The last time that Pau Gasol stepped foot in this pavilion as a local, he had a discreet night. It was April 2014. He played 28 minutes and scored nine points. He could not prevent the Lakers from falling to the Blazers, the team that would sign the Catalan without him playing a single minute for Portland, due to a foot injury. This Tuesday, the man from Sant Boi returned to the Staples Center, today known as the Crypto arena. He was wearing a smart navy blue suit and a deep purple tie. He no longer wore the Lakers number 16 that he wore for five years. As of this March 7, his number no longer belongs to him because he is hanging with other sports legends. The Los Angeles team has retired Gasol’s jersey, in addition to twelve other eleven player numbers.
“I just want to say thank you for making me feel so special. It has been an honor to wear this jersey”, said an emotional Gasol, who could not help crying when he finally saw his number in the stands along with those of Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Jerry West, Charles Goodrich, Jamaal Wilkes, James Worthy, Shaquille O’Neal, Earvin magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant.
“I would love Kobe to be here with Gigi,” Gasol said of the star, who died along with his daughter and seven other people in a helicopter crash in January 2020. “Pablo, Kobe predicted that you and he would be together in the stands,” said Vanessa, Bryant’s widow. Her words were followed by a brief message that the Lakers star dedicated at the 2018 Oscar luncheon. “The reality is that he would not have won those championships without Pau. Los Angeles would not have those two championships (in 2009 and 2010) without Pau Gasol,” Bryant told EFE journalist Antonio Martín. Kobe’s two numbers, 8 and 24, are now immortalized alongside Gasol’s.
The center recalled this Tuesday how Bryant was a figure who pushed him to excel. Gasol arrived in Los Angeles in the middle of the 2007-2008 season. In June he was playing in his first NBA Finals. But he was outmatched by the physical strength of the Celtics, who delivered a blowout in Game 6. That same summer, Gasol and Bryant met as enemies in the final of the Beijing Games. The Americans clinched the gold in a 107-118 game. At the turn of the summer, Kobe took the medal to the Lakers locker room. He wanted Gasol to see it. “You lost to the Celtics, you lost to us, we’re going to make sure it’s three straight losses for you,” Bryant told him jokingly. The Lakers won two titles in a row after that (they have 15). Phil Jackson, the legendary coach, who was present tonight at the Crypto, assured tonight that Gasol brought “his offensive prowess” to the team, which was an attacking machine. The one from Barcelona averaged 18 points per game in that era.
“As a child I always dreamed of playing in the NBA, but never in a million years did I think this moment would come,” added the center, who hours before confessed that he had spent the last few days trying to distract himself so as not to think too much about the tribute. . Among these activities there was a dinner with five of his teammates in the Spain team whom he has known since they were teenagers: Felipe Reyes, Raúl López, Juan Carlos Navarro and José Calderón. “He has had a very busy few days, but we got a few laughs out of him,” Reyes said after the game.
Tonight, Gasol has been sheltered by his parents, Agustí and Marisa, his brothers Marc and Adriá, his wife Catherine McDonnell, their two children, the owner of the Lakers, Jeanie Buss and the team’s vice president, Rob Pelinka. In the stands were other Los Angeles icons, including actor Adam Sandler and rock group Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
The tribute was held at halftime of the regular season game between the Lakers and the Memphis Grizzlies, a team for which Gasol played for six seasons and where he achieved one of his first milestones in the United States, being declared rookies of the year in 2002, the first non-American to achieve it. But this Tuesday’s game highlighted one of the many achievements of the Catalan center. Among the five starters on the court, only one was a foreigner, the Canadian Dillon Brooks, of the Grizzlies. Gasol was the second Spaniard to reach the NBA after Fernando Martín. This Tuesday he became the first international player to see his shirt removed in one of the most competitive basketball franchises.
“It has been like a movie, I am proud to believe that this has been a very good movie. Many very good things have happened in my life,” Gasol told a press conference before the start of the game. Wearing the two championship rings he earned in a row, he reviewed the milestones of his career in the United States. He was selected by Atlanta with the third overall draft in 2001, what he has called an “unexpected achievement” that helped him take off in the tight league.
Gasol admitted that he feels responsible for contributing to the foundation of the Grizzlies. He landed in Memphis at the age of 19, just as the team traded Vancouver for the United States with a dismal 23-game win mark this season. And he went west years later, leaving the group close to 50 wins. Mike Fratello, his coach at the time, witnessed this afternoon’s tribute from the stands. His transfer is remembered in Los Angeles as one of the most successful. It allowed his brother Marc to come to Memphis, who has also seen his jersey retired after a successful 10-year career and a championship with Toronto. The gap that the Gasols opened is undeniable. Currently, there are six Spaniards in the NBA. One of them, Santi Aldama, scored 11 points for Memphis tonight.
This Tuesday there has also been talk of Gasol outside of sport. “He is an angel on earth,” said Darvin Ham, the Lakers coach. “It’s a pleasure to talk to him because you can talk about things that happen in the world, not just basketball,” added the coach, who is looking to save the season without the team’s star, LeBron James. The Lakers, who won tonight, have also highlighted Gasol’s humanitarian profile, who co-chairs the Gasol Foundation against childhood obesity with Marc. On the same pitch where he triumphed years ago, the former player vowed to keep fighting. “To whom much is given, much is expected of him. And I will continue to dedicate my life to impacting others and making a difference. To inspire and help to make this world a better and healthier place”, concluded the athlete on a special night for Spanish sports
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