Pau Gasol remains grateful for years, titles with Lakers
LOS ANGELES (AP) Pau Gasol was only back in town for two days and one emotional game at Staples Center. He still cherished the chance to reconnect with Los Angeles, where he won two NBA titles with the Lakers and created a legacy that will endure beyond his basketball career.
''So many memories. So many battles,'' Gasol said. ''So many moments that I have lived and experienced. It'll be nice to play in front of Laker fans and have a great game, and try to focus on it and be thankful for everything that I experienced here.''
And though he only had one night off in L.A., Gasol also couldn't miss a chance to do some good.
That's why the Chicago Bulls' 7-foot star sat on a chair Wednesday night in the cafeteria at Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, speaking in Spanish to about 150 students and parents gathered to hear his thoughts on health and nutrition.
Although Gasol has moved to the Midwest to pursue another ring, his Gasol Foundation continues to do important community work in this heavily Latino area southeast of downtown Los Angeles. After his speech, he raffled off two books of his photography and a basketball before posing for photos with just about everybody in attendance.
''My commitment with children and infants and their future, it's key - not just for now, but for the rest of our lives,'' said Gasol, who fronts the foundation along with his All-Star brother, Marc. ''We're trying to build a foundation that does great work, that benefits children and their families who didn't have the opportunities that we did growing up.''
Gasol got another warm reception Thursday night before the Bulls faced the Lakers, who handed out gold T-shirts reading ''Thanks Pau'' to every fan, with a list of his accomplishments on the back. Gasol, who shook hands with familiar ushers and attendants throughout the building, got a standing ovation in warmups and another long ovation after a pregame tribute video.
Gasol walked to center court and acknowledged the cheers with a wave of his arms.
''I was just overwhelmed,'' he said. ''I didn't know exactly quite what to expect, so it was emotional. You always welcome that kind of appreciation and support and love, so I'm thankful to the fans that I played in front of for so many years.''
Gasol also got a pregame visit from Kobe Bryant, his longtime friend and teammate who just had surgery on his torn right rotator cuff Wednesday. They've been in regular contact since Gasol left town.
''It was an incredible gesture on his part to want to come and say hello so that we could see each other,'' Gasol said. ''It was an unexpected gift.''
The Bulls lost a double-overtime thriller to the lowly Lakers. Gasol forced the first overtime with a tip-in basket, leaning over Robert Sacre with 11 seconds left in regulation.
Still, the 34-year-old Gasol has been revitalized in Chicago, earning an All-Star berth and playing some of his best basketball in the past half-decade.
''I thought it was the right move to make at the time, and we're in a great situation,'' Gasol said. ''I'm playing at a high level. I'm motivated, I'm energized and I'm excited about what I'm doing again, so it's perfect for me.''
Although he walked away from another deal with the Lakers last summer, he misses Los Angeles' weather and culture along with his innumerable friends.
He doesn't miss receiving a large part of the blame for the Lakers' gradual slide from championship contention to utter ineptitude over the past four years - a burden that meant seeing his name in countless trade rumors and subjecting him to vicious online criticism from the type of entitled fans created by championship success.
''Obviously, it affected me,'' said Gasol, who would have been traded to Houston in December 2011 in a deal for Chris Paul before the NBA voided it.
''I dealt with it the best way I could,'' Gasol added. ''I gave everything I had, but obviously you have in the back of your mind that you could be gone at any time. That can happen to anyone, but mine seemed to be in the paper and in the press continuously, multiple times, pretty much the last three years I was here.''
In Chicago, Gasol can focus on what's important to him - his sport and his off-the-court interests, which range from charity work to photography to the performing arts. He doesn't have to hear from friends about where he might be headed next, or log on to Twitter to find the insult-laden hashtag ''IdtradeGasolfor.''
''It's a nice, rewarding feeling,'' Gasol said. ''It's a factor that people have overlooked as far as my performance is now, and how I've been playing, and what it has been for the last couple of years, also. Just the fact of just focusing on the game and giving my best.''
Gasol expects he'll always have ties to Los Angeles, and the Barcelona native anticipated that warm reception from Lakers fans when he hit the court. Although some Lakers fans blamed Gasol, many more appreciated his talents and attitude along with his remarkable devotion to his community, wherever it may be.
''For me, it's like coming back home,'' Gasol said. ''A lot of memories, a lot of experiences come back to me. Unfortunately it's a short visit, but it will be nice to play at Staples. Weird that it will be in a different uniform.''