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Gasol, after entering the Lakers’ Olympus: “Not in a million years would I have believed that a day like this would come”

LOS ANGELES — When Pau Gasol arrived with the Los Angeles Lakers a little more than 15 years ago, the 7-foot (2.15-meter) Spanish center put his ego aside, doubled down on his work ethic and immediately converted to that team into a title-winning contender.

Gasol and Kobe Bryant did it all together, and their jerseys now hang next to each other on the Lakers’ court.

The Lakers retired Gasol’s number 16 jersey on Tuesday in a tribute to the center who spent the best seasons of his 18 NBA years with Bryant in Los Angeles. After the arrival of the Spaniard in February 2008, the team achieved three consecutive Finals and won the title in 2009 and 2010.

“I think I’ve done everything I could to really enjoy it and savor it, but tonight really exceeds any dream or expectation I’ve ever had,” Gasol said before the game, a championship ring in each hand. “This means a lot and obviously (being) with Kobe up there is something meaningful and powerful and sad and happy and painful and joyful. Are a lot of things”.

Gasol’s jersey banner was unveiled during a halftime ceremony that began with Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, introducing a video in which an emotional Kobe said he was looking forward to the day Gasol gave a speech at the center of the track during that act. Gasol was moved when he saw the recording and placed himself in that same place and wiped away his tears before addressing the public.

“I am overwhelmed to see their faces,” he said. “It has been an honor to wear this jersey, play for this franchise and help this team (…) Not in a million years would I have believed that a day like this would come. This teaches you never say never. You just have to push yourself every day to do the best you can.”

Gasol’s versatile game perfectly complemented Bryant’s scoring prowess as a support player for his teammate, and the two forged a deep friendship off the court that lasted until Bryant’s tragic death in 2020.

Former Los Angeles Lakers player Pau Gasol moves during his jersey retirement ceremony at halftime of an NBA game against the Memphis Grizzlies, another of his former teams, on March 7, 2023, in Los Angeles .  (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The franchise, which holds 17 NBA titles, only retires the numbers of players inducted into the Hall of Fame, and Gasol is a first-time finalist this year and has a strong chance of making the cut. Gasol was selected to three of the six All-Star Games he has played in during his time in Los Angeles, when he was averaging 17.7 points and 9.9 rebounds per game.

“The emotion, the illusion, the honor received, is so great that it has been difficult to assimilate,” said Gasol. “I have to keep recording myself that this is a celebration. It’s fantastic. Is beautiful. It’s great to be able to live this in your life.”

Gasol chose Tuesday night for the ceremony for a very good reason: He played his first seven NBA seasons with the Grizzlies, his first team after moving to the United States in 2001.

Memphis retired Gasol to the Lakers in February 2008 in a deal that transformed both franchises: While Gasol and Bryant immediately formed a dominant partnership, the Grizzlies received a package that spawned Gasol’s little brother, Marc, who spent 11 excellent seasons there.

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