Six-and-a-half years after Pau Gasol arrived in Los Angeles, bringing grace, dignity and his immense basketball talent, he made the decision to leave, saying goodbye to the Los Angeles Lakers and hello to the Chicago Bulls.
The announcement came from the two-time NBA champion last Saturday through his Twitter account, with typical thoughtful candor.
He followed up through his personal blog, expressing the difficulty of the decision as well as appreciation for teammates and fans. He also acknowledged the reality of a difficult rebuilding process: “I have no doubt the Lakers will be a top contender in the future. Unfortunately, the Lakers’ timetable does not align with mine.”
It’s both a diplomatic and honest assessment.
Lakers followers and observers treated the news with a mixture of wistfulness, appreciation and hopes for Gasol’s success. This wasn’t about being spurned for more money or taking the easy way out.
He was a fan favorite, a player who genuinely seemed to relish being a Laker. But he was torn between loyalty to an organization that didn’t always extend him the same courtesy and the desire for a fresh start with a team that, quite frankly, has its act more together at this point in time.
Gasol deserves a chance to win wherever he goes, and Lakers fans understand that. They can also appreciate, perhaps with some chagrin, the ultimate truthfulness he expressed in his blog back in April—that money would not be the deciding factor in his free-agency decision:
Money isn’t important to me. I have other priorities. A contract lasting several seasons, the make-up of the team that signs me: I’ll need to think long and hard. I won’t just go to the franchise that offers me the biggest salary, I know that.
He didn’t just talk the talk, but he actually walked away with less. According to Adrian Wojnarowski for Yahoo Sports, Gasol turned down $22 million for two years from Los Angeles and accepted $22 million for three years from the Bulls.
Or to put it another way, for his first-ever free-agency opportunity, Gasol gave away an entire year for free.
The man from Barcelona arrived during a difficult period for the Lakers and indelibly changed an era of basketball. It’s not a stretch to say the team was lost before he arrived.
Phil Jackson had returned to coach the Lakers in 2005 after a one-year absence, but the roster had been gutted while he was away, and it would take time to rebuild.
By the spring of 2007, Kobe Bryant was saying he wanted to be traded. Former teammate Derek Fisher returned that summer, mollifying Bryant to a degree. It wasn’t until Gasol arrived via trade on February 1, 2008, however, that things really turned around.
Per Lee Jenkins for Sports Illustrated, Bryant had this to say:
They had to do something. They couldn’t just sit there anymore. I was pushing them because I felt like I was playing with my hands behind my back. I had no guns. When we got Pau, it was like, ‘OK, now I got my guy, now we can meet up at high noon’.
General manager Mitch Kupchak peddled a package that included Kwame Brown, the contract of retired Aaron McKie and the draft rights to Marc Gasol to the Memphis Grizzlies for big brother Pau. And just like that, Los Angeles was back in the championship picture.
The newest Laker was a legitimate NBA star, and his fluid, versatile style was an immediate mesh in Jackson’s triangle offense. Playing alongside (and sometimes instead of) Andrew Bynum—an emerging but often-injured center—Gasol helped lead L.A. to three NBA Finals appearances and two championships.
He has been the consummate team player, as skilled a big man as the league has seen.
The seven-foot Spaniard, now 34, brought peace and relative harmony to a team that had been going through more than a little anger and frustration. He became a symbol of L.A. sports in his casual, polite and well-spoken way. He was the yin to Bryant’s yang, the soulful benevolence to the Mamba’s mercurial anger.
Simply put, Gasol is one of the few players to have ever made Bryant a better teammate.
It seemed oddly fitting when Zen Master Jackson—now head of basketball operations for the New York Knicks—responded to Gasol’s announcement by tweeting a photo of lightning in triplicate striking the Chicago skyline.
Jackson knows something about the Windy City, having coached the Bulls to six championships. Was he predicting a new dynasty or portraying the basketball gods’ displeasure for Chicago’s ridiculously underpriced steal?
Or maybe he’s just having second thoughts about re-signing Carmelo Anthony to a deal that will pay him more than the total of Gasol’s three-year deal—each and every year for the next five.
In his book Life Vida, Gasol expresses a view that feels as close to his time with the Lakers as his life itself:
I am who I am, with my virtues and flaws, but I understand the responsibility and the power of my position. All eyes are on me and I have an impact on people. Whether that impact is positive or negative is my responsibility, it's up to me to blaze a meaningful path.
That path now leads to Chicago. It’s been a long journey both in years and miles, from a 16-year-old boy playing for F.C. Barcelona in Spain to a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and a new member of the Bulls.
We don’t know how the journey ends, but Lakers fans will keep track of Pau Gasol. And when the Bulls visit Staples Center next season, he’ll get a well-deserved and heartfelt standing ovation.