- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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In the end, the way Pau Gasol left Los Angeles was almost as nondescript as the way he came in.
Six and a half years ago the Lakers -- off to a hot start to the 2007-08 season but treading water after Andrew Bynum went down with a season-ending knee injury -- swooped in like a burglar in the night and found themselves a shiny new pivot man from Memphis.
And then, on Saturday afternoon, smack dab in the middle of the World Cup consolation game, Gasol announced that the Chicago Bulls had landed his services and thus won the biggest consolation prize in this summer’s NBA free agency. He might not be LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony, but that doesn’t mean the Bulls aren’t thinking that Gasol can do for them what he did for the Lakers a half-dozen years ago.
It was a sad day for Lakers fans, and not just because they came to the sobering reality that Kobe Bryant is now the lone remaining member of the 2010 championship team still on the squad.
For a guy who was nearly traded so many times over the past several years -- starting with the deal that David Stern undid that would have sent him to Houston in a three-team swap for Chris Paul, ending with the transaction that L.A. backed away from in February that would have saved the franchise untold millions by sending Gasol to Cleveland, and including potential trades for Amare Stoudemire, Rajon Rondo, Josh Smith, Kevin Love and others sprinkled in between -- it was hard to call the news surprising.
Gasol’s departure seemed inevitable for quite some time now. Yet it didn’t diminish the effect the news had on people when Gasol made his announcement.
Doing this job, you not only get to know the players, coaches and front-office personnel, but you become familiar with team staffers in every capacity. When it became official Gasol was saying goodbye, I started to notice reactions from many of those people.
Marko Yrjovuori, the Lakers’ sports massage therapist, posted a photo of him and Gasol -- both of them wearing big, goofy grins -- to his Facebook account with the caption: “Thank You for the Good times Pau!”
Paul Nankivell, who worked for the Lakers’ video department for years before joining their new television partner in Time Warner Cable SportsNet, also shared his appreciation on Facebook:
“Because of him, I got the chance to ride in parades, wear championship rings, and get champagne in my eyes after beating the Boston Celtics. But more importantly, I got to meet the kindest and most respectful NBA player I've ever come across. Good luck in Chicago Pau ... LA will miss you.”
Ty Nowell, the mind behind the Lakers’ web content on Lakers.com as well as the team’s active Facebook, Twitter, Vine and Instagram accounts, texted me when he heard the news: “Honestly, the guy changed my life. He made the Lakers the Lakers again at a formative stage in my career. Besides being a better human than the rest of us, I’ll always owe him that.”
The outpouring of support might not seem groundbreaking considering Gasol was in L.A. for quite some time and accomplished so much during his stay -- namely two rings and three trips to the Finals -- but trust me, I’ve seen plenty of players come and go from the Lakers. This kind of response is rare.
Gasol wasn’t just the guy leading the team with nightly double-doubles; when a staffer brought his wife or girlfriend or family to a game he was the guy who would say hello, engage in a conversation or pose for a photo.
For everything that Bryant’s tremendous talents and undeniable will brought to the organization, Bryant was never that guy.
The two worked well together, however. Bryant made Gasol a better player, pushing and prodding him to spend more time in “Black Swan” mode, utilizing his skill set along with Bryant's own to create an unguardable tandem when they were clicking -- remember Game 2 of the 2009 Finals?
Gasol made Bryant a better teammate, coming to L.A. on the heels of Bryant’s most dominant individual run of his career and reminding him that he can’t do it all alone, even if Bryant was one of only two men to ever score 80-plus points in a game.
It led to a deep appreciation between the two. Bryant wrote the foreword to Gasol’s book that came out last fall, “Life/Vida,” and penned, “If I could choose my brother,” it would be Gasol. This was after Bryant’s initial response to Dwight Howard spurning L.A. for the Houston Rockets, when he posted a photo of him with his arm wrapped around the big Spaniard with the hashtags #vamos, #juntos, #lakercorazon and #vino.
Bryant has been quiet about the Gasol news thus far. Maybe he’s like the rest of us and trying to figure out exactly how Pau should be remembered for his time in the purple and gold.
Remember him for one game? That’s easy. His 19 points, 18 rebounds and 2 blocks in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals will forever be cemented into Laker Lore (and the sheer magnitude of that Game 7 performance will forever overshadow his equally impressive 17-point, 13-rebound, 9-assist, 3-block masterpiece in a must-win Game 6 two nights before).
