CHICAGO — In his foreword to Caron Butler’s recently released memoir, Tuff Juice, Kobe Bryant revealed that over the course of his 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, there have been just four teammates that he considers friends. Butler was one of them, as were Derek Fisher, Ronny Turiaf and, most notably, Pau Gasol.
The Lakers’ midseason trade for Gasol in 2008 radically transformed their fortunes as a franchise, as well as Bryant’s own legacy. Gasol was the missing piece to a talented core—a second star and a perfect complementary player to Bryant. After the trade, the Lakers made the NBA Finals in 2008 and won back-to-back titles the following two seasons.
Since Sunday evening, when Bryant made the announcement that the 2015-16 season will be his last, tributes and memories have poured in from all corners of the NBA—from former teammates, coaches, opponents and even commissioner Adam Silver.
Like most people, Gasol had no heads-up before Bryant’s announcement on the Players’ Tribune. He found out with the rest of the world, but knowing Bryant as well as he did, the news didn’t come as much of a shock.
“I had a feeling that this was probably going to be his last season,” Gasol said Monday evening at his locker at the United Center, before the start of the Chicago Bulls’ game against the San Antonio Spurs. “Just by the way things were going.”
Along with everyone else, Gasol has been watching Bryant struggle to be the player he was years ago, before three consecutive season-ending injuries effectively ended his career as an elite NBA player. Bryant is now no fun for anyone to watch—he’s shooting 30.5 percent from the field and 20.2 percent from three-point range with a usage rate of 29.5, per Basketball-Reference.com, and the Lakers have the worst record in the Western Conference at 2-14.
Any hope of Bryant finishing his Hall of Fame career on a high note is, at this point, a fantasy.
“I was just hoping he could have a healthy season, where he could enjoy himself in a situation where, team-wise, it's a franchise that's rebuilding with a lot of young talent,” Gasol said of his friend. “They're probably not going to win a lot of games. So I just want him to have as much fun as possible in his last year.”
Bryant’s drive has been his defining characteristic for better and for worse throughout his career. It pushed him to become the greatest scorer of his generation, but it’s made this inglorious end to his career all the more painful. But that relentlessness is Gasol’s biggest takeaway from his years playing alongside Bryant.
“Just how competitive he is,” Gasol said. “He'll continue to be no matter what he does. That's just his spirit. He's a hardworking guy. He wants to be the best. He doesn't settle for anything less. He's always going to try to be—and will be—exceptional.”
That short list of teammates as friends drives home something that’s been common knowledge for years: Bryant has never been the easiest teammate to get along with. Ask Smush Parker, Dwight Howard and countless others about that. But Gasol’s calm demeanor and eternal positivity proved to be a perfect counterweight to Bryant’s intensity.
When Gasol was a free agent in 2014, Bryant lobbied heavily for him to stay, even after Gasol’s disappointing performance in two seasons under Mike D’Antoni. Gasol ultimately signed a three-year deal in Chicago, but his respect for Bryant is undiminished.
“He's got that alpha personality,” Gasol said. “You've just got to understand where he's coming from and work with him the best you can. If you try to bump heads with him, it's not going to work out well. So I understood that, and my personality fit in perfectly with his and the team at the time.
"I never searched for my own spotlight, I was never trying to step on anybody's toes. I was just doing whatever it took to win championships and help the team, and we did that. We developed great chemistry, a great relationship and great respect for each other.”
Gasol knows that he played with one of the all-time greats, and his years with Bryant and the two titles they brought to the team were good for his own legacy. But he isn’t ready to have the conversation everyone else is regarding where his former teammate ranks in the annals of NBA history.
“One of the greatest,” Gasol said. “Where would he rank? That's very subjective. But he's definitely at the top, for what he's accomplished with his teams and how long he's played. The dedication, the work he's put into the game and how much he's given to the game. So I feel like that makes you one of the best ever.”