Swan Song: Pau Gasol says goodbye to retiring Kobe Bryant
Get all of Lee Jenkins’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
When Kobe Bryant retires after the Lakers’ season finale, this Wednesday, he will go down as one of the biggest winners, greatest scorers and richest characters in NBA history. He will not be remembered as one of the best teammates, unless you heed the opinion of Pau Gasol, considered in many quarters to be the league’s wisest man.
On Feb. 1, 2008, Gasol was traded from the Grizzlies to the Lakers. What followed were three straight Finals appearances, two championships and one everlasting partnership. The White Swan, as Bryant famously termed his Spanish sidekick (“I need him to be Black Swan!”), looks back on the six–plus years they spent together and wonders if he can ever duplicate the success...
My first day with the Lakers, I met the team at The Ritz in Washington, D.C., and at 1:30 in the morning there was a knock on my door. I found out later that Kobe doesn’t sleep much. I sat on the bed, I think, 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.
We were a perfect fit.
A lot of the triangle offense is based on reads and working off one another and understanding each other. I understood the game. I was meticulous about it. I think he appreciated that. I think he saw it as refreshing. Our relationship clicked from the beginning. We both knew we needed each other to succeed.
There are so many games in the NBA, it’s easy to start going through the motions. He kept everybody on edge. In practice he challenged people. He talked trash to people. It wasn’t for everybody. Some players can’t deal with that, but I didn’t mind. It was his way of motivating you and pushing you to give more. It’s easy to get comfortable. He made sure nobody was comfortable.
After we lost Game 6 to the Celtics in the 2008 Finals, we didn’t talk about it much. That was a time to digest what had happened, why we fell short and let that fire start burning in our bodies and our stomachs. We went into the next season with a different attitude—a stronger, more aggressive, more determined approach. I think that’s why we won the next two titles.
If you play with him, you’re looking every day at living proof of why the greats are the greats. It’s not by accident. It’s an obsession to reach that level and remain at that level. The dedication, the commitment, is such a unique thing. You don’t find it. He inspired me to be better, to see the game in a more detailed way.
We beat the Magic in the 2009 Finals, and everybody was happy, but it was different for him. It had a special meaning. Basketball was his life, and winning was his devotion. I’m not taking anything away from his family, which means the world to him, but basketball had so much depth to it.
When the Chris Paul trade, which I was going to be a part of, was vetoed in December 2011, he was like a big brother, standing up for me. At one point he told the Lakers, “If you’re going to trade him, do what you have to do and trade him. If not, leave him alone and let him play.”
We didn’t hang out that much off the court, but toward the end we had several meals one-on-one, and we would reminisce. When I was deciding whether to leave the Lakers in 2014, he came to my house in Redondo Beach. He said he wanted me to stay in L.A. and battle with him and finish our careers together. Those were his words. I told him I was in a place where I needed a change in my heart. I needed a change of air. It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done, telling him, “I’m deciding not to play with you anymore.”
I signed with the Bulls because I wanted to put myself in position to win another title. I haven’t been able to do that. I miss him a lot. I miss his presence. I miss that attitude. Not many players have it.
The White Swan, the Black Swan, all of that, it didn’t upset me. It didn’t frustrate me. It showed he cared about me. It was tough love. He was challenging me because he expected more from me. When somebody cares about you, that’s when they challenge you. When they don’t care about you, they ignore you. That’s when you should worry.
Maybe I’m spoiled because I know what winning feels like, and I love that feeling so much. It changes my mood. It affects me. I think winning will extend my career and motivate me to do more. Being around Kobe had an impact on my life. I’m going to be a free agent this summer, and I think about that now. I want to maximize the years I have left. I want to be part of something special again.