By belonging and tradition, the Lakers are the team on the red carpet. They live by and for the stars. They like to have them, display them and enjoy them. And when they don’t shine, hate them. As a team, they are a hallmark of Los Angeles, a metropolis adhered to the film industry and the vapors of glamor. Through the veins of Hollywood also runs the stark eagerness of the business, the same fever that can be guessed in the Lakers. The stars come and go, but only a few rest in the pantheon of myths. One of them is Pau Gasol. From Tuesday morning to Wednesday in Spain, his shirt with the number 16 on his back will hang from the roof of the Staples Center.
Gasol played seven years in the Lakers, as the unbeatable second guitar player for Kobe Bryant, the unicorn of the franchise. Bryant won five championships, three with Shaquille O’Neal at his side and two with Pau Gasol. In the interregnum (2004-07) that began from the departure of O’Neal to the signing of the Spaniard, Kobe never reached the finals. As so often happens in sports, a fabulous number 1 needs the right number 2.
When the Lakers acquired Pau from the Memphis Grizzlies, the team that drafted him at the draft In 2001, after a sensational season at Barça, a heated controversy flared up in the NBA. There were not a few coaches and managers who considered that the transfer altered the balance of the competition. An armed robbery, he told himself. The possibility of canceling it was considered. The commotion explained the real value that was attributed to the Spanish player, immediately verified in the Lakers.
Pau played the last 27 games of the season with the Lakers, with a record of 22 wins and five losses. Kobe Bryant was the quarterback, but Gasol fine-tuned the team. Until then he had officiated as a power forward in Memphis, with magnificent numbers and the desire to seek more exciting adventures in other fishing grounds. Undisputed leader of the best Spanish team in history, he longed for similar levels in the NBA. No better team than the Lakers to fulfill his dreams.
In the choppy waters of the NBA, he had no shortage of critics. They presented him as a soft, vulgar player in the defensive chapter. The mantra grew when the Lakers lost the final series against the Celtics in Gasol’s first season. That confrontation renewed the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, the most ardent and beneficial for the NBA. The Celtics had signed the elegant Ray Allen and the fierce Kevin Garnett. He was sold to him as Pau’s kryptonite.
The victory of the Bostonians raised some suspicions about the competitive toughness of Pau Gasol, cleared in the following two seasons. In the first, he performed a masterpiece in front of the young Dwight Howard, the center of the moment in the NBA, a force of nature that did not go beyond a gentle breeze in the finals. Gasol scored, rebounded and defended like a titan. It was an exercise in maximum wisdom.
A year later, the Lakers and Celtics met again. Gasol vs. Garnett, again. Two giants who moved on the outside like Fred Astaire. There was no color. The Spaniard surpassed the American player in all statistical sections. If justice had prevailed, Gasol deserved as much or more than Kobe Bryant the MVP of the finals.
His decisive contribution to the return of the Lakers to the top. For Kobe it was a bicoca player. For the people of the Lakers, an indispensable guarantee in those years of wine and roses, a player for eternity who will enjoy the tribute that only a handful of stars have deserved. Their names: Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant…
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