Look across the league, better yet across the country, and you won’t find many people a nicer human being that Pau Gasol. He’s a constant advocate and spokesmen for organizations like UNICEF or the NBA Cares programs. His original life goal was to cure AIDS, based on listening to Magic Johnson’s announcement of his retirement in 1991. He often visits the children hospitals in L.A., not just as a visitor for little kids, but as a student of the practice.
But as the cruel saying goes, nice guys finish last.
Since arriving in L.A. in early 2008, a rash of emotions has surrounded the Spaniard from the fans. First, excitement over his acquisition (and the departure of Kwame Brown). Then, euphoria as he gelled every so perfectly with Kobe Bryant and the rest of the squad in Phil Jackson’s famed triangle offense. Anger then swept over a fanbase, as he was embarrassed by Kevin Garnett in the 2008 NBA Finals, being out-physicaled and out-muscled all series.
Pride motivated Gasol over the next two years, first to prove his spot on the Lakers and to earn a title, then to redeem himself against the Celtics and Garnett. But that summer did fans start to realize a few things about Gasol that would stick with him throughout his tenure.
1. Gasol needed then and now to be almost coddled. Bryant and Phil Jackson realized this and got the best out of him early on. It’s why his best years in LA were his first ones, because after a few years, his confidence was shaken by….
2. Trade rumors have long surrounded Gasol. For reasons we may never know, for the last handful of seasons, Gasol has been in the middle of all trade talks for the Lakers.
Gasol name being brought up in trade talks originally seemed weird. You have a player who fits your system perfectly, who has led you to three Finals and two titles, but was put in the middle of trade talks. Always the nice guy, Pau handled the speculation like a man, never letting it publicly effect his play.
But he is only human. Years and years of speculation, and even being apart of the failed Chris Paul trade, had no noticeable effect on the Spaniard, but certainly took it’s toll. It became almost some sort of ritual for the Lakers, who would shop Gasol right before the trade deadline, then use the big man as bait in an effort to move into the first round of the draft.
Recently, we’ve seen an abbreviated version of Gasol, with flashes of the skilled big men we fell in love with. Finally, the rumors have taken effect. Years of being under appreciated have left fans with a shell of his former self. He spends nights watching his defender nail mid-range jumpers and abuse him on the glass.
It’s clearly an effort issue, because we seem flashes of old Pau. Just last night, in Atlanta, he started with 10 points and 6 rebounds in the first quarter. But then he finished the final three quarters with 5 points and 4 rebounds, and noticeably ignored Al Horford as he stepped out for mid-range jumpers late in the 4th quarter with the game in the balance.
And none of this even mentions the recent falling out with Mike D’Antoni, which is just another chapter in their history of disdain. Last season, Pau was benched by D’Antoni for multiple games. Now, MDA and Pau’s spat leave fans with the feeling of inevitability that Pau is gone.
Through it all, Pau’s biggest supporter and loudest advocate has been none other than Kobe Bryant, which only further complicates the situation. When Dwight Howard decided to leave LA this summer, it was Bryant who posted a picture of the duo on his Instagram account. It’s Bryant who always defends Pau to the media. And it’s Bryant who called Gasol his brother.
It’s amazing to look back at Pau’s legacy in Los Angeles. We have a man who was an absolute key figure in three championship runs. It’s arguable that his number is worthy of being retired. Yet no Laker in the last 15 years has been as disrespected by fans and the front office, especially at the end of his run. With his deal expiring, all signs point to Gasol’s Laker career nearing it’s end, whether he’s traded or not resigned.
And the lesson of it all? Nice guys still finish last.