When Russell Westbrook was growing up in Los Angeles, he would try to watch the Lakers whenever he had the chance. Because his family didn’t have cable, however, he only got the opportunity to see those Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal-led teams when they were on the road, because KCAL 9 had the rights to all the team’s away games (real ones remember). But despite those constant chances to see maybe the best Lakers duo ever, 41-ish nights a year, Westbrook said there was another player whose game he gravitated to first: Pau Gasol.
“Very few people know this, but Pau was actually my favorite player growing up. Before Kobe,” Westbrook told the media after the team’s practice on Tuesday, when asked about Gasol in the wake of the latter’s retirement announcement earlier in the day.
“I just liked how he played the game,” Westbrook continued. “He was a big man, I know... but he played the right way. He could pass it, shoot it, he could score.”
Considering that those are exactly the things most Lakers fans grew to love about the seven-foot Spaniard, that wouldn’t be a surprising answer coming from anyone else. But from Westbrook? The same Westbrook whose game resembles that of an internet comments-dwelling Kobe Stan who was given the Super Soldier Serum? The same Westbrook whose outward persona is all Mamba Mentality work ethic and jaw-jutting, demonstrative fury?
Pau... Gasol... was his first favorite player?
According to Westbrook, the answer is yes, but not because he specifically tried to pattern his game after Gasol or anything.
“I just liked the way he played the game at his size,” Westbrook said. “He was somebody I always kind of looked at, and I wouldn’t say ‘modeled my game after,’ but I liked the way he played the game, and always played it the right way.”
Gasol wasn’t his only basketball influence, however. Westbrook clarified that Gasol, Bryant and Rasheed Wallace were his three favorite players, the latter two of whom it’s a little easier to see pieces of in Westbrook, at least in terms of their outwardly fiery competitiveness and explosive personalities.
But who knows? Maybe where we previously saw Kobe’s influence when Westbrook bellows to the heavens after dunking on some poor soul, we should actually be seeing is Westbrook channeling his inner Gasol, screaming for emphasis after taking contact. It’s a sound any longtime Lakers fan can hear in their head, and its spiritual echo is about to reverberate through the bowels of Staples Center this season.
But before we get to any of that later this month, it’s worth noting that this story has a happy ending. Years after beginning to idolize Gasol, eventually Westbrook was able to chat with the player he grew up admiring, and would later knock out of the postseason after Gasol hit the Thunder with a series-ending game-winner a few years before.
“Obviously Kobe, because we have a connection, I was able to communicate with Pau as well too,” Westbrook said.
Maybe they’ll connect privately again for a congratulatory conversation now that Gasol is retired, or maybe they won’t. But either way, for a kid who grew up watching games on KCAL, getting to chat with two players who raised banners for the team he grew up rooting for have to be pretty special memories as he looks to follow in their footsteps this season.