Kobe Bryant's connection with Pau Gasol stretches all the way to Pluto. It started before they were even teammates, in May 2007, when the Lakers lost in the first round of the playoffs to Phoenix. Bryant responded with his notorious multi-platform tirade, begging the Lakers to trade him anywhere, even the farthest non-planet from the sun.
The Lakers listened to Bryant, but instead of exiling him at a ludicrous discount, they appeased him by acquiring Gasol. Though general manager Mitch Kupchak said the trade was precipitated by an injury in early 2008 to center Andrew Bynum, Bryant believed his outburst compelled the Lakers to act. Bryant and Gasol were immediately linked, the superstar who yearned to salvage his prime, and the sidekick who needed to help.
"They had to do something," Bryant said. "They couldn't just sit there anymore. I was pushing them because I felt like I was playing with my hands behind my back. I had no guns. When we got Pau, it was like, 'OK, now I got my guy, now we can meet up at high noon.'"
Bryant made that comment two years ago for a feature about Gasol in Sports Illustrated. Pre-trade, Bryant was viewed as a petulant gunner who could not play with Shaquille O'Neal, and could not win without him. Post-trade, Bryant has captured two more championships, solidified his standing as one of the best players of all time, and rehabbed his pockmarked image. Gasol's effect on his legacy cannot be overstated. The tantrum in '07, once a stain, was lifted because it helped net Gasol. The feud with O'Neal, another stain, was reconsidered because Bryant and Gasol co-existed so easily.
"He's a smart player," Bryant said in that interview two years ago. "I can get along with smart players." Bryant did not go to the opera and the operating rooms with Gasol, but they spoke Spanish on the court so opponents wouldn't know what they were thinking. They staged left-handed shooting contests. They talked soccer. Some American stars are chilly toward Europeans. Bryant, who spent part of his childhood in Italy, is the opposite. He tolerated Sasha Vujacic, for instance, a lot longer than Smush Parker.
Gasol subtly questioned Bryant's shot selection and Bryant not-so-subtly challenged Gasol's toughness, famously saying, "I need him to be black swan." But neither let the criticism turn to a rift. Bryant, despite his jaw-jutted persona, has actually done some of his best work alongside white swans: Lamar Odom, for one, Gasol for another. The so-called killer from Philly and the supposed softie from Spain made a perfect match.
The NBA news cycle moves so quickly it is easy to forget that 10 months ago Gasol was known as the most skilled big man in the world. But Bryant does not forget much of anything, least of all what Gasol has meant to his career, and his franchise. Appropriately, the Lakers were in Phoenix on Sunday, after another embarrassing loss, when Bryant lobbied the front office to either trade Gasol or announce they will keep him. He urged them to look out for Gasol's "whole heart," a phrase that sounded like something Gasol might have said himself.
Bryant had to know the Lakers would reject his request, just as they did in '07, for similar reasons. Back then, they needed Bryant to contend. Now, they need a point guard to contend, and Gasol may be the only chip to land one. Kupchak was left to issue an uncomfortable statement essentially acknowledging that Gasol remains on the market. The awkwardness stemming from the vetoed Chris Paul trade knows no bounds. The Lakers may have to deal a quarter of the roster to get past it.
The front office has been uncharacteristically reckless this season, sending Odom to Dallas for a trade exception, and reportedly listening to offers for Gasol that are almost as laughable. The club has been equally confounding, hapless on the road but unbeatable at home. The Lakers need help on the perimeter, and yet, they are so formidable in the paint that it would be rash to rebuild.
Mining Bryant's words for greater meaning is a favorite pastime, but ultimately a pointless one. Was he reacting to the loss or distracting from it? Was he soothing Gasol or prodding him? Was he appealing to his bosses or giving them the needle? He has become as hard to read as Phil Jackson, but still, between the lines was a simple sentiment. Gasol saved Bryant from the darkest days of his basketball life and that will be remembered forever.