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Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant form unbreakable bond on road to back-to-back titles

Seven Lakers luminaries from Pau Gasol's era share how he impacted the team as they celebrate his No. 16 jersey being raised to the rafters.

Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant fueled the Lakers’ contending teams of the late 2000s and early 2010s.

Pau Gasol was startled by a late-night knock on his hotel room door. He was even more startled once he opened it. It was Lakers’ star Kobe Bryant, and he was here to greet his new teammate just hours after the franchise acquired Gasol in a midseason trade from the Memphis Grizzlies.

“Kobe made sure from the moment that I landed and joined the team that I was on the same boat that he was on,” Gasol told “I never heard that message [before], ‘Now let’s go win a title; let’s win us a ring.’”

Gasol viewed that message as Bryant’s attempt to “create that connection, appreciate me and embrace me.” Gasol shared the same intentions with his response. “I’ll do whatever it takes,” Gasol recalled saying. “I don’t care about points. I don’t care about anything. I need to step up my defense. I need to step up my rebounding. I need to be a better passer. Whatever it takes to get to the promised land.”

That late-night conversation marked the beginning of a bond that included Bryant offering plenty of motivational talks filled with praise, criticisms and challenges. Bryant and Gasol co-existed well enough to win two NBA championships in three Finals appearances in their first 2 1/2 seasons together.

With Gasol expected to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in August, the Lakers will retire Gasol’s No. 16 jersey Tuesday night at halftime of their game against the Grizzlies (10 ET, TNT).

Gasol, along with Lakers governor Jeanie Buss, former Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, former Lakers forwards Metta Sandiford-Artest and Luke Walton as well as former Lakers athletic trainer Gary Vitti all spoke to via phone about Tuesday’s jersey retirement ceremony, his role in the Lakers’ championship runs and his bond with Bryant. Former Lakers coach Phil Jackson also emailed reflections about Gasol. 

Editor’s note: The following 1-on-1 conversations took place separately throughout the 2022-23 season. They have been edited and condensed.

Where do you rank Pau getting his Lakers’ No. 16 jersey retired in relation to his other accomplishments? (The Lakers have also retired the jerseys for Bryant, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, George Mikan, James Worthy, Jamaal Wilkes and Gail Goodrich)

Buss: We always knew that Pau would make it in the Hall of Fame. That’s why we knew at some point we would retire his jersey, and this is the right time for us to do that. He really is unique among Lakers history for all of the great players that we’ve had. We’ve never really had a player with the international background that Pau had as well as him immediately having an impact from the day he joined the Lakers to eventually getting three trips to the NBA Finals and two NBA championships.

Kupchak: To get your jersey retired as a Laker? Not taking anything away from any franchise — obviously the [Boston] Celtics have a storied history as well — but just keeping in mind all of the great players that have come through Los Angeles, there aren’t too many honors that I would place above that. Obviously Hall of Fame, but it’s pretty close. I think it stands to reason that if you have your name on the Laker wall, then you’re automatically a Hall-of-Famer anyway.

Vitti: This has got to be the top of the list. To retire a jersey on this team and this franchise, you have to be nothing less than one of the all-time greats. The only thing that will probably be superlative to this is when he is inducted in the Hall of Fame. What makes that a little more special is when you retire a Lakers jersey, the population is just Lakers players. When you go into the Hall of Fame, there are players from all over the world from the beginning of basketball time. You get in that, and you obviously are saying you are one of the greatest players ever to have played.

What was your reaction when the Lakers acquired Gasol from Memphis in the middle of the 2007-08 season? 

On Feb. 1, 2008 the Memphis Grizzlies traded Pau Gasol to the Los Angeles Lakers for a handful of players including his brother Marc Gasol.

