BEIJING — There is one thing to be gained from a group perspective in coming all this way.
It was seen in Pau Gasol sticking with Steve Nash as the two old guys with undependable bodies pushed quickly up to the highest point they could find on the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China.
It was seen in new team energizers Jordan Farmar and Nick Young paying a street vendor on the climb up to the Great Wall—Farmar’s treat—for them each to get hilarious pictures of them sitting on a camel. UCLA and USC would have sat on the camel together if not for the camel owner balking and separating them.
Togetherness was lacking with the Lakers last season, and the hope has been that an underdog spirit and the absence of Dwight Howard’s ego would lead the 2013-14 Lakers to build a unity that will be needed to offset the loss of Howard’s huge talent.
These players had dinner together again Saturday night, same as they did Friday night upon arriving in Beijing, same as they did Wednesday night before playing in Las Vegas.
Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni didn’t even go to the Great Wall on Sunday, and neither did Kobe Bryant, Xavier Henry or Marcus Landry. Many players had family or friends with them. There was a feeling of togetherness with the Lakers anyway.
Even after a draining traffic jam on the way back to the team hotel made for an unwelcome three-hour tour after leaving the Wall, it was a good day, a very good day, together.
Bryant’s absence meant more of an opportunity for Gasol to do his thing, too.
Gasol was the one to get the cadre of Chinese security guards at the Great Wall. He got to remember being the main man on the 2008 Spanish Olympic team that won a silver medal in the very same Beijing basketball arena where the Lakers practiced Sunday morning.
It feels like a long time since Gasol won those 2009 and ’10 NBA titles with the Lakers to validate himself and his toughness. His knee tendinosis all last season only furthered his downward trend.
Now Gasol’s knees feel stronger, he gets to operate from the post again, and D’Antoni is talking about triple-doubles all over the place.
Remember the photo Bryant sent out via Instagram the night Howard bolted for Houston? It was Bryant and Gasol, with a caption about the sort of unity the Lakers have taken steps toward in the early days of the China trip.
For Gasol, if this is the season when he again fights back against his old reputation for being soft, you saw at the Great Wall some proof of his ability to surprise.
The NBA has chosen this area of the Great Wall for its past visits, including the Heat and Clippers a year ago, and there is an initial hike toward the sky gondolas that bring visitors up to the Wall. Along that hike is an epic line of shopkeepers trying to sell knick-knacks and T-shirts and profit from overly agreeable tourists (such as the Lakers’ Young, who immediately forked over what was asked for a straw Chinese hat).
Gasol put his well-chronicled niceness aside and stood his ground in his negotiations. Who knew Gasol drove such a hard bargain?
Gasol did what few do there—just walked away empty-handed when his prices weren’t met. The woman vendor’s broken-English bait-and-switch attempt to ask for more money for a cotton shirt vs. a nylon shirt went unfulfilled.
The critics will say that an overpaid Gasol can afford to buy the entire inventory of all the vendors there. But this will be a season to see if Gasol can again stand his ground—while also creating the sort of peaceful community he seeks in every aspect of his life.
Gasol and Nash are known as two of the best teammates in basketball history: talented and productive, but always willing to share the spotlight and the ball.
For the Lakers to have a chance at great success this season, that generous personality needs to pervade the Lakers.
They’re going to have to defend as a unit, and they’re going to have to work together to have one of the NBA’s best offenses.
To do those things, they’d better come back from China next week with more than a few photos and trinkets.
Kevin Ding covers the Lakers and the NBA for Bleacher Report.