Remember him for one stat? The one that always stands out to me is the fact that after the Lakers acquired Gasol in February 2008, they played their next 225 games (regular season and playoffs combined) before losing three in a row. He automatically raised their standard of play.
Remember him for one reputation-building series? How about when the Lakers swept the Nuggets out of the first round in Gasol’s first playoffs with the team in 2008? He averaged 22.3 points on 58.2 percent shooting, 9.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.8 blocks in the four games after going 0-12 in the first dozen postseason games of his career with the Memphis Grizzlies.
Remember him for one moment? For me it was talking to him about being recognized by the league as J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award winner following a shootaround back in May 2012 and seeing tears well up in his eyes as he spoke about his charitable efforts supporting children in third-world countries with malnutrition and no access to proper education.
"Every time that I visited, it's been an experience that stayed with me," Gasol said. "You always meet a patient or several patients that are very inspirational or get into you in a way that's shocking. So, every time there's a child, there's a family, there's several of them that are obviously facing a very tough situation, a very tough time in their lives and you're just there to contribute a little bit, make their day, get a smile out of them, inject them some strength, some energy so they can hopefully have a better chance. As much as you can do, nothing is really little. That's why I encourage everyone in their means to have an impact on somebody else's life.”
I’ll cover players who make game-winning shots again. I’ll cover players who turn in nightly double-doubles. I might even cover players who bring a championship back to L.A. in the future. But I’m certain when I say that I’ll never again cover a player so in tune with what matters in life that he tears up in a lavish gymnasium when taking a second to ponder the plight of others who are less fortunate.
That’s the true measure of the man.
The truth is, as sports writers we’re not always afforded the proper time or space to make sure that context is never lost on the reader.
I took plenty of flak for the piece, with readers chiming in and calling it a “hatchet job” and questioning my motives. Looking back at it, I stand by what I wrote -- Gasol could have played and he didn’t, and that’s not what guys like him get paid millions for -- but I suppose some context was lost in it all.
Gasol had been a true pro for years despite having his name twisting in the trade winds and seeing the Lakers hire coaches post-Phil Jackson who didn’t put him in situations in which he could truly succeed.
In the past he would have fought through an illness to play, but sometimes you get fed up with it all. I grew up as a Philadelphia Eagles fan and this was Gasol’s “For who? For what?” Ricky Watters moment.
Everyone has the right to be fed up once in a while.
He tried to become re-engaged as the season wore on. Bryant revealed that Gasol was so mad after a loss to an 11-32 Orlando Magic team in January that he threw his shoes in the locker room during a postgame tirade.
The following month, after a 20-point loss to Indiana, Gasol said, "I don't think there's a lot of discipline right now.” Without naming names, he called out both coach Mike D’Antoni for not cracking down on selfish play and the freshly acquired Kent Bazemore for ignoring team play on a wild 8-for-19 shooting night.
You see, all of Gasol’s worldly interests don’t diminish his love for the game of basketball. But they do frame how he wants to see the game played.
Just as he strives to enrich the community around him, he seeks a basketball environment that is built on teamwork, sacrifice and pulling for the common good. Not one that purposely lessens the role of one player to appease the ego of another (as D’Antoni admitted to me that the Lakers did to Gasol when Howard was around). And not one that allows individual agendas to run amok as soon as wins become hard to come by.
Gasol wrote a blog post on his personal website on Saturday explaining his decision. Unlike James, who was celebrated for going the personal essay route and ticked off the names of guys like Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao whom he would be playing with, Gasol didn’t mention any Bulls by name.
“While I take a new step in my career in the NBA, I have high hopes of playing with the Chicago Bulls and become an active person in the community of Chicago,” Gasol wrote, translating his Spanish words into English.
With Gasol, you know that those hopes are more like a promise.
The Lakers never really got a chance for a proper farewell with Gasol. He missed 12 of the final 13 games last season dealing with a bizarre bout of vertigo. There was no sentimental send-off at Staples Center after he played his last game, just merely Gasol, in street clothes, sticking around to sign autographs for fans following the home finale.
Little did anyone know it at the time, but the last game Gasol and Bryant would end up playing together as teammates was back on Dec. 17 in Memphis, a game in which Bryant fractured his left knee, ending his season prematurely.
Gasol scored 21 points, Bryant scored 21 points. Gasol played 33 minutes, Bryant played 33 minutes. Gasol had nine rebounds and three blocks, Bryant had four assists and a clutch 3-pointer down the stretch. L.A. ended up on top 96-92.
Gasol and Bryant finished as winners together.
How do you properly remember Gasol’s time in L.A.? Remember that.