- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- "I already know what you're here for," Kobe Bryant said with a sly smile Wednesday as he approached a pack of reporters holding cameras and microphones at his fourth annual summer camp, the Kobe Bryant Basketball Skills Academy, held for the first time at the University of California Santa Barbara.
Bryant was making his first comments to American media in two weeks after jetting off to South Africa for the World Cup, but it didn't take long before the conversation shifted to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the free-agent frenzy that kicked off while Bryant was out of the country.
"I know all three of them very well, I'm friends with all three of them," he said about his former Olympic teammates. "I'm happy for Wade and for Bosh, they seem really happy with their decision. For me it's always been about them as people. I don't really care about the basketball stuff; that stuff will work itself out. As long as they're really happy with their decisions, that's what really matters most."
Bryant said he spoke to Wade and Bosh about their decisions in recent months, but not James. He empathized with their situations, having gone through it himself six years ago when he was courted by the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Clippers before ultimately re-signing with the Lakers.
"Those are tough decisions to make; I was a part of it before [in 2004]," Bryant said. "These are tough decisions. It affects your family and obviously the rest of your career. These are the decisions that you have to take some time and really evaluate them."
Should James join Wade and Bosh in South Beach, Bryant admits that the Heat become an immediate threat to the Lakers as they seek their three-peat title.
"You put a group of guys like that together, it's obviously extremely formidable," Bryant said. "You look at the Celtics and what they were able to do with their big three, absolutely they're a threat."
With James still undecided as the world waits for his decision to be announced live on ESPN during a one-hour special at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday night, Bryant said the NBA's current back-to-back MVP should block out any outside pressures and follow his heart.
"People are trying to take the decision out of his hands with all the hype and all the hoopla that's surrounding it," Bryant said. "Hopefully he makes the right choice for him, for his family and decide to pick a place where he's happy and doesn't feel like he has to make a particular choice because of the circus that's around them."
As much as he cares about his friend's future, Bryant won't be tuning in when James finally reveals his choice.
"I'm going to be here, I'm going to be here [at camp]," Bryant said, having earlier expressed his disdain for the coaches who lent their names to basketball camps he attended in his youth, then were nowhere to be found in the gym. "My kids take precedent over everything. This camp is for them, so I'll be here working with them."
Besides, as much as Bryant is interested in where James will end up, there is one free agent significantly higher on his radar these days: Derek Fisher.
"We need to have him back, it's as simple as that," Bryant said about his fellow co-captain with whom Bryant joined the Lakers as rookies together back in 1996. "It's not a question of if he will be back; it's a matter of when."
Talks between the Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and Fisher's agent, Rob Pelinka, have not moved much in the week since the free-agency negotiating period opened on July 1. Fisher is seeking a two-year deal valued close to $10 million. The Lakers' starting point for an offer was reportedly half of that.
"I don't care what [the cost] is," said Bryant, who also said some variation of the phrase "we need Derek back" six times during his comments on the subject -- once for every ring the pair can win together if Fisher comes back to capture a third straight championship next year. "They need to work that out and get him back because his significance to our ballclub and to me cannot be understated.
"He's our big-shot maker, he complements me in terms of leadership in the locker room because he's the guy that puts his arms around everybody and he's our emotional leader and that allows me to be the taskmaster. We need to get him back and have him be a part of this group and in the fold.
"I'm optimistic that it will happen but we got to get that done."
Bryant said he is "sure" he will speak with Kupchak at some point during the free-agency process as the team makes decisions on retaining guys like Fisher, Shannon Brown and Josh Powell, but he will try to maintain his distance.
"I don't interfere with that," Bryant said. "I don't get in the way of that. I separate myself from it. It's hard to go in there and be a part of it because these guys are my friends. That's the kind of guy I am. You play on this team, you're a family, it's not just a team and it's like that forever -- Ronny Turiaf, Trevor Ariza -- it's a bond that we carry forever, so I don't like getting involved in that stuff, so I just let Mitch just do his job."
Bryant was all for the one free-agent acquisition the Lakers have already reportedly made in point guard Steve Blake, who agreed to a four-year deal worth $16 million.
"I love that pickup," Bryant said. "I love that pickup. Every time I played against Blake when he was in Portland and when he matched up with me, he obviously gave up a lot in size and weight but he fought me hard every time. And I hit him with some nasty elbows, believe me, but he kept fighting, he kept battling, kept battling and to me, that's the kind of guy I want on my team so it says a lot about him."
Bryant was in great spirits and seemed energized about the prospect of a full summer ahead of him without any basketball commitments after USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo announced this week that Bryant would not play in the World Championships in Turkey next month.
"Having the summer off from USA Basketball, Mr. Colangelo was very understanding about my situation and I greatly appreciate that, that gives me more time to make sure I'm completely ready to go," Bryant said.
Bryant said he has met with the Lakers medical staff and has yet to make a decision on whether offseason surgery will be necessary on the arthritic knuckle on the right index finger he fractured in December, his perennially bothersome right knee or his left ankle, which caused him to miss a handful of games in the regular season.
"We're still finalizing all of that stuff," Bryant said. "It's taking a little time but we're still way ahead of schedule in terms of where we'll make the final decision. ... We're progressing. We're finalizing plans now and I'll be ready to go come next season."
Bryant also endorsed Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw as a worthy candidate to succeed Phil Jackson as head coach should Jackson stick to his statement that 2010-11 would be his "last stand." Said Bryant: "I've known Brian since I was like 10 and I beat him in a shooting game. I've seen him grow and continue to learn. It helps that he's coaching under Phil. It seems as he should be the likely candidate [to take over]. I would love to see Brian coach."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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