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How Pau Gasol made Kobe Bryant's family his own

Pau Gasol is honoring his pledge to mentor the young daughters of his former teammate and lifetime friend, Kobe Bryant.

Kobe Bryant holds his daughter, Giana, with Pau Gasol after the Lakers defeated the Magic in Game 5 of the 2009 NBA Finals.

The trust and friendship of Kobe Bryant was never given or shared with just anyone. That had to be earned, and the tricky part was understanding how. There was no blueprint, no step-by-step instructions, no straight line.

This was the quandary that confronted a mop-topped incoming center from Spain by way of Memphis who had to connect with a demanding and brilliant new teammate. And a frustrated one as well, for Kobe in 2008 was ornery and agitated. The Lakers, post-Shaquille O’Neal, had hit a snag. Most of Kobe’s teammates then were hopelessly helpless. And less than a year before, he demanded out, even going as far as taking a meeting with — sweet Christmas — Donald Sterling and the crosstown LA Clippers.

But hope walked into the Lakers locker room after a midseason trade with the Grizzlies. Kobe suspiciously sized up Pau Gasol, probing for hints, and more important, the answer to the trustworthy question:

Can I count on you?

The relationship needed time and the proper fertilizer to grow — as in, wins — but not too much time, because Kobe and the Lakers were thirsty for a championship. Like, immediately. He hadn’t won one in six years, which, to someone with his standards, was almost the equivalent of a lifetime. Kobe wanted and needed a co-star whose drive could nearly match his own. And so: Was Gasol motivated enough? Hungry enough? Brave enough to step into a foxhole with a Mamba?

Their dynamic was anything but automatic at first. Then, accelerated: The Lakers with Gasol made three-straight trips to the NBA Finals, winning twice. Gasol sank clutch shots in the postseason along the way, relieving Kobe of a portion of that burden, and helped ice the 2010 title with 19 points and 18 rebounds in Game 7.

Their time together in L.A. lasted seven seasons, and their bliss went beyond the basketball court, spilling into retirement where two old teammates from separate worlds found common ground as, well, commoners. Whenever they met, they shared stories over vino about hoops, business, and also family. Gasol had gotten married in 2019 and was eager to start his own.

That’s when trust revisited them again, a far deeper trust, when Kobe proposed a deal: “Send me your sons and I’ll teach them how to be tough, to fight, to work and go for it.”

And in return, before he, his daughter Gianna and seven others took that fateful helicopter flight on a foggy January morning in 2020, Kobe said this to his basketball brother:

“Ill send you my daughters so you can teach them about culture, awareness, things like that.”

Blended family forms through basketball, then tragedy

Pau Gasol with Kobe’s youngest daughters, Capri and Bianka, after the 2023 Jordan Rising Stars Game. (Photo via Instagram/Vanessa Bryant)

The most endearing sight at last month’s NBA All-Star weekend in Salt Lake City wasn’t Damian Lillard winning the Starry 3-Point Contest, or a dreamer named Mac McClung from the NBA G League bouncing his way to the AT&T Slam Dunk title, and certainly not the glorified layup line that passed for the game itself. None of that.

Instead, away from the TV cameras, and while the stands emptied at the arena, it was Gasol holding two young girls in each arm, the three of them giggling in the middle of the court, dancing, swaying, while dozens of workers walked by and went about their business. To the unsuspecting observer it was nothing more than a man with kids.

To those who knew better, however, it was a moment of purity … and necessity.

Gasol had just finished serving as a ceremonial coach to a team that won the Jordan Rising Stars game, which showcased the best young players in the league. And his first duty, after accepting the trophy, was accepting Kobe’s two youngest daughters. He held them longer than the hardware.

Gasol also gathered his own infant, and for a few minutes, a graying, 42-year-old 7-foot man was trapped in a kid zone and it was hard to tell who enjoyed it more.

There was Bianka and Capri, Kobe’s girls, brought to the game by their mother and Kobe’s widow, Vanessa. Along with Natalia, the oldest of the Bryant girls, whose nickname for Gasol is “Uncle Pau.” And there was Gasol’s daughter Elisabet, his only child, for whom Vanessa is the godmother. When Elisabet was born eight months after the helicopter crash, Gasol and his wife, Cat, chose the middle name “Gianna” for her.

“It’s just a way to honor Gianna, how much she means to us and our family, my wife and I,” Gasol said of the decision. “Gigi was meant to be a superstar. She was a mini-Kobe. She was going to rock this world. The way she was taken from us, so young, so abruptly, broke a lot of people’s hearts. To me she will always be a presence to my daughter.”

And so this thoughtful, attentive and delicate Girl Dad spent this day, like many others the last few years, merging Bryants with Gasols, and it seemed natural and reflexive, and there was a therapeutic aspect, too.

“The loss and the grieving,” Gasol said, “brought us closer together.”

By bonding himself with Kobe’s family, just as he did years ago to Kobe himself, Gasol was merely being dutiful, searching for the greater good, and most of all, fulfilling a request:

“I’ll send you my daughters so you can teach them … ”

More than teammates

Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol celebrate after the Lakers defeated the Celtics in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals.