Kupchak: There wasn’t social media. You were able to do a deal quietly. We both agreed to do that. The negotiations went on for 2 1/2 weeks. I sensed there was a deal there. But understandably, they kept asking for more and more. It finally got to the point where they got what they asked for. They got an expiring contract (Aaron McKie). They got young players (the rights to Marc Gasol, Kwame Brown and Javaris Crittenton). They got Draft picks (two first-round picks for 2008 and 2010). They got money. There was a lot of backlash. That doesn’t make a GM comfortable. I don’t really want my counterparts to be exposed to that. It makes me feel good that we got a good deal. But I didn’t want [then-Grizzlies general manager] Chris Wallace, whom I have known for years, to get beat up a little bit. A year-and-a-half later, Marc Gasol emerged as a starting center. So, the deal doesn’t look as lopsided as it once did. In fact, it probably ended up being a pretty fair deal at the time.

It was a good deal. … My dad always said the best business deals are the ones where both sides benefit.” — Jeanie Buss, on the 2008 Gasol trade with Memphis

They were in a different place. They needed to rebuild. I think the owner was even looking to sell the team. Shedding Pau’s contract and getting young assets, which you see happening all the time today, was the right thing to do. We were in a totally different spot. We weren’t in a rebuild. We were trying to win. We had a guard [Bryant] that was obsessed with winning. There was no alternative. Both teams got what they wanted. Looking back on it, I think anybody might say it was a fair deal for both teams.

Buss: When my dad [former Lakers owner Jerry Buss] told me that the trade was in the works, all I could think was I hope this does not leak out because I believe there will be teams who will try to convince Memphis not to make the trade and come up with whatever they could to keep us from getting Pau. Most people were shocked at the trade announcement. I think there were even a couple of people in the NBA front offices that made public comments that it was not fair or that they were surprised because nobody saw it coming. The part that I’m most proud of is that it did not leak out and the trade was able to happen. It was a good deal. People have to remember that it set the Lakers on a winning course. But it was also good for Memphis because it received Marc Gasol, who ended up being a cornerstone for that franchise for many, many seasons. My dad always said the best business deals are the ones where both sides benefit.

Walton: My first thought is, ‘This is awesome; we just added one of the best big men in the league to our team.’ But we run a complicated offense. It’s going to take time to blend everything together. It’s not like he was traded in the offseason and we had a full training camp or anything. It was just incredible how quickly Pau picked up the offense and how smoothly the transition was and how well he really complemented everyone on the team, mainly Kobe, obviously.

Vitti: When we signed Pau, I wasn’t sure we were going to win. But I knew we had the potential to win because I knew how talented he was. I don’t think he ever would’ve gotten the accolades that he received as a player if he stayed in the small market like he did in Memphis. He would’ve been a great player. But I’m not sure they would’ve won a championship. But he was the perfect addition at the time for Kobe. 

Why did the chemistry between Kobe and you [Pau] work so well?

Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol lifted the Lakers to new heights together.

Gasol: It was timing in our careers. He understood to be considered one of the best of all time that he needed more championships. He wanted more championships. Michael [Jordan] was his idol and role model. He wanted to get the fourth and fifth to tie Magic and go past Shaq and six to tie Michael. That was his goal. You need to have those type of goals and motivations to actually get them. I came from Memphis and a situation where I had never had that opportunity to win a title. I was hungry as well.

Kupchak: Kobe knew that he needed Pau. He wasn’t going to go through another season or two and get beat in the first round. That just wasn’t going to happen. He knew what he had. Maybe he looked at him as a lump of clay that he could mold. Kobe would motivate. He would bark. He wasn’t always right, but nobody ever questioned his desire to win and his ability to play hard. He did not really give Pau any rope. It was always, ‘Okay, you have 18 [points] and 10 [rebounds], but you can have 25 and 11.’ But over the years, a real bond and friendship emerged. The fact that they both have ties to Europe was a positive. From time to time, they spoke to each other in Italian or Spanish. They had a little bit of a connection there.

