Pau Gasol Emotional, Kobe Bryant Predicted Lakers Jersey Retirement
“Pau, when he retires, he’ll have his number in the rafters next to mine,” said the late Kobe Bryant. His beloved teammate talks to MELISSA ROHLIN.
Pau Gasol is full of anticipation.
He can’t wait to hear the roar of nearly 19,000 fans as his No. 16 Lakers jersey is lifted into the rafters of the Crypto.com arena at halftime in Tuesday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies.
“High point of my career? I think it’s the highlight of my life, this moment that we’re going to have,” Gasol told FOX Sports on Monday at a Gasol Foundation event dedicated to reducing childhood obesity. “For my jersey to be retired and for me to be given this honor and to be with this group of people and incredible achievers, legends, I never could have imagined.”
While Gasol never anticipated this moment, it was something that former teammate Kobe Bryant was about to come.
Recently, a video has resurfaced showing Bryant five years ago before he won an Oscar in 2018 and saying how much Gasol meant to him. “Pau, when he retires he’ll have his number in the rafters next to mine,” he said. “The reality is I don’t win these championships without Pau. The City of LA would not have these two championships without Pau Gasol.”
For both Gasol and Bryant, their success was inseparable. In fact, Gasol sees his jersey retirement ceremony on Tuesday not only as a celebration of his greatness, but also a celebration of their greatness.
“He raised me,” Gasol said of Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash in 2020 along with his daughter Gianna and seven others. “He made me better as a player. He showed me what it takes to be a better leader and one of the best, if not the best, players 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 on that path – or it wasn’t for you and you’ll have to get off.”
Gasol accepted the challenge. And while Bryant famously had a hostile relationship with many of his teammates, who were put off by his notorious intensity and bluntness, that was not the case with Gasol. The opera-loving, literate Spaniard somehow understood Bryant — and used his wildness to his advantage.
The most notable example was the Lakers’ loss to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals. Bryant, desperate to prove he could win a championship without former star partner Shaquille O’Neal, was dejected. Part of his criticism was directed at Gasol, who at times struggled with the extremely physical game of Kevin Garnett, Glen Davis and Kendrick Perkins on this series.
During the 2008 Olympics, in Team USA’s first group match against Spain, Bryant sent a message to Gasol by intentionally hitting him with surprising force as he set up a screen and knocked the 7-footer to the ground. Then, after Team USA defeated 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 that every team would want, adapted to becoming exactly the player the Lakers needed to go all the way. They won back-to-back championships together over the next two years and got revenge on the Celtics by beating them in a hard-fought seven-game streak in 2010. Gasol was incredible in that series, highlighted by his stunning 19 points. 18 rebound performance in Game 7 in which he silenced everyone who questioned his toughness two years earlier.
Gasol was already one of the league’s best big men with his athleticism, agility, soft touch and sharp passing skills. But Bryant brought out the dog in him. They deeply respected each other and often referred to each other as “brother” or “Hermano”. And their chemistry was palpable on the pitch.
“We just complemented each other intellectually, understood the game, played the game, saw things, communicated 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 glad you’re here, but it’s a time saver,'” Gasol said. “‘We have to win a championship. That’s the way it is.’ That was a way of thinking I didn’t know. Just seeing him approaching the game, hugging me. Everything has been thought of. He was so intentional. He knew what it took and he understood that he needed to guide me and steer me in the right direction and our team.”
Gasol and Bryant played together for more than six seasons and made 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 one of the most revered great men in the game to a champion.
“It was an opportunity for me,” said Gasol. “But it was an opportunity for him and the team to go to the next level and get another chance. Three finals in a row, so it turned out to be very special [that‘s] the reason why my name rises in this bar.”
After a career spanning 18 seasons, Gasol’s NBA game days came to an end after sustaining 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 for the Grizzlies, Lakers, Chicago Bulls, San Antonio Spurs and Milwaukee Bucks.
After retiring, Gasol decided to represent Spain one last time at the Tokyo 2021 Olympics and went through a grueling two-year rehabilitation process to reach his goal. (Spain eventually fell to the United States in the quarterfinals.)
In recent years, Gasol has dedicated himself to his family (he is a husband and father of two) and his foundation. He is 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 in a career spanning nearly two decades.
It’s funny to imagine how different things could have been for Gasol, who enrolled at the University of Barcelona’s medical school at the age of 18. But then his basketball career took off, he dropped out and was drafted No. 3 in 2001. She teamed up with Bryant and the rest is history.
Looking back on his playing days, Gasol has a few mixed feelings.
“Much joy, gratitude,” said Gasol. “I feel very privileged to have such an incredible run and career. More than anything, I tried to make sure I turned that success into something better or bigger outside of it, to touch people’s lives and make an impact and inspire. Helping, that’s what I’m all about and what I was born to do.”
As for Tuesday, Gasol can’t wait to become the 12th Laker to have his jersey retired alongside the likes of 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 and cheering for him.
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 like Bryant wanted.
“It’s very emotional,” Gasol said on Monday. “It means the world to me. I wouldn’t love anything more if he was physically here and enjoying this moment with me, together, and going out to dinner and being friends and brothers. It wasn’t in the cards I guess. But he will be very present no matter what. He is always with me.”
– FOX SPORTS US
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