During the jersey retirement celebration for Pau Gasol on March 7, the seemingly universal love for the Spaniard as a Laker was palpable, as his No. 16 was raised to the rafters adjacent to his beloved teammate and brother, Kobe Bryant.
The myriad qualities that make Gasol who he is were on full display: his grace; humility; perspective; intelligence; and passion.
“It’s beautiful,” he said during his press conference. “Been so lucky to have enjoyed such a special chapter playing basketball, playing in the NBA, playing for several teams, but obviously the Lakers being a very special one. Tonight, it just – the anticipation, excitement, the honor received, it’s so big to me that it’s gonna be really hard to take in. I have to keep reminding myself it’s a celebration, it’s great, it’s lovely. It’s amazing that you can experience this in your life and have so many people around who have followed you and joined you and been next to you on your journey. So it’s amazing, yes, and all I can say is thank you.”
But make no mistake, the biggest reason Gasol’s jersey was raised into Lakers immortality alongside Kobe, Shaq, Magic, Kareem, Worthy and so on is simple: he was an awesome basketball player.
His hoops beginning reads like a movie: a gangly child born in 1980 grew a bit tall for futbol, in a city where F.C. Barcelona’s legend dwarfs all. He started developing basketball skills as he grew and grew, and when he was 12 years old, the greatest basketball players in the world came to his hometown for the 1992 Olympics, with Jordan, Magic and Bird headlining, and Barkley strolling the legendary La Rambla.
Who knows … perhaps Gasol would have reached basketball glory regardless of that additional inspiration; he was blessed with terrific hand-eye coordination, soft hands, agile feet, and a work ethic that allowed rapid growth of a hoops skillset.
“Life goes by pretty fast, right?,” pondered Gasol. “In the blink of an eye, you can be a kid playing basketball in your school with your buddies, then all of a sudden, you’re realizing your dream and becoming a professional, and now you’re trying to get better, trying to be better, trying to prove yourself, trying to keep growing. And now all of a sudden you have a chance to fulfill a bigger dream which was to play in the NBA.”
After being drafted third overall by Memphis in 2002, Gasol spent six-and-a-half seasons there, including one All-Star appearance. Them came a critical day in his, and Lakers, history. On Feb. 1, 2008, L.A. acquired Pau Gasol and a second round pick from Memphis for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, the draft rights to Marc Gasol and two future first round picks.
The Lakers promptly made it to the next three NBA Finals, and won championships for the franchise in both 2009 and 2010, as Gasol partnered almost perfectly with Kobe.
“You fulfill that dream and you just keep going, keep going, keep pushing yourself,” Gasol mused. “And now you have a chance to play for the greatest franchise in basketball, and one of the best in sports. All right, and Kobe welcomes you and says, ‘Let’s go out there and win us a ring.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, I’m in.’ And then you’re here, and you get through three straight Finals. It’s hard to take it all in.”
Gasol would finish with six All-Star appearances and make an All-NBA team three times (Second Team in 2011; Third Team in 2009 and 2010), boasting career averages of 17.0 points (50.7 percent field goals), 9.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.6 blocks and 0.5 steals with 2.2 turnovers in 33.4 minutes per game in his 17 NBA seasons.
All of it ran through his mind as he watched his jersey rise up.
“Tonight, it really exceeds any dream or expectation that I’ve had because it means so much,” he said. “And obviously with Kobe up there, it just adds something meaningful and powerful, and sad and happy, and painful and joyful. It’s a lot of things. So just really honored to have such a privilege to experience – not that, I’ve done my part, no one gives you recognition for free or anything like that, and I appreciate it a lot, I value it. But it’s been an incredible journey.”
To have his jersey now resting next to Kobe’s is of great significance to Pau.
“He definitely inspired me and showed me what it took to be the best player that he could be,” explained Gasol. “The work ethic, the dedication, the mindset going into it. He challenged me to get better with his actions, with his work … I was in. I was all the way in. I would go as far as he would want me to go. I wanted to win. It was a very special time. Very special years.
“He really elevated me I think as he did with most of the players that we had, all of us. When you’re around a player or person of that caliber that demands excellence of himself and of everybody else, I think that’s something that you want to be around. What I tried to do was complement him; really provide as much as he needed and the team needed at the time. I had to evolve as a player to be better, in order to be that second great player of the team, and I put my mind and effort and heart into it to do that.”
Gasol was also perhaps the most important player in the history of the Spanish National Team, and was named the 2008, 2009 and 2010 European Player of the Year by La Gazzetta dello Sport. Gasol led Spain to the 2006 FIBA World Championships Gold Medal as MVP. He also captained Spain to silver medals in the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympic games, losing to Kobe’s Team USA. Spain captured its first ever European gold medal at the 2009 Eurobasket championships, where Gasol was again named MVP; they won again in 2011.
“I think (my NBA and international accomplishments are) all unique and special, in a similar but different way,” offered Gasol. “Because the circumstances are different. The environment, the league is different. The competition is different. But I cherish them all.
If he had to isolate one highlight of his career, it was prevailing in a grueling Game 7 of the 2010 Finals against L.A.’s archrival, the Boston Celtics, who’d beaten Gasol and the Lakers in the 2008 Finals. Playing 42 minutes, Gasol scored 19 points, grabbed 18 rebounds – including eight offensive – and added four assists with two blocks for a +7 in an 83-79 battle for the ages.
“It’s just hard to imagine a bigger game,” he said. “I wish we would have won one of the Olympic finals against the U.S. in ’08 or ’12. That would have been nice. And I’m proud of the way we played, the way I played and the way we competed. And the way we made our country proud and how we, I think, inspired as an international country, other countries to do better. That it’s possible to challenge a great U.S. team and have a chance to beat them.”
A beloved teammate on and off the court, Gasol received the 2011-12 J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, plus the inaugural Kia Community Assist Award (2011-12) to recognize his ongoing charitable work.
Perhaps it’s fitting that on a night just for him, Gasol was thinking just as much of his teammate, friend, and brother.
“I miss him a lot,” Gasol said of Kobe. “I miss him a lot. There’s nothing I can do about it, but to love his family. That’s how I deal with it.”