CHICAGO — The deep hug lasted a few seconds. But it felt like an eternity as Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol embraced each other.
Bryant patted his left hand on Gasol’s back. Then Bryant tapped his right hand on Gasol’s chest. Gasol spread a wide smile across his face. So did Bryant.
But the gestures did not stop. Gasol placed his right hand on Bryant’s chest before hugging him again. Gasol then wrapped his arms around Bryant again before tapping his head with his right hand. The two talked for a few moments. They hugged again. And then they went their separate ways.
Those physical interactions following the Lakers’ 126-115 loss to the Bulls on Sunday at United Center personified the warm and close bond Bryant and Gasol formed through 6 1/2 seasons together with the Lakers (2008-2014) that sparked three NBA Finals appearances and two NBA championships. So did Gasol’s words that played a large part in Bryant’s pre-game video tribute.
“He’s one of the best players of all time,” Gasol said in the video. “I had the privilege to play with him and enjoy moments that were truly unforgettable.”
After gushing about Bryant’s talent and work ethic, Gasol then described Bryant as “my former teammate and friend” before introducing him to the starting lineup. