The last time Pau Gasol set foot in this pavilion as a local player, he had a discreet night. It was April 2014. He played 28 minutes and scored nine points. He was unable to prevent the Lakers from falling to the Blazers, the team that would hire the Catalan years later without him playing a minute for Portland, due to a foot injury. On Tuesday (early Wednesday morning in Spain), the man from Sant Boi returned to the Staples Center, currently known as the Arena. He was wearing an elegant navy blue suit and a purple tie. At the time, he no longer wore Lakers jersey number 16, which he wore for five years. Since Tuesday, the number is no longer his because he hangs alongside other legends on the pitch. The Los Angeles team retired the pivot’s jersey, in addition to 12 other jerseys for 11 players.

“I just want to thank you for making me feel so special. It was an honor to wear this shirt”, said an emotional Gasol, who couldn’t stop crying when he finally saw his number in the stands along with those of Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Jerry West, Charles Goodrich, Jamaal Wilkes, James Worthy, Shaquille O’Neal, Earvin Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant.

“I would love for Kobe to be here with Gigi,” Gasol said of the star, who died along with his daughter and seven others in a January 2020 helicopter crash. “, said Vanessa, the widow of the NBA icon. Her words were followed by a brief message the Lakers star delivered at the 2018 Academy Awards luncheon. “The reality is that I would not have won those championships [de 2009 y 2010] without Paul. Los Angeles would not have these two championships without Pau Gasol”, said Bryant at the time to journalist Antonio Martín, from Efe. Kobe’s two numbers, 8 and 24, are now immortalized along with Gasol’s 16.

The center recalled on Tuesday how Bryant was a figure that made him stand out. Gasol arrived in Los Angeles midway through the 2007-2008 season. By June, he was playing in his first NBA Finals. But he was overcome by the physical strength of the Celtics, who beat them in Game 6. That same summer, Gasol and Bryant faced each other as enemies in the final of the Beijing Games. The Americans took the gold (107-118). At the turn of the summer, Kobe took the medal into the Lakers locker room. She wanted Gasol to see her. “You lost to the Celtics, you lost to us, let’s make sure it’s three straight losses for you,” Bryant told him jokingly. The Lakers won two consecutive titles after that episode (they have 15). Legendary coach Phil Jackson, who attended Tuesday’s Crypto event, assured that Gasol brought “his offensive prowess” to the team, which was an attacking machine. Barcelona averaged 18 points per game back then.

Pau Gasol's newly unveiled jersey hangs above the stands at the Crypto arena.
Pau Gasol’s newly unveiled jersey hangs above the stands at the Crypto arena.Philip Kim (EFE)

“Since I was a child I always dreamed of playing in the NBA, but never in a million years did I think that this moment would come”, added the center, who hours before confessed to having spent the last few days trying to distract himself so as not to think too much about the tribute. . Among these activities, there was a dinner with five of his teammates from the Spanish national team that he has known since he was a teenager: Felipe Reyes, Raúl López, Juan Carlos Navarro and José Calderón. “He had a very busy few days, but we got a few laughs out of him,” Reyes said after the game.

That night, Gasol was sheltered by his parents, Agustí and Marisa, his brothers Marc and Adriá, his wife Catherine McDonnell, their two children, Lakers owner Jeanie Buss and team vice president Rob Pelinka. In the stands were other Los Angeles icons, including actor Adam Sandler and rock group the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

The tribute was given at halftime of the regular season game between the Lakers and the Memphis Grizzlies, the team for which Gasol played for six seasons and where he reached one of his first milestones in the United States, being declared newbies of the year in 2002, the first non-American to achieve it. But Tuesday’s game highlighted one of the Catalan striker’s many achievements. Among the five starters on the court, only one was a foreigner, Canadian Dillon Brooks, of the Grizzlies. Gasol was the second Spaniard to reach the NBA after Fernando Martín. On Tuesday, he became the first international player to have his jersey removed at one of basketball’s most competitive franchises.

“It was like a movie, I’m proud to believe this was a really good movie. Many very good things have happened in my life”, said Gasol in a press conference before the start of the game. With the two championship rings in a row, he reviewed the milestones of his career in the United States. He was selected by Atlanta with the third overall draft in 2001, what he called an “unexpected achievement” that helped him take off in the tight league.

Gasol admitted that he feels responsible for contributing to the foundation of the Grizzlies. He landed in Memphis at age 19, just as the team left Vancouver for the United States with a dismal record of 23 game wins this season. And he headed west years later, leaving the group close to 50 wins. Mike Fratello, his coach at the time, witnessed this afternoon’s tribute from the stands. His transfer is remembered in Los Angeles as one of the most successful. This allowed his brother Marc to arrive in Memphis, which also saw his jersey retired after a successful 10-year career and championship with Toronto. The gap that the Gasols opened up is undeniable. There are currently six Spaniards in the NBA. One of them, Santi Aldama, scored 11 points for Memphis tonight.

This Tuesday there was also talk of Gasol out of the sport. “He’s an angel on earth,” said Lakers coach Darvin Ham. “It’s a pleasure to talk to him because you can talk about things that happen in the world, not just in basketball,” added the coach, who is looking to save the season without the star of the team, LeBron James. The Lakers, who won tonight, also highlighted the humanitarian profile of Gasol, who co-chairs the Gasol Foundation against childhood obesity with Marc. In the same field where he triumphed years ago, the former player promised to keep fighting. “To whom much is given, much is expected. And I will continue to dedicate my life to impacting others and making a difference. To inspire and help make this world a better and healthier place”, concluded the athlete in a special night for Spanish sport

Pau Gasol poses with his two NBA rings at a press conference, prior to the NBA game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies, at Crypto.Com Arena, in Los Angeles (USA).
Pau Gasol poses with his two NBA rings at a press conference, prior to the NBA game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies, at Crypto.Com Arena, in Los Angeles (USA). Philip Kim (EFE)

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