When Pau Gasol joined the Los Angeles Lakers just over 15 years ago, the Spanish 7-footer banished his ego, redoubled his work ethic and immediately turned a struggling team into a contender, which eventually became the champion.
Gasol and Kobe Bryant did it all together, and their numbers now hang side by side in the Lakers’ arena.
The Lakers retired Gasol’s No. 16 jersey Tuesday night, honouring the genteel big man who spent the best seasons of his 18-year NBA career with Bryant in Los Angeles. The Lakers reached three straight NBA Finals after Gasol’s arrival in February 2008, winning championships in 2009 and 2010.
“I think I’ve done as good as I could to really embrace it and savour it, but tonight really exceeds any dream or expectation that I’ve had,” Gasol said before the game while wearing one championship ring on each hand. “It means so much, and obviously with Kobe up there, it just adds something meaningful and powerful and sad and happy and painful and joyful. It’s a lot of things.”
Gasol’s versatile game complemented Bryant’s scoring prowess perfectly when Gasol decided to be a supporting player to a fellow superstar, and the two also formed a deep off-court friendship that endured until Bryant died in 2020.
The 17-time NBA champion franchise typically only retires the number of players in the Hall of Fame, and Gasol is a first-time finalist for the honour this year with a strong chance of making the cut. Gasol made three of his six career All-Star teams during his time with Los Angeles while averaging 17.7 points and 9.9 rebounds per game.
“The excitement, the anticipation, the honour received, it’s just so big that it’s been hard to really take it in,” Gasol said. “I have to keep reminding myself that it’s a celebration. It’s great. It’s lovely. It’s just great that you can experience this in your life.”
The 42-year-old Gasol said he struggled to sleep over the past few days while he thought about the enormity of the Lakers’ gesture amid the still-strong memories of his years on the West Coast. The team scheduled the ceremony for halftime of the Lakers’ game against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Gasol chose Tuesday night for his Lakers jersey retirement for a very good reason: He played his first seven NBA seasons with the Grizzlies, his first team after he moved stateside in 2001.
Memphis traded Gasol to the Lakers in February 2008, and the deal transformed both franchises: While Gasol and Bryant immediately formed a dominant partnership, Memphis got a package that included Gasol’s younger brother, Marc, who went on to have 11 largely excellent seasons with the Grizz.
Gasol was only the second Spanish player in NBA history, and he believes his long, successful career contributed to erasing the stereotype of the “soft” European player. Gasol noted that three Europeans now are arguably the top three players in the league: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic.
“I’m proud to see that,” Gasol said. “That inspires not only European kids, but players across the world. Give yourself a chance if you really want it. It’s been great to see the game grow globally.”
Gasol’s jersey represents the 13th number retired by the Lakers honouring 12 players. Bryant’s early-career No. 8 and late-career No. 24 are both retired.
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