Sandiford-Artest: They’re two killers. If Pau wasn’t a killer, it would not have worked. Kobe brought the killer out of him. Pau is a very respectable person and he’s a loving person. But sometimes that can get in the way of his killer instinct. Kobe is like, ‘I want you to bring it out every single time.’ That’s what Pau did. They also respected each other. Kobe respected the fact that he needed Pau. So, he got Pau the ball. Pau respected the fact that Kobe must have the ball, so he has to do something else when Kobe has the ball. I think it worked perfectly.

Pau was willing to be Batman’s Robin. Shaq wasn’t. Pau had an ability to read the game, read Kobe and react to what Kobe was doing and not get frustrated. … They complemented each other.” — Former Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, on the Kobe-Pau dynamic

Walton: They made each other better. Pau was able to take some of the pressure off of Kobe with defenses and game planning. Kobe clearly trusted Pau and was more willing to play within the system more often. He trusted us all, but he trusted himself more than anyone (laughs). As we continued to get better and Pau got in there, Kobe was more willing to let the offense do what it does. Pau would take over at certain times. That impact made Kobe better and made our team better. On the other side of the coin, Kobe would push Pau and challenge him to be better than he’d ever been. Pau embraced that challenge. It wasn’t always easy. Phil did the same thing. Ultimately it clearly worked. We would’ve never had that success without Pau. But I don’t think Pau would’ve had that success without that partnership with Kobe and Phil.

Vitti: Kobe had finally accepted that he needed a low-post player to win. Kobe didn’t want to play with a dominant center. Michael didn’t, and Kobe didn’t want to either. He told me that. After the Shaq trade [in 2004], Kobe said, ‘I don’t want to play with a dominant center.’ Pau was not dominant in the sense that Shaq was. But Pau was absolutely one of the most talented low-post players, especially of his time. Pau was willing to be Batman’s Robin. Shaq wasn’t. Pau had an ability to read the game, read Kobe and react to what Kobe was doing and not get frustrated. Pau played the game the right way. They complemented each other. Pau knew when to back off and let Kobe do his thing. Kobe probably wanted Pau to bang more and be more physical. But once he realized that wasn’t the way he played the game, then Kobe adjusted. They adjusted to each other and figured it out.

What lessons did you [Pau] take away from the Lakers’ loss to Boston in the 2008 NBA Finals and how did that apply to the Lakers’ title runs against Orlando (2009) and Boston (2010)? 

The Lakers lost 4-2 in the 2008 Finals to the rival Celtics.

Gasol: It had a big effect. The frustration and the pain that it caused us and me personally … it definitely fueled me. It made me a better player. It made me work harder. It made me more prepared. It made me more determined about winning a championship. Kobe was the same way. He had that fire in him. He wanted to win it so badly. That’s why he always motivated me along with Phil to be the best version of myself and to be the best player that I could be. To push me and challenge me to be better, I took that personally. That’s what mattered to me. It wasn’t so much about comments made on the outside. It was a feeling that we didn’t get this one, but we’re going to do everything we can to get the next one. We put ourselves in a position to do that, and we did.

Jackson: The humbling defeat by the Celtics during the Finals was a challenge to Pau. In the final game early in the first period, Kevin Garnett literally posted him deep in the lane, knocked him down, and dunked the ball. Probably an offensive foul, but not a call in that Finals. Pau took the challenge and worked on his strength game and was able to fight back in the 2010 Finals. Of course, Andrew Bynum was unable to play due to injury in the 2008 Finals. But he was injury free in the 2009 win over Orlando, and the seven-game series vs the Celtics in 2010. He and Pau were a potent force together with that Laker team.

