Endings are hard. We want things to come to a neat and proper conclusion, where the hero gets the girl, makes life-long friendships, and defeats the power-mad Asgardian god before the final credits roll.
Even in the sports world, we crave a happy ending, for our idols to walk away triumphant with a fist in the sky. But that’s not real life.
A debt to Father Time has to be paid, and aging stars rarely get the curtain call they deserve. Joints ache, Achilles snap, and athleticism fades.
Despite his best efforts to fight on, Kobe Bryant is preparing for the end of his illustrious career. He is racing against time while his body is held together by ice packs and physical therapists, hoping he can stay vertical until the final buzzer sounds. He won’t get to ride off into the sunset as a champion, but he can still celebrate a career full of amazing accomplishments. That’s about the best we can ask for these days — Peyton Manning excluded.
Tonight, he takes the floor against former teammate, Pau Gasol one last time. Even though they are now on opposing sides, we can’t help but think of the years they spent together in the Golden Armor.
One of the things that I’ve always been fascinated by is “I remember where I was when” moments. Those times when something so impactful happens that it becomes imprinted in our minds forever.
Sometimes these events are personal, sometimes they involve a particular group of people, and sometimes the entire world. 9/11 is a perfect example, as nearly everyone has a story to tell about what they experienced on that day. These moments, good or bad, have a way of unifying us through a shared experience.
Of course, not every “I remember where I was when” moment has to be a national catastrophe, it just has to involve something or someone that has a profound impact on us. Lakers fans have been fortunate enough to witness a number of other moments that they will never forget like Kobe’s 81, Magic’s junior sky hook, and Horry for the win.
“I guess that’s what happens at the end, you start thinking about the beginning” – John Smith (Brad Pitt)
Another moment that stands out in my mind is February 1st, 2008: the day Pau Gasol became a Laker. I remember where I was when it happened.
I was sick that day. I had stayed home from work 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 session and told everyone to hang on for a minute as 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 that the Lakers were able to convince him to rescind his trade request.
It had been a tough off-season, 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 Los Angeles. When 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, who at the time was arguably the best player in the league.
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: 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), two first round picks, and the rights to Marc Gasol.
In spite of my fever, 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. I turned the TV to 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 the moment. He was amazed 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, uniting the rabid Lakers fan base.
In that moment, I remember being optimistic that Gasol would be enough to allow the Lakers to contend, and that he could succeed playing alongside Bryant where others had struggled.
Even in my feverish, joyful delirium, I never would have imagined that on that fateful day, Kobe would be delivered his basketball soulmate.
Five 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.
As time went on, the gangly Spaniard proved to be the perfect partner for Bryant, matching the latter’s intelligent approach to the game. Gasol’s skillful touch around the basket and passing ability from the post opened up opportunities for Bryant that hadn’t been there since Shaquille O’Neal left Los Angeles.
“I wanted to play — if I could — with him forever” – Pau Gasol
However, where Shaq was boisterous and craved the spotlight, Gasol was quiet and content — happy to play the role of Bryant’s sidekick. Raised by parents in the medical field, Pau grew up dreaming of becoming a doctor, and his analytical mind carried over to the basketball court. Bryant, who spent his formative years in Italy where his father played professional basketball, could relate to Gasol’s experiences as a stranger in a strange land. They just clicked on and off the court.
Both Kobe and Pau are multi-lingual, and often spoke Spanish to each other on the court in order to keep opponents ignorant of their plans. It seemed that every time defenders swarmed on Kobe, there was Pau diving to the hoop in the right place at the right time to catch the pass and slam it home. For the first time in years, all was right in the Lakers world.
As time went on, the duo began to refer to each other as “brothers,” with each man bringing the best out of the other. Bryant and Gasol fought side-by-side through good times and bad, dealing with the heartbreak of losing in the Finals as well as the joy of hoisting the championship trophy (twice!).
Gasol was frequently accused of being soft, while Kobe was too demanding and strong-willed, but together they balanced each other and became something that was truly a joy to watch.
Alas, nothing lasts forever. The Lakers relationship with Gasol became strained after the infamous Chris Paul veto, and things progressively got worse as time went on. The trade rumors were constant, leaving the big man feeling unappreciated.
“I think, as his brother, I understand completely where he’s coming from, bringing two championships here and then to hear his name being thrown in trade rumors all day long and have Mike D’Antoni bench him…If I didn’t understand it, we wouldn’t be as close as we are to this day” -Kobe Bryant
When Gasol finally became a free agent in 2014 Bryant tried to convince him stay, but the bridge had already been burned. Pau signed with the Bulls, and the brothers parted ways.
Tonight, just over eight years since a trade brought them together, Kobe and Pau share the floor one final time as professionals. It’s a shame that they couldn’t leave as teammates, but again, the perfect ending isn’t real life. Kobe’s career isn’t quite over yet, and Pau still has a few miles left on his odometer, but the glory days they shared are firmly behind them.
We will always have the moments they provided, the awe-inspiring plays that make us remember where we were when Kobe and Pau ruled the NBA.
Credit for Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol quotes to Baxter Holmes, ESPN.