Mamba Mentality and Gasol Grit: Why Kobe and Pau are forever linked
PAU GASOL’S HAIR is coiffed short and tidy now. Sensible. Hints of gray show on the sides and contrast with the brown waves up top. He looks every bit the part as the husband and father of two he has become in his post-playing days.
At first glance, the 42-year-old version of Gasol could even easily pass as a medical professional, albeit a ridiculously tall one at 7-foot-1. It was the field he would have pursued if it wasn’t for basketball, after all.
He’s genial. Poised. Well-spoken in multiple languages. Confident, yet calming.
On this night in late January, as a guest at the Los Angeles Lakers’ annual “all-access” event for VIPs, Gasol is seemingly a world away from his days as the post-up pirouetting, rabid rebounding, triangle offense triumphing, wild mane-sporting Spaniard who dominated in six seasons with the franchise.
“What are you up to?” asks Lakers play-by-play man Bill Macdonald, emceeing the event that features current and former players taking part in a panel on a stage set up on the floor at Crypto.com Arena. “What really are you involved with these days?”
Gasol, resplendent in a gray tattersall sports coat, slate-colored slacks, crisp white shirt and equally crispy white sneakers, rattles off what life is like as a retired NBA player.
Beyond being a family man, he’s a global ambassador for FIBA, the international basketball federation. He maintains a working relationship with the Lakers as a ambassador.
“And investor,” he adds, putting more than $225 million he made in salary in his 18 seasons in the league to work. “Invest in companies, usually in health and wellness, in the sports field.”
The conversation popped around from there, with Macdonald lobbying queries at Gasol’s former teammate, Sasha Vujacic, and Slava Medvedenko, who was being presented with two replacement championship rings after auctioning off the rings he earned as Shaquille O’Neal’s backup to raise money for his native home in Ukraine.
Toward the end of the talk, Lakers governor Jeanie Buss comes on stage to remind the audience about some exciting news. Gasol’s No. 16 will be retired March 7 when Los Angeles hosts the Memphis Grizzlies — the team that traded him to the Lakers 15 years ago and enlisted him in L.A.’s long line of legendary big men. He ushered in immediate success and transformed his game. The kind and thoughtful big man became a fierce and hard-edged competitor on the sport’s biggest stage.
As Buss speaks, Gasol’s gaze fixes on the rafters where his uniform will soon reside next to the Nos. 8 and 24 of Kobe Bryant, his teammate, his brother, his hermano.
His eyes soften.
“Just trying to little by little take it in and just digest and comprehend that my number, my jersey will be up there with those great amazing players and names in the history of our game,” Gasol tells ESPN. “And obviously being next to Kobe, seeing his name, still emotional.
“And I know that that’s going to be the triggering point for me. … So those two factors together are just a tough cocktail.”
THE LAKERS USED to have a rule that they would only retire the number of a player once he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. It made sense. If they retired the number of every key contributor to the collection of Larry O’Brien Trophies that line Buss’ office window, they’d eventually run out of numbers for future players to choose from.
They made an exception for O’Neal in 2013, fast-tracking the honor for him in the hopes that longtime Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, who was ailing, would be around to see it. Buss died about six weeks prior to O’Neal’s No. 34 being celebrated. O’Neal’s Hall of Fame ceremony came three years later.
They fast-tracked Bryant’s too, waiting two seasons after his brilliant 60-point finale to retire both his numbers during a ceremony in December 2017.
And thank goodness for that, as Bryant got to experience the pride and nostalgia from five championships and two decades with the franchise alongside his family and 18,997 endlessly appreciative Lakers fans in attendance.
By the time he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in May 2021, his widow, Vanessa, accepted the honor for him some 16 months after the helicopter crash that took the lives of Bryant, their daughter Gigi and seven others.
Gasol’s jersey retirement will come less than a month after NBA All-Star weekend in Salt Lake City when he was announced as a finalist for the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2023. A day later, he was presented with the Kobe and Gigi Bryant WNBA Advocacy Award by Vanessa at center court during a break in the All-Star Game.
Just as Gasol and Bryant were a near perfect pair on the court, combining for three straight Finals appearances and two titles together, they remain inextricably linked now that they’re apart.
“It’s impossible [to separate],” Gasol said, wiping away tears on that night in late January. “It’s inevitable. I don’t know how. … My number goes up there, in big reason, because of him.
“And also how he made me better, how he made us better, how he led us in those runs and the effect that he had. And then obviously not having him here with us, it’s tough.”
THE TRADE THAT brought Gasol to Los Angeles in 2008 seemed to be good to be true
“I truly believe, had it leaked out, that there would’ve been teams in the league that would’ve tried to hijack it,” Buss told ESPN.
Gasol, 27 at the time and in his seventh NBA season, had earned Rookie of the Year and one All-Star nod in Memphis. But he was available after the Grizzlies’ three playoff appearances with Gasol all ended in first-round sweeps.
“I remember there was something written, or a rumor that he might be available, but it wasn’t the mainstream,” Mitch Kupchak, then the Lakers general manager and now the Charlotte Hornets GM, told ESPN. “So yeah, I called up [the Grizzlies] and you can kind of tell when there’s real interest or when there’s not real interest.”
It was real.
Then Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace was looking to get his team younger and shed future salary commitments at the behest of then team owner, Michael Heisley.
