With Lakers jersey retirement, Pau Gasol gets his moment in the spotlight

LOS ANGELES — Before the sun came up Tuesday morning, Pau Gasol was already awake. His heart was racing too quickly to sleep.

The 42-year-old said his anticipation of walking back into his old arena was too overwhelming to fully absorb. Amid a packed schedule in the last few days of one of the biggest celebrations of his life, he had tried to build in downtime – “I’ve been trying to distract myself in a way” – if only to give his butterflies a break.

For a man who allows himself to feel like Gasol, whose heart was always fully on his sleeve for better or worse, seeing his jersey retired was always going to test his composure, was always going to make the memories pour out of his veins and leak onto his cheeks. He knew in the buildup to his big moment, when his No. 16 would be unveiled next to Kobe Bryant’s Nos. 8 and 24, that he could never be fully prepared.

“Tonight, it really exceeds any dream or expectation that I’ve had because it means so much,” he said. “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.”

That wide swath of emotion could be read in the few minutes Gasol spent at midcourt Tuesday night, as the Lakers honored the Spanish-born big man who helped restore the franchise to greatness. The acquisition of Gasol in a trade with Memphis on Feb. 1, 2008, was the turning point that ignited three straight runs to the Finals and championships in 2009 and 2010. In his 18-year career, the seven most memorable seasons came in L.A. – and Gasol knew he would not have been the same player without the Lakers, too.

He spent so much of a night focused on him trying to spread the spotlight around, fitting for a player so often regarded as a complementary piece in spite of six All-Star appearances and a trailblazing career for European and international players. At one point, Gasol pointed to his number and addressed his former teammates – Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, Metta Sandiford-Artest and Sasha Vujacic among them.

“I hope you feel a piece of that jersey up there is yours,” he said, “because it is.”

Somehow a simple navy suit with a dark purple tie felt fitting for a player who, despite his skill and basketball IQ, never tried hard to stand out. But he allowed himself to be the focal point for one night, as team owner Jeanie Buss, General Manager Rob Pelinka and Vanessa Bryant – Kobe’s widow and a close family friend of the Gasols – presented him with a framed No. 16 jersey to commemorate his place among Lakers greats. The Lakers also furnished each of the 18,997 seats with a gold No. 16 jersey.

The ceremony began with Vanessa Bryant 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 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.”

Gasol joins George Mikan, Elgin Baylor, Gail Goodrich, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Jamaal Wilkes, Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant as the immortalized few. He sat as a courtside guest of the Lakers with his wife, Catherine, and his two young children. His two brothers – including former Laker Marc Gasol – and his parents also attended at his side as his jersey was retired at halftime of the Lakers-Grizzlies game.

Gasol has rarely commanded so much attention on his own in spite of his career achievements (he was announced as a Basketball Hall of Fame finalist last month). Even in the lead-up to his big night, Gasol was asked to weigh his legacy relative to others. He thoughtfully considered how Bryant, had pushed him to be the best version of himself, and how he had earned Bryant’s trust. He was asked where he ranked in the pantheon of Laker big men that includes Abdul-Jabbar, O’Neal and Chamberlain, to which he said, “I wouldn’t dare to compare myself with those great players.” But he spoke instead of his great appreciation for being able to spend time with Abdul-Jabbar in Utah during All-Star Weekend and in the last week to celebrate his retired jersey.

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It was easy to see, through Gasol’s casual deflections, how so much of his life is geared toward the future and not the past. When asked about how former coach Phil Jackson motivated him to become a championship-level player, Gasol talked at some length about how much he enjoys seeing the 77-year-old now (in spite of more than a few clashes back in the day).

“I’m trying to go visit him to Montana and spend some time in the mountains,” Gasol said of Jackson. “I go back in the summers to Spain most of the time so it’s hard during that summertime when Montana is blossoming. But I told him I don’t mind. I won’t visit because of the weather, I want to spend time with him.”

But for one moment, as Gasol was running out of people to thank for his career, the crowd at Crypto.com Arena gave him his moment, chanting “PAU GAS-OL! PAU GAS-OL!”

Taking it in at once was impossible, Gasol said. But he’s always tried to live in the moment.

“Life has been like a tornado in a way, but you just keep riding the wave, right?” he said. “Riding the wave, doing the best you can, making the most of every single second, not taking anything for granted, making relationships, appreciating people, acknowledging everyone’s role and position, and truly being thankful. Because the journey will end at some point, so we’ll just enjoy it and make it as impactful as we can while we’re here.”

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