As he saw his Lakers jersey hang above the rafters, Pau Gasol’s eyes watered up.
Tears filled Gasol’s eyes for reasons beyond becoming the 12th Lakers’ luminary to have his jersey retired. Gasol’s No. 16 jersey hung to the right of Kobe Bryant’s No. 24 and No. 8 jerseys nearly 13 years after the Lakers’ duo led the franchise to two consecutive NBA championships in three Finals appearances (2008-10). About 3 ½ years since Bryant, his nine-year-old daughter (Gianna) and seven others died in a helicopter crash, Gasol stood at center court unable to fully enjoy one of his biggest accomplishments.
“I miss him so much just like many of us do,” Gasol said to the Lakers fans that both mourned Bryant’s loss and celebrated Gasol’s presence. “I love him. I wish he was here with Gigi. I really do. But I think he’d be proud. He was looking forward to this moment. I love you brother.”
Over three months after handling those mixed emotions during the Lakers’ jersey retirement ceremony at Crypto.com Arena, Gasol will experience another milestone that will also elicit both joy and sorrow. Gasol will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday in Springfield, Mass for reasons including his two NBA championships, his multiple Olympic medals with the Spanish national team (silver in 2008 & 2012, bronze in 2016) and for becoming one of the world’s most elite big men (six NBA All-Star appearances).
Just like during his Lakers jersey retirement ceremony, however, Gasol will sorely miss Bryant’s presence at his Hall-of-Fame induction. Not only does his absence offer the latest reminder of Bryant’s tragedy. It also denies Gasol the chance to fully celebrate a moment with his most important teammate. Because of that unfortunate undercurrent, Gasol told a small group of reporters recently he will “try to relax as much as possible and enjoy some family time” to ensure he will stay “in a good place emotionally and mentally” before his induction.
During that conference call, Gasol spoke while wearing a “KB” Nike shirt. Not surprising. Bryant’s influence and absence will cast a shadow during Gasol’s big moment. Though another elite big man (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and an accomplished international player (Toni Kukoc) will serve as presenters for Gasol’s induction, Bryant surely would have been the first and natural choice.
During both his Hall-of-Fame induction and Lakers jersey retirement ceremony, Gasol would have hugged Bryant and wrapped his hand around Bryant’s head. Gasol often performed that gesture with Bryant numerous times during their six seasons together (2008-14) through the Lakers’ two title runs (2009,2010), turbulent seasons (2011-14) and debilitating injuries (2013, 2014).
Instead, Gasol will nurse conflicted feelings for lacking the chance to embrace Bryant, who considered Gasol his favorite teammate during his 20-year NBA career with the Lakers (1996-2016). In their photography books, both Bryant (Mamba Mentality) and Gasol (Life/Vida) affectionally called each other “brothers.”
“I miss him a lot,” Gasol said about Bryant before his jersey retirement ceremony. “There’s nothing I can do about it, but to love his family. That’s how I deal with it.”
Gasol has remained loving toward Bryant’s wife (Vanessa) and three daughters (20-year-old Natalia, six-year-old Bianka, three-year-old Capri). But how will Gasol deal with his Hall-of-Fame speech without Bryant standing by his side? Expect Gasol to handle it the same way he excelled on the court.
He will perform with class by thanking his numerous family members, former coaches and teammates. He will perform with substance by sharing details about his basketball journey both in Spain and in the United States. He will perform with emotion by also celebrating Bryant’s influence and mourning his absence.
In fairness, Gasol has plenty of rich chapters in his basketball life that explain his future Hall-of-Fame induction. Even without Bryant, trust that Gasol will demonstrate both perspective and composure to celebrate those specific milestones.
Gasol can share how Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement in 1991 influenced him to study medicine. Gasol can detail how the original Dream Team in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics inspired him to play basketball. Gasol can then explain how he merged two passions together both as a medical student at the University of Barcelona and as a basketball phenom at FC Barcelona (1998-2001).
