge, but that doesn't mean I'm leaving."
More than anything, Bryant said, he wanted to discuss the media's run-away conclusion that he had already decided that "he's outta here" at season's end because of his decision to opt out of his Laker contract.
"The people who are saying that haven't done their homework and are not being fair to me," he said. "The way I understand it, if I opt out of my contract with the Lakers I will have the chance to sign a contract that will keep me with the Lakers longer than if I accept an extension right now."
If Bryant signs a contract extension with the Lakers today, as some have suggested, he could extend his contract six years. If he opts out of his contract at season's end and then re-signs with the Lakers, he will be allowed to sign a seven-year deal.
Take it one step further. If he promises now that after opting out of his contract he will sign with the Lakers, he loses all leverage and the Lakers would be under no obligation, or pressure from other bidders, to offer him top dollar.
He said Saturday, "Money doesn't do anything for me," and wouldn't you like to see the look on the face of the Boston parking lot attendant after reading that?
Now I'm not buying the notion that money doesn't mean anything to Bryant because I've never meet a millionaire, or billionaire for that matter, who didn't want more money. The fact is, if Bryant accepted top dollar from the Lakers right now and signed a six-year extension, it'd cost him $30 million, which he could get from the Lakers if he opted out of his contract and then re-signed with the team.
Maybe money doesn't mean anything to him, but he's married.
"It's just business," Bryant said. "I promised the Lakers I wouldn't think about the contract until the off-season. I talked to Mitch [Kupchak, Laker general manager], and we're on the same page. He said we will get together at the end of the season.
"Listen, when you take everything I've said — that I want to be a Laker, I want to be here forever, the option gives me the opportunity to be here for a longer period of time — anything anybody else has to say is pure speculation."
Now, if you talk to the media here for the NBA All-Star game, a number of reporters will be happy to tell you they've "heard" that Bryant has told other players in the league: "I'm outta here."
None of these players has been identified, which makes you wonder if they really exist. I poked a finger in Bryant's chest, reminded him what happened to Kevin Brown in this space, and asked if he has told anyone he won't be back with the Lakers.
"Nobody. That's nobody," he said. "I've told nobody anything like that.
"Listen, I say I'm going to opt out of my contract and I say I'd be interested in the challenge of playing on a team without Shaq, and some [reporters] just run with the story thinking that it means I'm leaving."
The speculation that Bryant has already decided that his Laker career is over mushroomed when Bryant was quoted as saying, "I don't care," when quizzed about Jackson's contract status.
I offered him an easy out. Were you just being flippant? Or stupid?
"No, I felt I was speaking for myself and my teammates," Bryant said. "It's not a big issue to us because we have something to take care of right now, and speculation whether Phil is here or not doesn't matter. He's here. He's our general. Let's focus on that. We don't care about all that peripheral stuff or what might happen next year."
But what about Jackson? Did Bryant go to owner Jerry Buss and suggest something like it's Phil or me?
"No, I didn't talk to Buss," he said with a laugh. "I've got enough stuff to worry about without getting into something like that."
Some people have suggested, though, that Bryant doesn't want to play for Jackson, because he feels too confined.
"Do we get along man to man? No," Bryant said. "But it's a good relationship from coach to player. I think it's good to have some kind of push-pull relationship.
"I wouldn't have learned the mental aspect of the game without his help. You look at some of the other All-Stars, and they're playing on potential and talent. Phil has shown me a game at a different level, and so I've started to dissect it, understand momentum shifts and the little nuances. That's all because of Phil and his assistants. For me to say he restricts my game would be crazy.
"We don't have to have dinner together. We don't have to like each other. We coexist just fine, and to me that's what is important with me playing here for the rest of my career. It's not about getting along with somebody. It's about winning."
That brought us to Shaq.
"He makes the game so much easier for me, but last year I scored 40-some points in a bunch of games and why? To just score points? Do you think I want to go someplace and just score points? I score because I want to win, and we've won three rings with Shaq on the court.
"Does it interest me to see what it would be like without him? Sure, I think about it. I love challenges. But that doesn't mean I can't play with him or I want to get away from him. Where do I have the best chance to win? We won three straight here, so this place is looking pretty darn good to me."
Unless someone really understands the machinations of the NBA's complicated salary cap, however, Bryant's declaration that he wants to opt out of his contract, and maybe pursue the challenge of not playing in Shaq's shadow, seems to leave the door ajar for his departure.
"Depends if you want to look at the glass being half full or half empty," he said. "Just look at my track record. I've been a Laker fan since I was 6, Magic [Johnson] was my favorite player forever, since I came to this organization I've busted my butt, I love the organization, I love the fans, I love the city, I love Phil as a coach, love Shaq as a player, we've won three rings. With a chance to win four, the fans know me, they know I want to play every night, and they know how much I want to win.
"Now if you want to take all that stuff and throw it all away because someone writes an article based on speculation, it's just not fair. The fans here have been great to me and I can be here longer if I opt out of my contract. You're hearing that from my mouth. Everything else is pure speculation."