He was the ultimate companion, the best supporting actor, the perfect complement.
Pau Gasol spent his seven seasons with the Lakers in the shadow of Kobe Bryant, accepting crude challenges, absorbing trash talk, burying his own ego for the sake of elevating his much more famous colleague in creating two NBA championships.
All Lakers fans knew Bryant wore No. 8 and No. 24. Few knew Gasol wore No. 16.
Until now. They know now. They will know forever. A majestic reminder will hang in the rafters of Crytpo.com Arena, where Gasol’s number was retired Tuesday night for the most unusual but understandable reasons.
He was Kobe Bryant’s best teammate. He used his synergy to contribute to three of his best seasons. Those three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals from 2008 to 2010 resulted in those two titles.
Pau and Kobe are now a duo for eternity.
“Ko-be, Ko-be, Ko-be,” the fans chanted.
“Pau-Gasol, Pau-Gasol”, the fans chanted.
When Gasol’s jersey was revealed in the rafters of the arena at halftime of the Lakers’ win over the Memphis Grizzlies, it slowly appeared next to a jersey belonging to Bryant. Standing in center court wearing a suit and two championship rings, Gasol wept.
“I am overwhelmed to see all the faces here,” Gasol said in his seven-minute speech. “But I can’t go on without talking about the person and the face I don’t see. The brother who lifted me up and… challenged me to be a better player and a better man overall. I miss him dearly, like many of us. I love it. I wish I was here with Gigi.”
Gasol stared at the two burning T-shirts that hung high in the darkened arena.
“I love you brother,” he said.
The ceremony appropriately began with a video introduction by Vanessa Bryant, who was standing courtside for the first time since Kobe’s death.
“Pau is special… as a teammate, as a man and as a friend,” he said.
He then directed attention to an old video in which Bryant eerily predicted tonight for Gasol. She only realizes that, for once more in their relationship, Bryant set the agenda.
“When he retires, he’ll have his number on the rafters,” Bryant said of Gasol in the video. “The Lakers don’t have those two championships without Pau… we know that, everyone knows it. I look forward to the day that he’s out there giving his speech at center court.”
It was an awesome brotherhood that started as a fight and ended in a hug. It was a relationship that made a superstar better and saved a dynasty.
When Gasol was traded to the Lakers in February 2008 in one of the greatest deals in basketball history (Mitch Kupchak basically stole him from Memphis for Kwame Brown and an untested Marc Gasol), Bryant was still furious about the decline of the Lakers. team list.
Bryant had demanded a trade. He had demanded another star. The previous summer, in the parking lot of a grocery store in Newport Beach, he told strangers that if the Lakers didn’t do something to improve themselves vastly, he would rather play in Pluto.
As it turns out, it was Gasol who brought Bryant back down to earth. It was Gasol who helped keep Bryant in a Lakers uniform for the rest of his career. It was Gasol who helped the Lakers become the Lakers once again.
He was once brought up in the Mamba Mentality, of course.
Gasol was a star in Memphis but he wasn’t a champion. His teams had been swept in each of their three postseason series. He had a reputation for being pushed in the paint. People called it “Ga-soft”.
Bryant immediately jumped on the nickname. He worked with Gasol in a way that he never could with Shaquille O’Neal. Gasol didn’t fight him, he hugged him. Gasol did not evade, he cleaned up.
“(Kobe) definitely inspired me and showed me what it takes to be the best player that I could be: the work ethic, the dedication, the mentality,” Gasol said.
Bryant initially attacked his physique, Gasol struggled and the boos got worse. Although the Lakers went 27-9 under Gasol for the remainder of the first season, Bryant knew Gasol wasn’t ready for the title and worked tirelessly on him. Gasol put up with being harassed by Bryant during the 2008 Finals in which he was harassed by Kevin Garnett. He endured being crushed by Bryant at the 2008 Olympics and then taunted by placing the US gold medalist in the leader’s chair of the Spanish team at the start of 2008-09 training camp.
Gasol finally steeled himself to help the Lakers dominate in a 2009 playoff run that ended with a Finals victory in Orlando, then really became a factor in 2010.
He hit the game-winning basket in the final seconds to clinch a first-round series win over Oklahoma City, then was huge in Game 7 of the Finals against the Celtics.
Looking at Garnett, he had 19 points with 18 rebounds and two blocks. During a game in which Bryant struggled, Gasol shone and the transformation was complete.
Before the start of the 2011 season, the Lakers tried to send Gasol to Houston. The trade was vetoed, but Gasol was deeply hurt and played three more lackluster seasons for the Lakers before leaving as a free agent.
But he’s back, finally appreciated for what he contributed, finally admired for how he contributed, honored as a worthy co-star to arguably the team’s biggest star.
Now they will float together over the court of the Lakers they once conquered with their connection, Pau Gasol, No. 16, next to Kobe Bryant, No. 24, just look up.