The unique brotherhood forged by Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol would come to define the 2008-2011 era of the Los Angeles Lakers as much as any relationship on the team.
While their bond was a true brotherhood in the sense that it wasn’t always affectionate — Bryant specialized in prodding Gasol to get the best out of him, both privately (hanging the Olympic gold medal he won over Gasol’s Spanish team in the latter’s locker) and publicly (“I need him to be black swan”) — there did seem to be a genuine love and appreciation between the two pillars of those Lakers teams. That connection was perhaps most memorably displayed when Gasol was the first person Bryant thanked after the Lakers beat the Celtics in Game 7 of the NBA Finals in 2010 on a night where Gasol really pushed the team on an uncharacteristically nervy, 6-24 shooting night from Bryant.
“This one’s by far the sweetest because it’s against them, and because it’s the hardest one, by far,” Bryant said as the team celebrated their win around him on the dais. “Tonight (the hype) got the best of me. I wanted it so bad, and sometimes you want something so bad it slips away from you, and my guys picked me up.
“I mean, I can’t say enough about the Spaniard. That guy is unbelievable, just a hell of a player, and we wouldn’t have won it without him.”
The Lakers wouldn’t have had that whole era without either of them, and on the same day that Bryant was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame, Gasol spoke to Zach Lowe of ESPN about a wide range of topics, including how his and Bryant’s relationship at teammates started with a 2:00 a.m. meeting at the team hotel in Washington D.C. because Bryant didn’t want to wait to start what would become one of the most symbiotic partnerships in NBA history:
“It was very early, when I joined the team in Washington D.C. after my physicals in L.A. (following the trade). The team was on the road, I joined the team, I wasn’t gonna play, they had an afternoon game the next day on Sunday. I was not gonna play that game, I hadn’t had a chance to practice or do anything, and Kobe had been texting me from the moment I got traded that as soon as I arrived in Washington D.C., he wanted to stop by in my room and kind of talk to me and welcome me to the team.
“I told him like ‘hey, okay, it’s gonna be late, like 1:30 or so, so you don’t have to. We can wait until tomorrow if you want.’ He was like ‘no, no, no. I’m coming. I’m coming.’ So he came, obviously I was happily surprised and he told me ‘hey I’m very happy that you’re here, very excited, this is great, but now let’s go win a championship.’
“So from the very beginning he really sent a message of what he was going to be like, and what he was about, and the kind of level and mindset I had to be at. Losing, not winning a game in the playoffs, that’s over with. Here we’re gonna go for a championship. And that was really great and unique and incredible from his part, and showed what type of leader he was.”
Gasol and Bryant would ultimately win two titles in three consecutive runs to the NBA Finals after that chat, so it’s safe to say “message received” on Gasol’s part. They were also the perfect pairing, both in terms of their games (two of the most cerebral players in history at their respective positions, watching them pick apart defenses using a combination of English, Spanish, hand signals, the triangle offense, snake hisses and telepathy was basketball porn at its finest) and in terms of their personalities, with Gasol’s more thoughtful, careful and measured ways allowing him to co-exist perfectly with Bryant in the locker room.
That latter factor is no small thing, as countless NBA locker rooms — and workplaces in general — have been broken apart by a lack of a clear chain of command. Bryant and Gasol’s Lakers never had that problem. There was never a power struggle over who was the team’s “alpha,” as after years of toiling as the lone star in Memphis, Gasol was uniquely suited for (and happy to play) the role of one of the most overqualified No. 2 options in NBA history. Their teams feel somehow under-appreciated historically by basketball fans as a whole at this point — shouts to recency bias — but those who got to watch Bryant and Gasol every night know how lucky they were. Now we know how it all got started.