“Pau, when he retires, he will have his number in the rafters next to mine.” So said the late Kobe Bryant. His beloved teammate speaks to MELISSA ROHLIN.
Pau Gasol is brimming with anticipation.
He can‘t wait to hear the roar of nearly 19,000 fans as his No. 16 Lakers jersey is lifted into the Crypto.com Arena rafters during halftime of Tuesday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies.
“Highlight of my career? I think it‘s the highlight of my life, this moment that we’re about to experience,” Gasol told FOX Sports on Monday at a Gasol Foundation event to reduce childhood obesity. ”Having my jersey retired and receiving this honour and being with that group of people and incredible achievers, legends, it’s something I could’ve never imagined.”
While Gasol never anticipated this moment, it‘s something former teammate Kobe Bryant knew would come.
A video recently resurfaced showing Bryant five years ago, ahead of winning an Oscar in 2018, saying how much Gasol meant to him. “Pau, when he retires, he will have his number in the rafters next to mine,” he said. ”The reality is I don‘t win those championships without Pau. The city of L.A. doesn’t have those two championships without Pau Gasol.”
For both Gasol and Bryant, their success was inextricably intertwined. In fact, Gasol views his jersey retirement ceremony Tuesday as not only a celebration of his greatness, but as a celebration of their greatness.
“He elevated me,” Gasol said of Bryant, who died in a 2020 helicopter crash alongside his daughter, Gianna, and seven others. ”He made me better as a player. He showed me what it took to be a better leader and one of the best, if not the best player on the floor. The attitude, the mindset, the approach, how hard he worked for it, how badly he wanted it. He set the tone and it was up to you whether you wanted to be on that train and that path – or that was not something for you and you‘ve got to get off.”
Gasol accepted the challenge. And while Bryant famously had an adversarial relationship with many of his teammates who were turned off by his infamous intensity and bluntness, that wasn‘t the case for Gasol. The opera-loving, avid-reading Spaniard somehow understood Bryant – and harnessed his ferocity to his advantage.
The most notable example was following the Lakers‘ loss to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals. Bryant, who was determined to prove that he could win a championship without former star partner Shaquille O’Neal, was crestfallen. A portion of his criticism was directed toward Gasol, who sometimes struggled in that series against the extremely physical play of Kevin Garnett, Glen Davis and Kendrick Perkins.
During the 2008 Olympics, Bryant famously sent a message to Gasol in Team USA‘s first game against Spain in group play, purposely running into him with startling force as he set a screen, knocking the 7-footer to the ground. Then, after Team USA went on to beat Spain in the championship game, Bryant hung his gold medal in his locker on the first day of Lakers training camp to motivate Gasol.
Despite Bryant‘s sometimes unconventional methods, Gasol, who was already a franchise player any team would want, acclimated to become the exact player the Lakers needed to go all the way. They won back-to-back championships together the next two years, getting revenge over the Celtics by beating them in a hard-fought, seven-game series in 2010. Gasol was incredible in that series, highlighted by his stunning 19-point, 18-rebound performance in Game 7, in which he silenced anyone who had questioned his toughness two years prior.
Gasol was already one of the top big-men in the league with his athleticism, agility, soft touch around the rim and keen passing skills. But Bryant brought out the dog in him. They grew to deeply respect each other, often referring to one another as “brother” or ”hermano.” And on the court, their chemistry was palpable.
“We just complemented each other intellectually, also understanding the game, playing the game, seeing things, communicating with each other,” Gasol said. ”We were on the same page and we were connected. We were a tough duo to beat.”
From the moment Gasol was traded from Memphis to the Lakers during the 2007-08 season, it became very clear that the mentality was championship or bust.
“He let me know, ‘Hey, we’re happy that you’re here, but it’s winning time,’” Gasol said. ”’We’ve got to win a championship. That’s just the way it is.’ That was a mindset that I was unfamiliar with. Just seeing him, how he approached the game, how he embraced me. Everything was so thought of. He was so intentional. He knew what it took and he understood that he needed to lead me and steer me in the right direction and our team.”
Gasol and Bryant went on to play together for six-plus seasons, making the difference in each other‘s careers.
With Gasol‘s help, Bryant proved he could win without O’Neal. And with Bryant’s help, Gasol went from being one of the most revered big men in the game to a champion.
“It was an opportunity for me,” Gasol said. ”But it was an opportunity for him and the team to go to the next level and have a chance again. Three straight finals, it turned into something very special, so [that‘s] the reason why my name is going up in those rafters.”
After an 18-season career, Gasol‘s NBA playing days came to an end after he sustained a stress fracture in his left foot in 2019. He had career averages of 17 points on 50.7% shooting and 9.2 rebounds in 1,226 regular-season games with the Grizzlies, Lakers, Chicago Bulls, San Antonio Spurs and Milwaukee Bucks.
After he retired, Gasol set his mind on representing Spain one final time in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, undergoing a gruelling two-year rehabilitation process to realise his goal. (Spain eventually fell to the United States in the quarterfinals.)
Over the past few years, Gasol has devoted himself to his family (he‘s a husband and father of two) and his foundation. He’s also a global ambassador for FIBA, an ambassador for the Lakers and an investor.
Last month, he was named a finalist for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame after being a six-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA player over his career that spanned nearly two decades.
It‘s funny to think how differently things could have played out for Gasol, who enrolled in medical school at the University of Barcelona at age 18. But then his basketball career took off, he dropped out, became the No. 3 pick in the 2001 draft, teamed up with Bryant – and the rest is history.
Looking back on his playing days, Gasol has a few different emotions.
“A lot of joy, gratitude,” Gasol said. ”I feel very privileged to have such an incredible run and career. More than anything else, what I‘ve tried to do is make sure that I’ve transformed that success into something better or something bigger outside of that to touch people’s lives and make an impact and inspire. To help, that’s what I’m about and what I’ve been born to do.”
As for Tuesday, Gasol can‘t wait to become the 12th Laker to have his jersey retired alongside greats such as Bryant, O’Neal, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
If it were up to Gasol, one thing would be different – Bryant would be there cheering him on.
But for Gasol, that relationship will live on forever. He named his daughter Elisabet Gianna Gasol after Bryant‘s late daughter. And Bryant’s daughters refer to Gasol as their uncle.
Now, Gasol‘s jersey will forever be alongside Bryant’s No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys, just as Bryant had wanted.
“It‘s very emotional,” Gasol said Monday. ”It means the world to me. I’d love nothing more for him to be here physically present and enjoying this moment with me, together, and going out to dinner and being friends and being brothers. It wasn’t in the cards, I guess. But he’s going to be very present no matter what. He’s always with me.”