Friday, April 2, 2010
Updated: April 3, 1:56 PM ET
Kobe appreciates staying in one place
By Arash Markazi
LOS ANGELES -- When Kobe Bryant walked into the Lakers' practice facility to sign what could be his last contract in the NBA, the very first contract he signed 14 years ago was staring right back at him.
"They had a picture on the wall of the first contract I signed when I was 17 and had no facial hair," Bryant said, recalling that his parents had to co-sign it with him. "I remember that day like it was yesterday, and fast-forward to today, and it's really a blessing to be in one city."
The fact that Bryant will play his entire career with the Lakers was the first thing he thought of when he signed the contract. And it was the first thing he mentioned when he walked into a dressing room across the hall from the Lakers' locker room to address the media after the Lakers beat the Utah Jazz, 106-92, to end a two-game losing streak.
"I'm very excited to be here. It's very rare to have a player play his entire career in one city, so I'm very excited about it," said Bryant, who admitted that the contract extension he signed Friday will "pretty much" be his last deal.
Bryant smiled as he heard the names of the other players who will be with him on the Lakers for at least the next three years -- Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest -- before insisting the list wasn't quite complete yet.
"I told one more person I'm waiting for him next," Bryant said, referring to Lakers coach Phil Jackson, whose contract is up at the end of the season. "He's a big part of me as a player. I enjoy playing for him, and I made it very clear to him today that I would love to see him be back."
When Bryant was asked what Jackson's response was to his plea, he smiled and said, "He said he's definitely coming back.
I'm just joking."
Despite rumors that he might opt out and test the free-agent waters and possibly go to New York, Bryant insists that he never even thought about playing elsewhere and knew a deal would get done before the end of the season.
"I wasn't tripping on how long it was taking," he said "I knew it would get done. I knew I was going to be here. There was no rush; we both knew it would get done."
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak cracked an uncharacteristic smile before walking to the same podium where Bryant was two hours before the game to officially announce Bryant's contract extension.
"We're happy we're going to keep the core of our team intact for the foreseeable future," Kupchak said. "We're excited about the future."
For the first time since the Lakers finished their dreadful 2-3 trip, the idea of seeing this team together for the foreseeable future actually seemed like good news after they ran Utah off the court.
After dropping three of their last four games and looking as if they were simply going through the motions, the Lakers finally played with the passion and emotion of a team preparing for the playoffs rather than simply waiting for them to begin.
They opened up a 42-23 lead in the second quarter and never trailed, going on a 21-8 run in the fourth quarter to put the finishing touches on only their second double-digit win since the All-Star break. Even Sasha Vujacic, who hadn't played in three games after getting into a heated argument with assistant coach Brian Shaw, played a few minutes.
The Lakers played so poorly on their recent five-game trip that team owner Jerry Buss found time to pry himself away from the poker tables and his considerably younger female friends to watch the team practice Thursday and see his underachieving investment up close for the first time in 10 days.
As he sat in Kupchak's office, overlooking the practice court and surrounded by 10 championship trophies, Kupchak began to explain what was going on with the team before Buss stopped him.
"Mitch, I'm not here to talk about what we think may or may not be going on with the team right now," he said before walking down to watch the team go through practice.
"He just wanted to come down and indicate some support," Kupchak said. "He obviously watches the games and cares about the game, and he's aware and I'm aware we're not playing our best basketball right now."
Maybe it was just coincidence, but news of Bryant's contract extension couldn't have come at a better time for the Lakers. This was a team in need of some good news after dealing with injuries, losses and infighting over the past two weeks. While Bryant's new deal shouldn't change the way he or his teammates play, Gasol says he believes the news may actually pay dividends this season after going through a similar contract negotiation in December.
"When I was going through [my contract negotiations], I know it was on my mind and being discussed and dragging on, and I'm sure his situation was the same way," Gasol said. "I'm sure it was on his mind, too, so now that he has that safety and security and confidence that he's going to be here and we're going to be here for a long run, maybe it will make a difference."
Bryant said he didn't think his contract would make a difference in how he played but was hopeful that the way the team played on the trip would change the way his teammates approach the rest of the season going into the playoffs.
"Guys understand that we can be beat and know that, and you can look up and all of a sudden you got a short postseason, and it's that reality that needed to set in," Bryant said. "Fish and I can talk and talk and talk about our experience, but until the young guys feel that themselves, that's when the change happens."
As Bryant left the podium, the 17-year-old kid who had to get his parents to co-sign his first contract was now a 31-year-old man walking out of Staples Center with his wife, Vanessa, holding hands with their daughters, Natalia and Gianna. When his latest contract is up, Bryant will be two months shy of being 36 and possibly wrapping up the greatest Lakers career of all time.
"The challenge that I have is making the discussion as interesting as possible," Bryant said. "And winning a couple more championships would certainly do that."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.