Swanson: Paying tribute to Pau Gasol – and Kobe Bryant, too

LOS ANGELES — Kobe, we missed you Tuesday.

Kobe, you were well represented.

On Tuesday night, the Lakers retired Pau Gasol’s No. 16 jersey, hanging it in the rafters of Crytpo.com Arena, beside Kobe Bryant’s Nos. 8 and 24 – those men indelibly linked, their numbers symmetrically ordered, perfect companions still.

Teammates, friends, hermanos.

The Black Mamba and Black Swan, luminaries in the Lakers’ kingdom, complementary forces who worked together for NBA championships in 2009 and 2010.

Kobe earmarked that space in those rafters for Gasol, of course.

Back in 2018, he told an interviewer at an Oscars event: “Pau, when he retires, he will have his number in the rafters next to mine. Reality is, I don’t win those championships without Pau. The city of L.A. doesn’t have those two championships without Pau Gasol. We know that, everybody knows that.

“And I really look forward to the day when he’s there giving his speech at center court, in front of all the fans who supported him over the years.”

They showed that video at halftime Tuesday, when fans gathered to offer, on behalf of a city, a heartfelt and lasting thank you to the 42-year-old Spaniard who was always such a class act, such a gracious and game warrior on the court for seven seasons with the Lakers.

To cheer him and to cry with him as he paid tribute to Bryant, who died along with his daughter Gianna and seven others, in a helicopter crash in January 2020.

His cheeks wet with tears, Gasol described Bryant as “the brother who elevated me, inspired me and challenged me to be a better player, just to be a better overall human.”

Tears. Pau’s. His fans’. pic.twitter.com/JKElmxRsMy

— Mirjam Swanson (@MirjamSwanson) March 8, 2023

The sellout crowd punctuated his sentiments with a roar, chanting “Ko-be! Ko-be!”

And Gasol responded like a friend, a friend commiserating with friends: “I miss him so much,” he said. “I love him. I wish he was here with GiGi, I really do. But I think he’ll be proud.”

If you’re a Lakers fan, the odds are you remember where you were on Feb. 1, 2008, when the team acquired Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies.

It was that monumental a moment, such a proud moment in the franchise’s history, a steal of a deal that resulted in three consecutive NBA Finals appearances, including the two titles.

“He’s a high-IQ basketball player, extremely versatile, very talented,” Bryant told broadcaster John Ireland that night in a postgame interview on KCAL-TV. “It says a lot about the organization … and the commitment that they make to winning.”

He spelled that out for Gasol soon after, knocking on his new teammate’s hotel room door at 1:30 a.m.

“I found out,” Gasol later recalled in a Sports Illustrated piece, “that Kobe doesn’t sleep much.”

Gasol’s memories of that conversation remained vivid even in 2016, on the event of Bryant’s retirement: “I sat on the bed, and he sat on the table next to the TV. He welcomed me to the team, and then he told me it was ‘go’ time. It was winning time. He felt I could take him to the top again, and he wanted to make sure I knew that. ‘This is our chance,’ he said. It was powerful and meaningful.”

And it was the first of many very early morning communications. “There’s been times where I texted him at 3 in the morning: ‘Be ready to play tomorrow,’” Bryant said after the Lakers’ series-clinching victory over Denver in the 2009 Western Conference finals. “And then he’ll send a text right back so I know we’re on the same wavelength.”

What it was: A beautiful partnership.

Gasol joined forces with a superstar whose bag – about 1,000 leagues deep – included an encyclopedia of moves and a multitude of languages, too. Italian, Gasol’s native Spanish, the universal language of basketball – and the much more exclusive and sometimes severe dialect of winning.

“He definitely inspired me and showed me what it took to be the best player that he could be,” Gasol said before the Lakers’ tipped off against Memphis, the team with which he played his first seven NBA seasons.

“The work ethic, the dedication, the mindset going into it. He challenged me to get better with his actions, with his work, and also with … he was very intentional with his actions. I was in. I was all the way in. I would go as far as he would want me to go. I wanted to win.”

And, Gasol reasoned: “We didn’t win those championships, we wouldn’t be sitting here.”

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But, as Bryant told us, without Gasol, the Lakers wouldn’t have those championships.

Can’t discuss Gasol the basketball champion without mentioning Gasol, the champion of humanity. A philanthropist and a role model, he spent Monday at Lafayette Park Recreation Center in L.A., at one of his foundation’s children’s wellness programs. And he closed his remarks Tuesday by promising to keep doing good.

“To those who much is given, much is expected,” Gasol said. “I’ll continue giving my life to impacting others, to making a difference, to inspiring, to helping others. To making this world a healthier and better place.”

That includes close to home, with his devotion to Bryant’s family, to Kobe’s widow, Vanessa, and to the Bryant children, Natalia, Bianka and Capri, who know Gasol as “Uncle Pau.”

You could feel the appreciation for that too Tuesday, when the “Ko-be” chants gave way to another rousing refrain, for the other half of an exquisite pairing, a winning one.

“Pau Gasol!” they chanted. “Pau Gasol!”

Pau Gasol’s full jersey retirement ceremony speech #GraciasPau pic.twitter.com/RDIN0M3rzw

— NBA (@NBA) March 8, 2023

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