Eternal 16, eternal Pau Gasol. The Lakers will retire this Tuesday the shirt with the number that the Spanish center wore for seven seasons, between 2008 and 2014, in the gold and purple team and with which he won two NBA champion rings, in 2009 and 2010. It will be precisely in a match against Memphis (at 4:00 in the Spanish morning from Tuesday to Wednesday), Pau’s first team in the mecca of basketball. The ceremony is a repeated and almost common episode in the American League: up to 206 player jerseys hang from the roofs of the pavilions, in addition to others from coaches, managers and journalists, and only the Celtics have hoisted 24. But it is a Himalayan milestone. so it represents the other side of the ocean. Gasol will miss out on the first Spaniard in history and the seventh European basketball player to receive this tribute.
The European vintage was opened by the Croatian Drazen Petrovic in 1993, then a tribute from the New Jersey Nets (now Brooklyn) to the player who died in a traffic accident and who wore the number 3. The merits on the track and the deep mark he left other of his colleagues accompanied the following recognitions to two Serbs, Vlade Divac (number 21 with the Sacramento Kings) and Pedrag Stojakovic (16 with the same team); Lithuanian Zydrunas Ilgauskas (11, Cleveland Cavaliers); Frenchman Tony Parker (9, San Antonio Spurs); and the German Dirk Nowitzki (44, Dallas Mavericks). Joining this firmament is the center that emerged 42 years ago from Sant Boi, the Barcelona town where the NBA has displayed a giant 68-square-meter jersey with the Lakers’ 16 number on the facade of its town hall.
Pau will accompany 11 other Lakers legends: George Mikan (number 99), Elgin Baylor (22), Jerry West (44), Gail Goodrich (25), Wilt Chamberlain (13), Jamaal Wilkes (52), James Worthy ( 42), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (33), Magic Johnson (32), Shaquille O’Neal (34) and Kobe Bryant (the only one with two retired numbers, 8 and 24). On the Los Angeles altar will shine the shirt with which Pau sweated 429 games in the regular season and another 93 in the final qualifiers. And with whom he weaved an intimate relationship on the court and also outside with Kobe Bryant, the star who acted as an older brother to catch two rings in a row.
The eternal tribute to Pau accentuates the globalization of an NBA that is more polyglot than ever. This course the League started with the historical record of 120 non-US players from 40 different countries, 58 of them European (six Spaniards: Ricky Rubio, Willy and Juancho Hernangómez, Serge Ibaka, Usman Garuba and Santi Aldama). It is the ninth straight season in which the centenary of internationals has been surpassed, with the addition of 35 US basketball players with African ties. France (nine) has been the most represented European nationality in this campaign.
That European path that Petrovic opened has a link with the origin of this tradition. Sibenik’s genius received the NBA’s tribute after his death in 1993, and it was precisely another episode that almost ended in tragedy that found the habit of hanging jerseys on top of a venue. American sports inaugurated that ceremony almost 90 years ago. In December 1933, Irvine Wallace, a hockey player for the Maple Leafs, was knocked unconscious on the rink with a fractured skull after colliding with an opponent. He saved his life after two operations, but he never played again and a course later the club parted with his number 6 shirt in an act to raise funds for his family. In the NBA, that honor was first awarded in 1964 by Billy Gabor, forward for National Syracuse, champion in 1955 and bomber pilot in World War II.
A couple of curiosities: Miami Heat was hung on Michael Jordan’s 23rd in the Bulls despite the fact that he never played with them, but because of his enormous legacy for basketball. And in 2022 the NBA announced the retirement of number 6 in the entire League, in tribute to Bill Russell, who died that year and holder of the record for 11 rings, all in an unforgettable death with the Celtics.
Like others, the tradition has traveled over the years to Europe. In Spain, as in Petrovic’s European breakthrough in the NBA, she also began dressed in mourning. The first retired number was Fernando Martín’s number 10 at Real Madrid, an eternal salute to the man who brought down the NBA wall for the Spaniards and who died in another car accident in 1989. It is the only shirt that has eternalized the white club. Among the 18 current teams in the ACB there are 41 numbers that watch the league matches from above. Five at Barça (4 for Jiménez, 7 for Solozábal, 11 for Navarro, 12 for Dueñas and 15 for Epi) and five at Fuenlabrada (2 for Popovic, 6 for Perasovic, 8 for Salva Guardia, Ferran López’s 10th and Solana’s 13th), the clubs with the most oscared.
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