Bryant: 'The Lakers know exactly where I stand'
LAS VEGAS -- It was a simple yes or no question, and Kobe Bryant could have ended much of the speculation over his future simply by answering it.
"Do you still want the Lakers to trade you?"
As we walked toward the team bus some 40 minutes after Team USA's practice ended Saturday, this was his response:
"I'm not going to answer that question. The Lakers know exactly where I stand, and they've known exactly where I stand since the beginning of the summer."
The Kobe story might have regained some legs, thanks in large part to an on-camera interview Bryant gave to ESPN colleague Rachel Nichols in which he seemed to give an indication that things between him and the Lakers had smoothed over.
Here's a section of that interview:
Nichols: "You said one day you wanted to be traded, you said you wanted to be a 'Laker for life.' There were different phone calls back and forth."
Bryant: "I think a lot of people misinterpreted it. But that's water under the bridge to me, because going forward, we're handling our situation between ourselves, meaning the Lakers organization and myself. If things, if things were to be different, we both would have handled the situation a little differently."
"Water under the bridge," he said to Nichols. So I asked him exactly what he meant by that.
Bryant explained that what had washed under the bridge were the emotions and the frustrations he had been feeling earlier this summer when he first said publicly that he wanted the Lakers to trade him.
When I opined that people were going to hear "water under the bridge" and perceive that he was speaking of his trade request, he shook him head in response, frowning, and said that is why he is so reluctant to speak on the subject, because every time he opens his mouth, people walk away with a misperception.
Of course, that's because Bryant has made it difficult to understand what he wants.
It's been almost three months now since that crazy day in late May when Bryant was all over the board in interviews with Stephen A. Smith, Dan Patrick, Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times and Vic "The Brick" Jacobs of KLAC radio in Los Angeles, first saying he wanted the Lakers to "do the right thing, just do the right thing, man" and then saying he had always wanted to be a "Laker for life."
And just a few days ago, when Nichols asked Bryant how he was feeling about the Lakers at the moment, he replied with another answer that's open to interpretation: "It's my team. It's the team I play for."
Around the league, most people seem to think it boils down to this: Kobe still wants out, but the Lakers won't trade him -- at least that's the impression being left by Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak, who was unavailable for comment because he is not due back from a European vacation until Friday.
But if Bryant holds out, what choice would the Lakers have?
If Bryant were to stage a holdout (which would be his only leverage) and put his image at a colossal risk, the Lakers could try to wait him out, withhold his salary and hope he changed his mind after missing his paychecks. But would the Lakers honestly believe that would work? They know better than anyone that we're talking about perhaps the most stubborn player in the entire NBA, a guy whose competitive instincts take over any time he is challenged.
Is Bryant all of a sudden going to lose that quality simply because the Lakers tell him they're not going to trade him? I think not.
And I'd further argue that any money Bryant lost through a holdout would be recouped by the 15 percent trade kicker in his contract, assuming he could retain that after forcing a trade. When I spoke to Bryant, I told him a "yes" or "no" answer to the question of whether he still wanted to be traded would clear up a lot of confusion for a lot of people, and he explained again that he does not want to propel his status back into the spotlight and steal the focus from Team USA.
So what we're left with is a somewhat cryptic explanation of the "water under the bridge" quote and little else to go on as we try to figure out what will happen six weeks from now as the Lakers open training camp.
And despite Kobe saying now that the Lakers know exactly how he feels, what is going to matter much more is how he feels then.
Will Kobe be there when the Lakers report to camp in Hawaii? After looking him in the eye and getting a bit of a fresh mid-August reading of his mood, I'm not so certain he will be.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.
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