After the Memphis Grizzlies secured his draft rights from the Atlanta Hawks in the 2001 NBA Draft, Gasol can share how he became an elite big man that shattered various misconceptions about European players’ skills and toughness during his time with Memphis (2001-2008), the Lakers (2008-14), Chicago (2014-16), San Antonio (2016-19), Milwaukee (2019) and Portland (2019-20) before overcoming injuries to play both with FC Barcelona and the Spanish National team (Tokyo Olympics). Gasol can talk about how specific coaches (Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich) and teammates (Marc Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro) helped him. Gasol can discuss his passion for helping children during his UNICEF-funded trips, visits to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and St. Jude’s Hospital and work to address childhood nutrition and obesity through the Gasol Foundation.
“Children are important in different ways. They are our future,” Gasol said. “They’re the ones we have to protect. I always felt that way. I’ve wanted to have a family. I’ve wanted to be a doctor at some point. I’m just trying to provide opportunities and set up a healthier environment for children. That’s also how I played my career. If I was going to be a great player, I needed to make my teammates better. It wasn’t about scoring more points, getting more shots or getting bigger stats or bigger numbers. It was about, ‘How can I help you be a better player? How can I elevate you?’ Kobe did that in his own way. I might have done it a little differently. But the concept was the same.”
Therefore, it seems unavoidable to celebrate Gasol’s career without also thinking of his connection to Bryant.
When the Lakers acquired Gasol in a mid-season trade from Memphis, not only did he become the franchise’s missing championship piece. Gasol became the perfect match for Bryant. Gasol eagerly welcomed Bryant in his hotel room on the first night he joined the Lakers. That led to a 40-minute discussion in which Bryant outlined his championship expectations and Gasol embraced them.
Both Bryant and Gasol had the basketball smarts to execute Jackson’s triangle offense to perfection. While Bryant mostly thrived as a high-volume shooter, Gasol mostly excelled as a complementary scorer and passer. Bryant led the Lakers with his demanding intensity, while Gasol led the Lakers with his more empowering approach. They communicated both in English and Spanish to confuse their opponents.
That dynamic mostly explains why the Lakers then won two NBA titles in three consecutive NBA Finals. Unlike when Bryant frequently clashed with Shaquille O’Neal during three NBA title runs over personality and role differences, Bryant and Gasol became a much more amenable pairing. Nonetheless, that pairing still experienced tension together.
After the Lakers lost the Boston Celtics in six games in the 2008 Finals, Gasol faced criticism for how Celtics forward Kevin Garnett physically defended him. At the beginning of the 2008 gold-medal game in the Beijing Olympics, Bryant knocked Gasol to the ground after running through one of his screens. Entering training camp, Bryant then hung Gasol’s silver medal by his locker and told him he can’t finish in second place a third time.
Gasol responded with more effective play in the 2009 NBA Finals against Orlando center Dwight Howard. More challenges awaited, though. After Bryant eclipsed Jerry West as the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer during the 2009-10 season, Gasol lamented Bryant’s shot selection in pursuit of that milestone. Throughout that season, Bryant occasionally implored Gasol to play more aggressively. By Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals against Boston, Gasol finished with 19 points, 18 rebounds and plenty of grit in a performance many in the Lakers organization consider his greatest feat.
That marked the peak of Gasol’s success with the Lakers. Seven months after the Lakers’ four-game sweep to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Western Conference semifinals, the Lakers dealt Gasol (to Houston) and Lamar Odom (to New Orleans) to acquire New Orleans guard Chris Paul. After the NBA nixed the deal, not only did Gasol experience uncertainty about his future leading into each trade deadline. He also experienced reduced roles. Under Mike Brown (2011-12), the Lakers eventually featured Andrew Bynum more on offense over Gasol. Under Mike D’Antoni (2012-13), Gasol played mostly beyond the perimeter and even occasionally off the bench because of D’Antoni’s system that prioritized outside shooting and floor spacing.
As those developments played out in real time, Bryant’s views evolved. Initially, Bryant embraced Bynum’s bigger role under Brown and called on Gasol to play more aggressively. During the Lakers’ second-round loss to Oklahoma City in 2011, Gasol and Bryant expressed frustration with each other’s decision making. Initially, Bryant supported D’Antoni’s offense and called on Gasol to adjust. Eventually, though, Bryant ultimately supported Gasol.