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NBA sets big-game dates

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NEW YORK — Kobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers will play the Dallas Mavericks on the opening night of the NBA season in one of three games scheduled for Oct. 28.

The league released its 2003-04 schedule Tuesday, also giving defending champion San Antonio a marquee spot on the first night of the season. The Spurs play the Phoenix Suns that night after the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers tip off the season's first game.

Bryant, charged with felony sexual assault in Eagle, Colo., will be allowed to play for the Lakers even if the charges against him have not been resolved.

Of the Lakers' 16 games in November, nine will come against Eastern Conference teams. Bryant's first game in Denver is scheduled for Jan. 7.

The schedule also includes a Dec. 25 tripleheader beginning with rookie LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers playing at Orlando in an afternoon game. A nighttime doubleheader includes the Mavericks facing the Sacramento Kings and the Lakers playing the Houston Rockets.

James, the most-hyped player to make the jump directly from high school to the pros, will open his season with three road games — at Sacramento, Phoenix and Portland. His first home game will come Nov. 5 against the Denver Nuggets and their heralded rookie, Carmelo Anthony.

The Cavaliers, who haven't appeared on network TV since Dec. 6, 2000, when they played the Chicago Bulls, are scheduled to make 13 appearances on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and TNT this year.

An NBA Finals rematch between the Spurs and New Jersey Nets will come two weeks into the season when the teams play at the Meadowlands. Their second meeting is Jan. 21.

Karl Malone, who signed a free-agent deal with the Lakers after spending his first 18 seasons with the Jazz, will return to Utah for the first time Jan. 24. He'll face his old team in Los Angeles on Dec. 7.

Another veteran signed by the Lakers, Gary Payton, will play at the home of his first NBA team, the Seattle SuperSonics, on Jan. 2. He didn't face the SuperSonics after Seattle traded him to Milwaukee during last season.

San Antonio forward Robert Horry will face his former team, the Lakers, on Nov. 6 when Los Angeles is at the Spurs.

Ex-Knick Latrell Sprewell will return to New York for an exhibition game in October, then do it again in a game that counts Dec. 23. Keith Van Horn of the Knicks will face his former team, the 76ers, on Nov. 22.

Alonzo Mourning of New Jersey will return to Miami for the first time on Jan. 23.

Sacramento center Brad Miller will not return to Indiana to face the Pacers until March 19, while Gilbert Arenas of Washington won't travel back to the Bay Area to face his former team, the Golden State Warriors, until March 26.