Kupchak: That game 6 loss to Boston [in 2008] was just brutal. I’m sure the message was, ‘Don’t forget this feeling.’ The next season, we kind of rolled. The Finals against Orlando wasn’t really a series. Then the next year, the rematch with Boston was everything that you would expect that rematch to be. I remember that Game 7 [in 2010], Pau was possessed. Nobody could make a shot. The crowd was giving everything you needed as a player. But Pau’s second and third effort on rebounding, putbacks and being physical were critical. Pau didn’t make his name with being a physical player. He got the start in this league being a finesse player. Of course as he aged a little bit, he got stronger and put on some weight. But he was never considered a bruiser. But in that game, Pau played hard and was relentlessly physical. I don’t feel that he was outmatched physically by anybody on the court.

Sandiford-Artest: Pau is incredible. I heard little snickers that Pau wasn’t tough. So right before the [2010] Finals, I said to everyone, ‘If Pau gets in any drama, nobody help.’ I turned to Pau and said, ‘You handle your own. We don’t have time to handle it.’ In the first scuffle, you didn’t see one Laker go around him. There were four Celtics around him. He handled it on his own. Pau taught me how to play smart. He taught me how to win and how to play a role. I’m not as skilled as Pau. Pau is an automatic bucket. With his skills and his demeanor, it made me come back down to Earth a little bit and play a role.

Vitti: Pau was not a banger. I think he took unnecessary criticism for that. He was a great finesse player. Because Pau wasn’t a banger, he didn’t look like a tough guy. But when you’re looking at it from my perspective, Pau played hurt. There were times that he went out there and was either sick or had physical pain. He had a lot of upper respiratory infections. He was one of those guys that got sick all the time. But he would go out there and at least try. Pau never ever came to me to try to get time off.

Even when accounting for Kobe, Phil and the team’s depth, many in the organization argued that the Lakers would not have won two NBA titles in three Finals appearances without you [Pau]. What’s your opinion?

As a member of the Lakers, Pau Gasol was a part of 3 Finals runs and won 2 NBA titles.

Buss: I completely concur with that because we had such a solid team that just needed that one player that fit perfectly with Kobe Bryant, who was so dominant and was complementary to the triangle system that was in place. It takes a unique individual to match up and check all the boxes that Lakers team needed. It really is remarkable that Pau’s arrival with the Lakers was seamless not only on the court, but off the court with his worldly views and his maturity and his basketball IQ. This team was waiting for him. It was the right place at the right time with the right person. It set history on its course.

Jackson: There is no doubt about Pau Gasol being the pivotal person in the rise of the Lakers in 2008. He became available to the Lakers in [January] and we really ran the table in the West the last half of the season. One can look at our scoring output from the period until the end of the year and just see the point differential.

Without Pau coming in and quickly putting himself in the middle of everything, there is no way we go to three straight Finals and win two of them. We had a good team before him. But Pau turned us into a great team.” — Former Lakers forward Luke Walton, on Pau Gasol

Kupchak: From the moment we got Pau, there was zero time needed for him to fit in. It was immediate with his energy, production and his acceptance as a teammate and in the city. We never would’ve made the Finals [three times] if we did not have Pau Gasol. 

Walton: Without Pau coming in and quickly putting himself in the middle of everything, there is no way we go to three straight Finals and win two of them. We had a good team before him. But Pau turned us into a great team. It’s more than just his talent. It’s the sacrifice and the selflessness he had. For someone of his talent level to put the team ahead of their own individual success, it really speaks to who he is as a person and a player.

Vitti: Pau was absolutely one of the most talented low-post players, especially of his time. It’s his footwork, his ability to play with either hand, his basketball IQ and his ability to pass. He played the game the right way. We don’t win those two rings without Pau, even as great as Kobe was.

Gasol: When people mention this and they thank me for what I did, I’m the one who’s thankful. I’m the one who’s honored that I had the opportunity to join that team and group of guys and complement what was already there and help the team go to the next level. I’ll forever be grateful for it. Don’t thank me. I’m thanking everyone who made that opportunity possible for me. I continue to get the love and admiration of people acknowledging that. Obviously for Phil, for teammates and for Kobe to acknowledge me that way is very gratifying. It’s very emotional and it’s very humbling.

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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery Sports.