As a Laker fan I’ve certainly had more than my fair share of “I remember where I was when” moments. Magic Johnson’s junior sky hook to win game 4 against Boston, Kobe to Shaq against Portland, Horry for the win, Magic’s retirement, the death of Dr. Jerry Buss, Kobe’s81, and many, many more. I’ll remember them all.
Today though, I’m being brought back to a different moment, and I guess that’s because at the end you have to think about the beginning. February 1st, 2008: Pau Gasol was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.
To be sure, this isn’t an event on the same level as a 9/11 or Pearl Harbor; I would never attempt to make that comparison. For a subset of people though, the ravenous, frenzied bunch known as Laker fans, this was an “I remember where I was when” moment.
I was sick. I had stayed home from work that day with a nasty cold and fever, and had spent the majority of the morning drifting in and out of consciousness. Eventually I fixed myself some breakfast and started to snap out of it a little, so I turned on my computer and checked out a chat being hosted by ESPN, I believe with David Aldridge.
At one point Aldridge stopped the chat and session and told everyone to hang on for a minute, he was getting word of a trade involving the Lakers. My heart skipped a beat. Andrew Bynum had been in the midst of a breakout season, which had done just enough to placate Kobe Bryant that the Lakers were able to convince him to rescind his trade request. It had been a tough offseason for the Lakers, with Kobe rumored to be heading to either Chicago or Detroit via trade. He was tired of losing and wanted to return to the top, which appeared to be impossible in LA. When Andrew Bynum started off the season looking like an All-Star everything changed. However, Bynum had just gone down with a knee injury (which would become a trend), and it looked like the Lakers would once again lack the firepower to make any significant noise in the playoffs.
My fear was that with Bynum out the Lakers had given in and traded Kobe Bryant. A moment later Aldridge popped back up to clarify that the trade was for Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies. When the full details of the trade emerged I was stunned: Pau Gasol to the Lakers in exchange for Kwame Brown’s expiring contract, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie (who was signed to a contract just to be included in this trade, a loophole that has since been closed), 2 first-round picks, and the rights to a second-round pick named Marc Gasol (of course at the time no one though Marc would ever be as good as his brother).
Even sick and feverish I jumped up out of my seat and ran around the house celebrating. I grabbed my phone and texted every Laker-fan that I knew and turned on ESPN to revel as Stephen A. Smith went on a tirade about how amazing this trade was for the Lakers. I called my dad, who had taught me to love the Lakers, and we shared in this great moment in Laker history. He couldn’t believe that the Lakers had landed Gasol without giving up Kobe, Bynum, or Lamar Odom.
Everyone could sense that this was a moment of monumental importance. The potential was there for this to be a turning point for the Lakers, one that could lead to greatness. The excitement in the air was tangible. Somehow, when the chips were down, the Lakers managed to do the impossible yet again.
5 days later Pau made his Laker debut against the New Jersey Nets, fitting in seamlessly while putting up an impressive 24 points and 12 rebounds. The Lakers, thought to be dead in the water without Andrew Bynum, were flying high again.
For the next three seasons the Lakers would find themselves in the NBA Finals, riding the brilliance of Gasol and Bryant while players like Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza, Ron Artest, and Derek Fisher played their roles to perfection. During that period 2 championships would be brought home to Los Angeles and Gasol cemented his status as one of the most skilled big men to ever play the game.
His knack for passing out of the post created plenty of opportunities for cutting teammates and was indicative of the selflessness he displayed throughout his career. When the Lakers needed a basket they knew that Gasol would always be ready to go work in the post, often using a series of fakes to get his defender out of position before deftly lofting the ball into the basket. For the Lakers It was another golden age, but nothing lasts forever.
As the years went on Pau soldiered forward for the Lakers even as obstacles mounted. In 2011 the Lakers traded Gasol and Odom in a deal that would have netted them superstar point guard Chris Paul, but it wasn’t to be. Commissioner David Stern was fresh off of a Collective Bargaining session that in part had the goal of preventing the Lakers from re-loading their roster. Stern, claiming to be acting as the owner of the league-owned Hornets, then broke the rules he himself had put in place in order to keep the NBA from interfering with the Hornets and vetoed the trade.
