“Kobe got hurt again, huh?” he said late Thursday night without being prompted.
Gasol’s eyes were soft, his intuitive bedside manner kicking in the way it always has whether representing UNICEF or kneeling down to connect eye-to-eye with sick kids in hospitals or refraining from ever telling Mike D’Antoni to go fly a kite.
He had learned he’d been voted in as an All-Star Game starter by the fans for the first time in his 14-year NBA career, a just reward for his truly brilliant basketball with the Chicago Bulls and also a byproduct of the well-chronicled success he enjoyed in Los Angeles as Bryant’s trusted second.
Gasol set aside his pride at the accomplishment—and that his brother Marc was also voted in as a starter—to consider the plight of his Lakers brother after Bryant suffered a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder Wednesday against the New Orleans Pelicans.
What he could not and would not do is set aside Bryant’s pride. Gasol was unwavering in his belief that Bryant, 36, will battle back yet again from his third major injury in three years and give the Lakers and their fans something sweet rather than this bitter taste for his last meal.
“Injuries are a tough break, but he’ll continue to go, continue to fight through it,” Gasol said. “He loves the game. He’s such a huge competitor. And he’s very proud to represent the Lakers. It’s the only team he has played for, and he takes pride in that.”
Gasol is 34, only two years younger than Bryant. Yet while Bryant’s body can’t keep it together anymore, the Spanish big man is experiencing an inspiring revival this season despite heavy mileage that includes loads of international play.
The Bulls are not the only team Gasol has played for, and he has proved post-Memphis and post-L.A. just how rejuvenating it is to get a fresh start in front of new faces who need to be shown firsthand just how great you are.
Bryant has never gotten that superficial energizer of a scene change—punching the clock year after year with the Lakers, drawing from the fire within as his energy source.
Now, depending on what Lakers doctors conclude Friday in a further examination of the torn rotator cuff, Bryant could be facing surgery and another arduous rehab—with the Lakers needing to adjust accordingly. Even if it isn’t a large tear, the fact that it is in Bryant’s shooting shoulder and that arm needs to be raised over and over makes it more logical that surgery will be needed.
Bryant could, of course, just give in and not rehab—and simply quit. His plan is to retire at the end of next season anyway, and this season Bryant was unable to play consistently through the simple physical grind, even separate from this injury.
Gasol doesn’t expect it. He has seen too much over the years, and he hasn’t heard anything different recently.
He believes Bryant’s mental toughness is there.
“For sure,” Gasol said. “He was able to recover from the Achilles rupture and come back, and then he had the knee fracture, but this year he came back to continue to be himself, to be the very unique, special player who could still dominate the game.”
Bryant and Gasol got together on Christmas Eve in Chicago for several hours to reminisce about old times and understand new ones. The night of conversation, Gasol said, was “amazing.”
And the impression Gasol got from Bryant that night, even with Bryant at his maximum soreness then in sitting out the Lakers-Bulls Christmas showcase, is that he’s dealing fine with all of this new adversity.
“The team situation is not ideal for him,” Gasol said. “It’s not what he would like it to be. But at the same time, he has a sense of pride and competitiveness that nobody else probably has. He’s going to give everything he’s got. And that’s what he’s been doing.”
Gasol will be back at Staples Center in one week for his homecoming game against the Lakers on Thursday night. He said he’d really been hoping to share the court with Bryant after they missed each other in that NBA-mandated holiday revenge match.
Now it looks like it’ll be Gasol producing out there again—he was the glue holding the 28-16 Bulls together again Thursday night in their 104-81 rout of defending NBA champion San Antonio—with Bryant watching Gasol produce again.
Despite Bryant’s ongoing presence on the team, Gasol turned down the Lakers’ contract offers this past summer in hopes of winning another championship with Chicago.
“He’s happy for me,” Gasol said. “He did express it. I appreciate it, because our bond and our friendship are beyond basketball. He’s happy for me. He’s aware, like I am, that we have a nice opportunity here. We have a nice team, so he wishes me the best.”
Gasol’s hopes and dreams will have to be enough to sustain the both of them. And all the more so now.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.