Kobe is staying with the Lakers
ESPN.com news services
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 championships.
"Kobe has informed us he's going to stay with the Lakers and sign a new contract," Lakers spokesman John Black said Thursday afternoon. Bryant planned to speak at a news conference at 9 p.m. ET.
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, 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.
"With Kobe, we're one of the premier teams," Lakers owner Jerry Buss said earlier this week.
Without him, that certainly wouldn't have been the case.
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.
"That's never really gone through my mind," Buss said of Bryant's legal issues. "I have trouble believing that won't work out well for him."
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 this past season despite his legal problems and a career-high 30.0 points in the 2002-2003 campaign.
The Lakers had an advantage over the Clippers financially, able to offer a contract lasting one year longer and worth over $30 million more.
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 Phil Jackson was informed he wouldn't return as coach next season.
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.
General manager Mitch Kupchak spoke warily of the Bryant situation Wednesday. He can rest easier now, as can Lakers fans.
Kupchak also said the Lakers hope to re-sign three other unrestricted free agents -- Karl Malone, Derek Fisher and Slava Medvedenko.
If they do, the makeover from this past season won't be quite so severe.
Kupchak said plans call for the Lakers to be a younger, more athletic team than before. Odom and Butler are both 24 -- younger and more athletic than most of the players on the Los Angeles roster last season.
"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 there.
The Lakers may go after aging free agent center Vlade Divac, who began his career with them in 1989.
That would be an interesting development considering it was Divic the Lakers traded to the Charlotte Hornets in the summer of 1996 for the rights to Bryant -- the 13th overall pick in the NBA draft shortly after his graduation from Lower Merion High in the Philadelphia area.
Divac, 36, has played with the Lakers' biggest rivals -- the Sacramento Kings -- for the past six seasons.
The Clippers didn't comment immediately, but general manager Elgin Baylor planned a conference call later in the day. League sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein that Bryant informed Clippers owner Donald Sterling and Baylor of his decision in a phone call shortly after 2 p.m. ET.
Bryant's decision was obviously a blow to the Clippers, who were hopeful of transforming from perennial NBA doormat to playoff contender.
The Clippers have 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 six-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.