Stern’s villainy left Pau in an uncomfortable position, having been traded by the franchise that he had helped bring two championships to. That Lakers still haven’t recovered from the vetoed deal, stuck in a downward spiral thanks to Stern’s actions and subsequent mistakes made by the front office.
The team’s relationship with Pau was damaged even further when they hired Coach Mike D’Antoni, who didn’t see eye-to-eye with his star big man, inexplicably benching him late in games. Other stars would have ranted to the media and made trade demands on a daily basis, but for the most part Gasol stayed silent and stoically did his job. He gave the Lakers his all year in and year out while chaos swirled around him. It’s safe to say that no one could have handled the situation as well as he did.
That brings us to today. While D’Antoni is gone the damage has already been done. The Lakers were somehow unable (or unwilling) to find a suitable trade for Gasol in the three years since the Chris Paul theft and have also been unsuccessful in their efforts to bring the team back to their traditional status as a contender. Gasol suffered through the worst season in Lakers history last year while best friend Kobe Bryant was plagued with injuries. Given all that had happened since that remarkable day in 2008 when Pau came to LA it seemed as though his departure was inevitable.
Last summer the Lakers made the enormous, crippling mistake of allowing Dwight Howard to become a free agent rather than trade him at the deadline when it was clear that he wouldn’t be returning. Their stubbornness resulted in Howard running away to the Houston Rockets, leaving the once-great franchise with nothing. Unfortunately this disaster was not enough to teach the front office their lesson about free agents.
The Lakers compounded the Dwight problem by making the same mistake with Pau this summer. They allowed him to become a free agent even while knowing that his return was doubtful. Yesterday, in a moment that Laker fans feared was coming, Pau made the decision to leave in search of another shot at a championship, signing with the Chicago Bulls in the laughably weak Eastern Conference.
I’m genuinely happy for Pau, yet saddened at the same time. Laker management should have never allowed a situation like this to occur. They should have put a team in place that would allow the Lakers to contend, thus allowing Pau to be in a position to finish his playing days in the Golden Armor alongside Kobe. It’s only fitting that those two, now forever linked in basketball history, should leave the court for the last time together, as teammates.
Instead, incompetence has robbed Gasol, Kobe, and the fans of that moment. In the space of a year the team has watched two of the top big men of the last decade walk out the door without receiving any compensation in return. For the franchise this is a failure of colossal proportions. For Pau, Kobe, and Laker fans it’s an absolute tragedy.
The Lakers have now become a cautionary tale and teams are increasingly wary of taking on star players with expiring contracts. In the absence of a contending team the Lakers should have been able to at least do right by Gasol and trade him to a franchise that has a shot at winning while receiving something in return for their star, something to help soften the blow to the fans. But that didn't happen. Now the Lakers face an uncertain future and can only wish Pau the best in Chicago.
Regardless of the tragic ending Pau Gasol will always hold a special place in the hearts of Laker fans. Throughout all the chaos and upheaval over the past few years Pau has been the constant, the stable rock anchoring the team. Seeing him in a Bulls uniform is never going to seem quite right. At some point the Lakers will turn things around. They will be back, but it will never be the same as those magical days when Pau and Kobe, opposites in so many ways, ruled the NBA.
In our lifetime we have so few moments that stand out as truly unforgettable. Some are felt by the entire world, some by a nation, and some by only an individual. Still others impact a group, even a diverse, unconventional group brought together by something as irrational as an obsession for a basketball team.
Pau helped bring the Lakers 2 Championships and countless amazing memories. Someday his jersey will be in the rafters at Staples Center where it belongs. As the years will go by and the players from this generation of Lakers slip into history it is safe to say that Pau and his contributions will not be forgotten. What he accomplished with his counterpoint, Kobe Bryant, can never be taken away.
At the end you have to think about the beginning. Through all the ups and downs one thing has never changed: I remember where I was when Pau Gasol became a Laker. It was the moment that pushed the Lakers to greatness, a moment in which the endless possibilities of the future captivated our imaginations, a moment where the impossible was possible, and a moment that we will be forever attempting to recapture.
Thank you Pau.
The entire piece is posted here: http://www.16rings.com/2014/07/adios-pau-gasol.html. Check it out as well as my other work, thanks!