The trap door is no longer a threat to Pau Gasol.
He will finish in a couple months on his own two feet, in a manner befitting his grace. It’ll end when the Los Angeles Lakers’ regular-season schedule does, not via surprise trade to an unknown destination.
This summer, Gasol will move on to some other NBA franchise where, along with his two championship rings, the fresh fans will respect all that is clearly good in him—much as Lakers fans saw generosity in his heart when Memphis Grizzlies fans only saw Gasol wasn’t selfish enough to prop up a team all by himself.
It’s even possible he might do the Lakers one last good deed on his way out, considering a sign-and-trade deal could still give the Lakers a substantial boost in their rebuilding around and after Kobe Bryant.
Both the Lakers and Gasol, who’ve had a working relationship marked by a refreshing sort of maturity, understand it’s time to part.
As bad as the Lakers are now as they lose and lose with Gasol again unable to prop this team up by himself, it’s certainly not going to end well for the Spanish big man.
But it’s going to end OK.
There might be ongoing disagreement in philosophy with Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni—to be expected when D’Antoni came in and so catered to Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Bryant all ahead of Gasol. There will not be anything more than that, however.
Gasol has no malicious intent toward the franchise that tried to trade him so many times. He is beyond open-minded in being mindful that they must’ve declined to trade him plenty, too.
Gasol has no interest in torching this Lakers nation he has served as aristocrat and warrior for six-and-a-half years, the exact same tenure he first lasted in Memphis. He returns to Memphis on Wednesday for his expected last appearance here as a Laker, and it was on the Lakers’ other trip here this season that Gasol’s farewell season got derailed.
Everything changed when Bryant’s knee cracked on Dec. 17, and what was supposed to be the predominant storyline of the Lakers’ season—Bryant’s redemption—fell into that fault line. The collateral damage: Earlier on that four-game trip, Gasol’s best had been brought out by Bryant’s renewed, very overt demands for it.
That Dec. 17 game in Memphis now looks likely to be the last for Bryant and Gasol as teammates. They won that game for the Lakers, sharing far more than game-high scoring honors with 21 points apiece that night.
It sounds like a shame until you stop to appreciate how extraordinary it is they’re ending on such great terms.
In a business where Bryant would’ve left the Lakers if Shaquille O’Neal hadn’t gone first, the fact that Bryant has crusaded for Gasol so often, having developed a blind, but sweet, spot for Gasol’s inconsistent assertiveness, is remarkable.
There were moments that stood out when Bryant and O’Neal were truly warm with each other: one night in Minnesota when Bryant had a cap emblazoned with “Wilt Chamberneezy” on it for a delighted O’Neal; one night in Phoenix when O’Neal called out to Bryant to wait up as he left the locker room just to walk together.
Those moments stand out because they weren’t the norm.
For the same reason, one moment of discord with Bryant stands out in Gasol’s memory.
It was also a Lakers game in Memphis, and Gasol wrote about it in his unique photo book, a four-year project that indeed is ending with him still a Laker, Life Vida:
I remember after a loss to Memphis, my former team, I was very upset. During that game, Kobe passed Jerry West for one of his many records. I wasn’t in the mood to be excited about it and the media caught my reaction. Kobe wasn’t too happy with what some media published the next day.
Bryant had become the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer that February 2010 night.
The Lakers had lost, with Gasol feeling underutilized in front of all those Memphis fans who’d already seen him become the Grizzlies’ all-time leading scorer. Unquestionable as the mutual respect was, it was not clear at all in the locker room that night where the Kobe-Pau relationship would really go.
Besides again to the top of the NBA mountain later that season, here’s where it wound up going, as stated by Gasol in his book: “I know he might not need many things, but if he needs a true friend who is going to support him, he can definitely count on me. We have a great friendship that I hope will last our entire lives.”
Bryant contributed a foreword to Gasol’s book under the heartfelt title: “If I Could Choose My Brother.”
For as often as Bryant has publicly needled Gasol, this essay was a haystack of unabashed compliments: calm in the face of a storm, highest basketball IQ in the league, as tough as they come, compassionate and caring, humorous and smart.
Talk about O’Neal, Derek Fisher or Phil Jackson as people Bryant needed to build his legend.
No one has humanized Bryant the way Gasol has.
We now know Bryant can do more than coexist or share: He can be all that he is while being there for someone else.
As forgettable as the 2012-13 Lakers season was, there has never been a losing moment for Bryant as rich as the one that came in that last game: Bryant limping out there literally to have Gasol’s back after Howard’s ejection earlier, hugging Gasol’s shoulders from behind when his teammate came off the court for the final time.
Bryant knows Gasol, who just passed James Worthy on the NBA all-time scoring chart, has given an incredible amount of on-court help, too.
No European player except for Dirk Nowitzki has scored more in the NBA. Gasol, O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the only players in league history to have at least 16,000 points, 8,000 rebounds, 2,900 assists and 1,400 blocks.
And if it took a tremendous ambition to attend medical school and play pro basketball in Barcelona at the same time, if it took unique courage to be a trailblazer in jumping to the NBA before everyone overseas was doing it, then it took uncommon mental toughness to march on for years after the Chris Paul near-trade—or as Bryant put it in that foreword: “He would not let it change him.”
Gasol puts his hand on people’s shoulders to minimize the effect of his height advantage; he drops to his knees to connect with sick children at their eye level. He has been an ambassador for UNICEF for more than a decade, once dipping his finger into special formula to feed a severely malnourished Ethiopian year-old baby who had lost his mother.
Yes, soft…yet tough enough to save Bryant and the Lakers in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics.
And for all that has gone wrong since, he hasn’t gone running.
There’s little hope left in this Lakers season for Bryant’s army of fans to enjoy salvation. A happy ending for Nash’s legend is likewise slipping way. Half of the Lakers fanbase just wants to fast-forward to the draft.
The Lakers’ last home game of the season comes April 13—against Memphis. A certain 7-foot someone will be loyal to the end.
From now until then, let’s all try a little harder to appreciate who is good—and what has been greatly meaningful.
“I want to just live my life by my standards, by my principles, and know that I made a difference and that I built a legacy and a life that I was proud of,” Gasol wrote in his book. “I want to know that I helped make people’s lives better…or at least I tried.”