O'Neal skips exit interview Friday

Updated: June 21, 2004, 4:52 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

Coach Phil Jackson might not be the only one leaving the Los Angeles Lakers.

The team's two biggest stars, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, looked Friday as if they could be playing elsewhere next season.

O'Neal has requested a trade, ESPN.com's Marc Stein has learned. And as expected, Bryant chose to opt out of his contract and officially will become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

O'Neal told the Los Angeles Times he was no longer happy with the team's direction, saying it had changed in the years since former general manager Jerry West left and took the job of president with the Memphis Grizzlies.

Jackson, who won three straight championships with the team, agreed with Lakers owner Jerry Buss to end his tenure as coach, the team said in a statement.

Jackson's departure was expected even before he met with Buss after the coach's participation in season-ending interviews with several players earlier in the day.

There could be several less-expected changes to follow.

Karl Malone has already opted out of his contract, although he hopes to play for the Lakers if healthy.

Gary Payton and Derek Fisher could follow Bryant and Malone and opt out of their deals. However, Payton reportedly is less likely to leave now that Jackson is going and Fisher seems to be having trouble deciding.

General manager Mitch Kupchak made clear the team's priorities Thursday when he said the Lakers would do anything they need to keep Bryant and would try to accommodate O'Neal if he demands a trade.

Apparently upset over Kupchak's remarks, O'Neal canceled his exit interview on Friday. O'Neal, who has been one of Jackson's biggest supporters, is under contract for two more years but could opt out after next season.

"When I was brought here by Jerry West, there was a team concept. ... It was something I wanted to be a part of," the Times quoted O'Neal on its Web site Friday night. "Now no one cares. I told you I'm all about winning championships. Now the organization is different. It seems right now they're trying to pit one person against another."

Kupchak said the Lakers will offer Bryant the maximum allowed -- seven years and more than $140 million. That's a lot more money and one year longer than any other team can offer.

O'Neal, Bryant and Fisher all joined the Lakers in 1996. Bryant had his differences with Jackson, especially over the triangle offense employed by Jackson.

Aaron Goodwin, Payton's agent, told ESPN's David Aldridge late Friday night that Jackson's departure makes it likely that his client will not opt out of his contract after all. Payton has until next week to decide whether to forgo the second year of his deal, which would pay him $5.4 million, and become a free agent.

Goodwin told Aldridge in a telephone interview that Jackson's departure -- because it means the likely demise of the triangle offense -- would make Payton more amenable to staying in Los Angeles. Payton made no secret of his dislike of the triangle throughout the season. His frustrations seemed to crest during the Finals, when he had little opportunity to attack Detroit guard Chauncey Billups -- who ultimately was named the Finals' Most Valuable Player.

O'Neal's stated desire for a trade could tip the scales back toward leaving for Payton, however.

"This whole Shaquille O'Neal thing becomes a different situation," Goodwin told Aldridge, "because Shaq was the one who recruited Gary to come there. And Karl [Malone] too, for that matter."

Goodwin did not say whether Payton would still want to remain with the team if O'Neal were traded.

Payton refused comment after his exit interview Friday.

Fisher had until Saturday to make a decision regarding his contract situation, but it was extended to next Thursday. He will earn $3 million with the Lakers if he doesn't opt out.

"There's a lot of emotions right now," Fisher said. "I talked to my agent 20 times yesterday trying to figure out what to do, how to make the decision."

That was before the date was extended.

"I think Derek has got a lot of value," said Fisher's agent, Mark Bartlestein. "We're going to try to come up with a deal that pays him what he's worth."

Bartlestein wouldn't elaborate.

"At the root of it, there's no question about me wanting to be here," Fisher said. "This is my life, basically, for eight years."

Fisher joined the Lakers in 1996 -- the same year as O'Neal and Bryant.

Fisher and Bryant joked and exchanged hugs as they left.

"There are so many question marks regarding our future, the total direction of this team," Fisher said. "I don't want to make a decision just to please everybody. Basically, this decision determines the rest of my career."

Fisher said Kupchak told him he would love to have him finish his career with the Lakers.

"That says a lot," Fisher said. "There's no question the Lakers would love to have me back. I would love to be back. Hopefully we can find some common ground. Business is business."

Fisher could opt out and sign with the Lakers and return for substantially more money. He has also made it known he wants to at least be able to compete for a starting job. Payton took Fisher's starting job when he joined the Lakers this season.

Malone, who opted out of his contract Wednesday, is expected to learn the severity of the knee injury he sustained during the finals in the next couple of weeks.

"They've got to let the swelling go down," Malone's agent, Dwight Manley, said Friday. "The Lakers have so many other issues going on, it's probably good for Karl to sit back and see what's going on before he decides what he's going to do."

Malone, who turns 41 next month, has said he would only play with the Lakers and only if he's 100 percent healthy.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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