One of Kobe’s many gifts was knowing talent when he saw it, and in the case of choosing a secondary mentor for his girls, he couldn’t have done any better. Gasol was built for this, just like those two Laker championship teams.

He was not, like Kobe, obsessed with basketball greatness at an early age. Gasol was born to a nurse and a doctor in Barcelona and aspired to be like them. Basketball at first only made a brief intrusion, in 1991. That’s when Magic Johnson contracted the HIV virus, shocking news that rippled across the Atlantic to an 11-year-old in Spain who decided he would someday be the savior to cure it.

But biology interfered. Gasol began a growth spurt which coincided with the Dream Team’s 1992 Olympic run right in his hometown. It was the perfect basketball storm, and as the sport began to snatch the interest of kids throughout Europe, Gasol was swept into the vortex. He quit med school and instead became the rising star of the Spanish league. Then he went third overall in the 2001 NBA draft, was the first foreign player to win Rookie of the Year, made multiple All-Star teams as one of the game’s great centers, and the rest was history.

He did not, however, confine himself to the athletic bubble. Gasol was raised to be curious and was sensitive and caring by nature. His hero wasn’t one of the European soccer stars or an NBA player, but Placido Domingo, the legendary Spanish opera singer who eventually became a close friend.

Check out the top 10 plays from Pau Gasol's career!

Gasol developed an intense appreciation of the arts, history, architecture, museums, world travel and fine food. He loved beautiful things. He became well-read, bilingual, cultured and respectful.

“I learned a lot just from being around him,” said Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Ricky Rubio, who was Gasol’s teammate on the formidable Spanish national team. “He’s one of those guys who goes beyond basketball off the court. He humbles you and always helps you strive for the best.

“He’s humble, he likes to talk to people, he’s really smart. He’s that type of a person. I respect him more as a person, and he was a hell of a player. One day I will tell my kids I was friends with Pau.”

When Gasol played for the Grizzlies, he became a fixture at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, often making unannounced visits to spend time with the patients and staff. His work with children didn’t stop there as Gasol joined UNICEF and the organization’s push to prevent infant malnutrition in Ethiopia, taking his pediatric efforts global.

Gasol therefore fit the most slanderous stereotype of European players, one that initially greeted him unfavorably in the NBA. Yes, it was true, he was indeed soft — like a teddy.

These qualities endeared him to Kobe, who spent much of his childhood in Italy where his father played professionally. He was a foreign player in spirit. For example: as teammates, they often spoke and shouted instructions and strategy to each other in Spanish during games to befuddle the opposition.

“He’s my brother,” Kobe said, “and will always be my brother.”

In many ways, Gasol was more of a kinship match with Kobe than Shaq, Kobe’s championship partner in a previous Laker life.

“We had that type of love and appreciation for each other,” Gasol said. “It even increased when we stopped playing. You had the competition, the teammates, the grind, all that was not happening once I left the Lakers and once he retired. And now we saw the truth, the true emotions, the genuine care and love for each other. That was us.”

And so Gasol’s thirst for life convinced Kobe to give him a role in the lives of his four girls, an honor that went beyond basketball. A role that, given the circumstances today, seems even greater than what it was meant to be.

“I hope he knows it’s not easy,” Gasol said. “I’ll be there for his daughters.”

Then his voice trailed off, before adding, “It’s hard. His youngest had no chance to get to know him … I wish he were here.”

Pau, Kobe ‘always’ together 

On Tuesday in Los Angeles, Gasol’s jersey will be retired by the Lakers. His number will rest between Kobe’s two retired numbers, and what a neat symmetry it will be: 8-16-24.

The ceremony will be noticeable by who’ll be in attendance: Vanessa Bryant and the girls. And obviously, who won’t.

“Every step of the way, he’s on my mind, in my heart, along with Gigi,” Gasol said. “And he’s gong to be there forever. I grew as a player, I played at a higher level thanks to him in great part. His leadership, his example, his approach really elevated my game, made me a better player.

“My name, my number don’t go into those rafters without those championships. And we don’t win those championships without Kobe Bryant. He’ll always be with me, in every moment, not just basketball moments.”

Gasol says Kobe would do the same for him — “absolutely” — and suspects Kobe would tell him to keep moving forward, enjoy life, be you. So that’s what Gasol does, only with an extended family.

“The girls mean a lot to me,” he said.

He makes birthday appearances. He dresses up on Halloween. He shows up on holidays. The Bryant and Gasol families take trips together — to Disneyland, on a cruise around the San Francisco bay. At some point, the opera, a passion of Gasol’s, will be on the itinerary. But before Mozart there will be ballet classes and Barbies. Because Uncle Pau will never forget the request:

“I’ll send you my daughters, so you can teach them about culture, awareness, things like that.”

It is easy for Pau Gasol to get misty discussing his time with Kobe Bryant, the crash, the painful days and weeks that followed, the recovery. But there is a bond created by two championships, the retired jerseys and especially three young girls that keeps him centered.

“His family’s my family,” he said. “We’ll be there all the way, through the good and bad times, loving each other and being there for each other. With all my heart, you know?

“I go forward, knowing he’s watching.”

* * *

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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