The bond grew stronger with each NBA championship they won together. The cement remained deeply rooted amid the losing, injuries and trade uncertainty. Yet, after years of Kobe Bryant pleading the Lakers not to trade Pau Gasol away, Gasol told Bryant that he would leave.
Gasol signed with the Chicago Bulls to a reported three-year $22 million deal, marking a relative paycut that he could have attracted elsewhere, including the Lakers. But with Gasol mostly motivated to join a team equipped to win an NBA championship, that meant he needed to desert the Lakers’ rebuilding project and his trusted ally in Bryant.
“It was difficult. We have a close friendship,” Gasol said of Bryant to reporters on Friday in Chicago. “We’ve been through a lot together. I’m sure I’ll miss him. We talked to each other and our relationship goes beyond basketball. We’ll always have a friendship. That’s where it stays.”
Gasol did not just speak in platitudes.
Even before it became clear Gasol would leave the Lakers, Bryant publicly showed support for whatever decision he made. On one hand, of course Bryant wanted Gasol back. But barring Carmelo Anthony coming to the Lakers, Bryant sounded mindful in the difficulty the Lakers had in retaining Gasol. And instead of pleading for Gasol to reconsider, Bryant showed respect.
“Pau is extremely loyal and it’s a very tough position to be in to be a free agent, never being in this position before,” Bryant said last week at his camp in Santa Barbara. “My biggest message to him was to make sure you enjoy the process. Don’t stress yourself out. The ball is in your court and your decision to make. Don’t feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders.”
That weight was lifted once Gasol joined the Bulls, a choice he described both as a “difficult decision” and “the right one.” That’s because the Bulls feature a solid group in guard Derrick Rose, a loaded frontcourt in Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson and a disciplined coach in Tom Thibodeau.
Meanwhile, the Lakers face questions surrounding the health of Bryant and Steve Nash, their next head coach and a fluid roster that boasts both familiar faces (Nick Young, Jordan Hill, Xavier Henry) and new additions (Julius Randle, Carlos Boozer, Ed Davis). The Lakers are also one season removed from having the worst record in L.A. franchise history.
“It was difficult to talk to him,” Gasol said of Bryant. “But he was very supportive. He understood and he just said, ‘I had to do what was best for me and felt right for me.’ He was going to support me no matter what. That’s what friends and brothers do.”
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Follow L.A. Daily News beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org