“One of the things that we had heard was the guy, the owner, wanted to sell the team and they weren’t going anywhere,” Kupchak said. “They weren’t having a very good season. Maybe they would lose some money, I don’t know. So one of the first things we did was, with Chris, ‘We can go two ways: We could give you players that add up to Pau’s [salary] number, or if you prefer, we have a large expiring contract in Kwame Brown, right? And we can go that direction.’
“I didn’t ask him what they were trying to accomplish, I just gave them two options, and he called back and he said, ‘Hey, let’s work on the Kwame Brown option.'”
The Lakers were just eight months removed from Bryant’s public trade demand stating he’d rather “play on Pluto” than suit up for the purple and gold again and weeks removed from Andrew Bynum suffering a dislocated kneecap that threatened to derail the Lakers’ season. They worked to put together the trade swiftly — and creatively.
It would be Brown, rookie Javaris Crittenton, two first-round picks, $3 million in cash considerations and the draft rights to Marc Gasol, Pau’s younger brother, to complete the deal.
But the salary numbers did not quite match up, so the Lakers had to get creative. Enter Aaron McKie, who was out of the league and volunteering as a coach with his alma mater, Temple University, after playing 24 games combined the previous two seasons.
“We were short a small number, but there was no way to make it work,” Kupchak said. “We just didn’t have any more players to put in.”
So he called up McKie’s agent with a proposition.
“I said, ‘Listen, the league will allow us to sign Aaron to a rest for the season contract, and we will put him in the trade and he’d have to report in Memphis. … Would he do it?’ And I forget how much money it was, I don’t know, $600,000, $800,000 for three or four months, right?”
McKie agreed. The trade went through. And the league, that now is a 24/7 news cycle of endless trade rumors and incremental negotiating updates, was shocked.
“Chris didn’t want it out,” Kupchak said. “We both knew if it got out, it’s not good. Just complicates things, right?
“After the fact, there was certainly a lot of people saying stuff like, ‘If we had known, we would’ve …’ But that could be sour grapes too, right?”
Kupchak was thrilled to acquire Gasol. But he didn’t want to hurt Wallace in the process.
“At the time, it was viewed as a very lopsided deal, and it made me uncomfortable,” Kupchak explained. “I mean, obviously being on the side that got Pau, I was pleased, but you don’t want your colleagues to ever get crushed.
“There was a lot of negative pushback, but when a year or two later, all of a sudden, you have Marc Gasol who’s the starting center making the All-Star team, the deal didn’t look as lopsided then as it did maybe the first month or two.”
WHILE GASOL COULDN’T help the tears from forming, thinking about Bryant that January night, there was a much different look in his eyes the night he played the most important game of his NBA career in that building.
And it would be hard to find someone who wouldn’t call it the best game of his NBA career, too.
Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals. Los Angeles Lakers versus Boston Celtics.
A rivalry renewed. A title on the line. Devastation or euphoria.
Pau: Kobe welcomed me to the Lakers at 1:30 AM
Pau Gasol shares a story with Zach Lowe about Kobe Bryant visiting his hotel room in the early morning hours to welcome him to the Lakers.
Gasol toiled toe-to-toe with Kevin Garnett, one of the fiercest competitors of his — or any — generation for 42 grueling minutes.
Kupchak certainly doesn’t forget Gasol’s 19 points, 18 rebounds, four assists and two blocks nearly 13 years later.
“A favorite Pau story? Well, I don’t know if it’s a story, but Game 7,” Kupchak said. “Everybody played just ridiculously hard and with passion, but Pau just seemed to me to be possessed.
“Some players, you don’t know how they’re going to respond. Are they going to match the physicality of the other team or are they going to be a step behind? And I just remember that game.”
It’s seared into Gasol’s mind, too, of course.
Mamba Mentality might have brought L.A. to the brink, but Gasol Grit sure as hell helped push the Lakers over the top.
Two years prior in the 2008 NBA Finals, he was outrebounded by Garnett in five of the six games, with Boston defeating L.A. by 39 points in Game 6 to take the title. Frustrated fans used “Ga-soft” to describe him.
“That summer where we lost in 2008 with the Celtics was the longest summer of my life,” Buss said. “Phil [Jackson], he said, ‘There’s nothing worse than losing in the Finals.’ … It is such a missed opportunity.
“It was really important to Phil that if we had to play Boston again … that we were prepared for whatever was going to come at us. We’re not going to be denied. Whatever it took to get to prepare Pau for that, that was Phil’s focus.”
Jackson and Bryant both developed strong bonds with Gasol, but they pushed his buttons, too. The poking and prodding made him a more determined player.
“When I was able to get to those points of aggressiveness, of physicality, of do-whatever-it-takes, I’m-going-to-go-through-you moments, and kind of put myself in that emotional state, that’s when I played my best,” Gasol said. “And obviously, what a bigger moment to do that? What a more needed moment than that, right?
“I remember that day thinking I’m going to do whatever. We’re not going to allow this team to beat us on our home court in Game 7. We’re going to win this championship. I don’t care how it is. I don’t care what I have to do. It’s kind of like that survival instinct of kill or get killed. And I was able to put myself into that killing mode of I’m just going to bite your head off, and I don’t care who you are, I don’t care anything.
“That’s how Kobe was on a gamely basis.”
Gasol’s eyes widen as he speaks about that 83-79 win over the Celtics. His nostrils flare as he talks about a night full of basketball so ugly that it became beautiful.
Gasol, the player, is back.
And he’s going to be remembered forever for it.