LOS ANGELES (AP) — When Pau Gasol joined the Los Angeles Lakers just over 15 years ago, the Spanish 7-footer banished his ego, redoubled his work ethic and immediately turned this team into contenders who eventually became champions.
Gasol and Kobe Bryant did it all together, and their numbers now hang side by side in the Lakers’ arena.
The Lakers retired Gasol’s No. 16 jersey Tuesday night, honoring the genteel big man who spent the best seasons of his 18-year NBA career with Bryant in Los Angeles. The Lakers reached three straight NBA Finals after Gasol’s arrival in February 2008, winning championships in 2009 and 2010.
“I think I’ve done as good as I could to really embrace it and savor it, but tonight really exceeds any dream or expectation that I’ve had,” Gasol said before the game while wearing one championship ring on each hand. “It means so much, and obviously with Kobe up there, it just adds something meaningful and powerful and sad and happy and painful and joyful. It’s a lot of things.”
Gasol’s banner was unveiled during a halftime ceremony that began with Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, introducing a video in which an excited Kobe said he was looking forward to the day when Gasol gave a speech at center court during his jersey retirement. Gasol choked up while watching the video and standing in that exact spot, wiping tears from his eyes before he spoke to the crowd.
“I’m just overwhelmed to see the faces here, all of you,” Gasol said. “It’s been my honor to wear this jersey, to play for this franchise and to help this team. ... I would have never in a million years believed a day like this could come. It just tells you to never say never. Just push yourself every day to be the best that you can be.”
Gasol’s versatile game complemented Bryant’s scoring prowess perfectly when Gasol decided to be a supporting player to a fellow superstar, and the two also formed a deep off-court friendship that endured to Bryant’s death in 2020.
Gasol thanked Vanessa Bryant during his speech: “Love you, sister. I’m proud to be your brother, and proud to be an uncle to your girls.”
This 17-time NBA champion franchise typically only retires the numbers of players in the Hall of Fame, and Gasol is a first-time finalist for the honor this year with a strong chance of making the cut. Gasol made three of his six career All-Star teams during his time with Los Angeles while averaging 17.7 points and 9.9 rebounds per game.
“The excitement, the anticipation, the honor received, it’s just so big that it’s been hard to really take it in,” Gasol said. “I have to keep reminding myself that it’s a celebration. It’s great. It’s lovely. It’s just great that you can experience this in your life.”
The 42-year-old Gasol said he struggled to sleep over the past few days while he thought about the enormity of the Lakers’ gesture amid the still-strong memories of his years on the West Coast. The team scheduled the ceremony for halftime of the Lakers’ game against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Gasol chose Tuesday night for his Lakers jersey retirement for a very good reason: He played his first seven NBA seasons with the Grizzlies, his first team after he moved stateside in 2001.
Memphis traded Gasol to the Lakers in February 2008, and the deal transformed both franchises: While Gasol and Bryant immediately formed a dominant partnership, Memphis got a package that included Gasol’s younger brother, Marc, who went on to have 11 largely excellent seasons with the Grizz.
Gasol’s parents, his brothers Marc and Adrià, Vanessa Bryant and Lakers owner Jeanie Buss joined Gasol and his wife on the court.
Gasol was only the second Spanish player in NBA history and the first to win a ring, and he believes his long, successful career contributed to erasing the stereotype of the “soft” European player. Gasol noted that three Europeans now are arguably the top three players in the league: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic.
“I’m proud to see that,” Gasol said. “That inspires not only European kids, but players across the world. Give yourself a chance if you really want it. It’s been great to see the game grow globally.”
Gasol’s jersey represents the 13th number retired by the Lakers honoring 12 players. Bryant’s early-career No. 8 and late-career No. 24 are both retired.