LOS ANGELES (AP) _ 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.
``It feels great to be in the city of Los Angeles playing for the Lakers the next seven years,'' Bryant said after Thursday's news conference where he signed his lucrative contract. ``It feels unbelievable.''
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 insisted he had nothing to do with the departures of O'Neal and former head coach Phil Jackson.
``That upsets me. That angers me. That hurts me,'' Bryant said of speculation that he was involved in the team's decision-making.
``They did what they had to do. That had nothing to do with me. In a perfect world, we would have all come back and won another (championship).''
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.
``I always wanted to be a Laker,'' Bryant said. ``It's in my heart. This is what I do, this the team I want to play for and have a chance to finish out my career here.''
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.
``Just leave it in God's hands,'' Bryant said when asked how he was going to deal with the next couple of months.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said that Bryant's legal problems have nothing to do with the team's decision to re-sign Bryant.
``If there is any risk, it was a risk we were willing to take,'' Kupchak said.
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 last season despite his legal problems and a career-high 30.0 points in 2002-03.
The Lakers had an advantage over the Clippers financially, able to offer a contract lasting one year longer and worth over $30 million more.
``We had every reason to believe our chances were just as good as the Lakers' chances,'' Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor said. ``It's always disappointing to not get a player like Kobe Bryant. Life goes on. We're looking forward to a good season.''
Bryant said he made his final choice Wednesday night, calling it a ``tough decision.''
``I could see myself playing for the Clippers. Ultimately, it was in my heart to play for the Lakers,'' he said.
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.
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 Jackson was informed by Lakers owner Jerry Buss that he wouldn't return as coach next season.
Bryant admitted that he feuded with both O'Neal and Jackson, but said that wouldn't prevent him from working with them again.
``I told both of them that I enjoyed playing with them,'' Bryant said. ``I even said at the end of the season that I wouldn't mind playing with them for the rest of my career. They each did what was best for them.''
Bryant acknowledged the Lakers face an ``uphill battle'' playing without O'Neal.
``It's going to be a struggle,'' he said. ``Dr. Buss has changed the direction of the team. We, as soldiers, have to do our part.''
The Lakers hoped to re-sign three other unrestricted free agents _ Karl Malone, Derek Fisher and Slava Medvedenko. Fisher's agent Mark Bartelstein said Thursday that his client has agreed to a 6-year, $37 million contract with the Golden State Warriors.
Kupchak said plans call for the Lakers to be a younger, more athletic team. 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.
Bryant's decision was obviously a blow to the Clippers, who were hopeful of transforming from perennial NBA doormat to playoff contender. They've 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 6-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.
``I've had conversations with Quentin, his agent, we will continue to talk,'' Baylor said. ``We still have 14 days left (to match the offer sheet).''