It is upon us at last, the end. Of course we wish it were not so, we wish it were not an illness that was the final nail in the coffin for Pau Gasol, sickness being the one opponent he could not find a way around. But it is. So here we are. It’s natural to look back, there’s inordinate value to six years in one place and championship rings and forgettable moments and sorrow too. Pau Gasol the humanitarian was a gift from the heavens when it all started and when it ended he was nauseous and gripped by a dizzy brain. It was a cruel irony. Only the end is like this, in a whisper. For Pau it was the last Lakers home game of the season, Fan Appreciation Night. Only Pau Gasol was a spectator, a blurry image, an imaginary vision. No longer would he be asked to rise to the occasion. No longer would he be asked to block out and rebound. Or to get to the rim and score. He was on the periphery, on the edge, the same as a ghost. He would not play, not in this game, not for the rest of the season. He had been medically ruled out because of his ongoing battle with vertigo. And the Lakers lost by double digits. Again.
This last turn of events, though unfortunate, is befitting Pau’s career here, the light and dark of it, the pain and glory, the sickness (vertigo, bad feet, bad knees) and the health. Playing for the Lakers was like an arranged marriage. Pau gave what he could. He was embraced and then he was reviled and then he was traded and then he was not traded. He continued to be subjected to endless rumors while charged with the unrealistic expectation to put it all aside and just play.
But no one wants to remember the eighteen rebounds against the Celtics in 2010. No one wants to remember the tip in shot against the Thunder in 2010. No one wants to remember just how special he was in his first game as a Laker: 24 points 12 rebounds. We remember the middle, we remember the bad and the ugly because we are not rational beings all of the time. Now it is just the conclusion we will remember, how it ended. It was the final paradox in so many that was his Lakers career. Pau was denied his last curtain call, his last farewell. There is always a hello. But for athletes the goodbye is not always the stuff of dreams. Pau could not show his appreciation the way all athletes want to do by playing their hearts out for the fans who stuck by them through thick and then. Yes, there were many Pau lovers. There were many Pau apologists. There were many Pau defenders. There were very few Pau worshippers. Still he was the last person off the court, he was signing autographs until he couldn’t anymore.
As a basketball player Pau used to be different and all that means is he was younger. He doesn’t defend much at all anymore, his rebounding is in spurts, his disinterest level this year has more to do with Mike D’antoni than with Pau and that is a problem too. In this war he let D’antoni win because he let D’antoni get inside his head and affect his game. Of all the things Pau has on his resume, skilled seven footer, pure in the post, balletic footwork, Olympian, he was never a savior, never someone who could put a team on his back and carry them throughout an entire season. Tim Grover, the trainer for Michael Jordan and Dwayne Wade and Kobe Bryant, talks about “craving the results.” That was not Pau. He played basketball at a very high level. And that was that.
Some thought this would be Pau’s moment, this year. Without Kobe, Pau would finally be free of his verbal oppressor. He would be able to thrive and create an on court sales job for players who just weren’t that good, not in the way of playoff contenders. But Pau lay back like a windsurfer measuring the coming wave. He gave a little but he did not give everything.
There are a lot of professional athletes that engender distrust and dislike and even hatred. They are arrogant or they are prejudiced or they lack humility. They don’t see the privilege of where they are in the world or the beauty. Soon they will leave this manufactured world behind. But Pau was always that kid in school who befriended the outcasts. He was genuine in his sincerity. He was kind and generous even when he was on the court. It wasn’t always the case that you could trust Pau and when you didn’t it made you feel worse, like turning your back on a begging child. He was an elegant human being but a passive ballplayer, an unselfish one but sometimes a frustrating one.
The mood is resigned; this may be Pau’s last moment in a Lakers locker room, his last moment at Staples Center when he is not a visitor. It’s hard to give him up, to say goodbye even as Pau may walk through the door next year wearing the uniform of the Knicks or the Grizzlies or the Suns. He may have to put all that happened here behind him. And yet all that happened to him was as blinding as it was special. He was great on the stage when the stage and the history and the timing converged into layers. He went to the NBA Finals three years in a row. He was an All-Star and he wore the Lakers name with pride. Being a Laker meant something to Pau; it did. Of course everything ends. The prelude to his exit has been building for quite some time. He was supposed to come here to win and then he was supposed to be gone. The end.
If he is gone it will be sad. Just as it was sad when Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were no longer in Boston and in different uniforms on opening night. It almost made your eyes hurt. It did not look right until you became used to it. Blame history. It is what it is. The championship banners Pau created hang untouched on the wall. Not long from now so will Pau’s jersey. The resignation will be gone by then, the fatigue will be gone, then it will be what he was denied on a Sunday night in April, a standing ovation, a we-love-you-Pau cheer, something more than his face on the jumbotron.
Of course it is just like Pau to do more than Kobe Bryant is willing to do. Pau is actually going to travel with the team these last two games on the road but even that is indicative of what Pau’s tenure here has been about, this perfect human being always in the background, always underappreciated, never quite embraced the way he should have been but part of the team one last time. Simply, he is one of the good guys in the world, a person of substance. His basketball story can never preempt the rest of it. So much of the world is based on men who do nothing instead of men who do everything. That is the upside to Pau Gasol and even though he is not a crusade he should be: how to be a better human being. He is more than when he came here. These last six years have been a redemptive tour because it did not end well in Memphis. But he became a champion. What else matters?
After Kobe backed out of his appearance, Pau Gasol could have spoken to the fans one last time. Instead it was Nick Young. Kobe and Pau, absent all season, effectively sent their message to D’antoni and Lakers management. Even when they didn’t play their part, they did. Of course, it changes nothing. Pau is excited to enter free agency and to have a choice about where his career is heading next. Perhaps the Lakers are just as excited to close the chapter on the Pau Gasol years, to start from scratch. But even so, Pau gone or Pau back, there is no getting around what happened here, no minimizing it. Pau came as a surprise gift one February day and everything changed. For Pau Gasol, for Kobe Bryant, for the Buss family, for everyone.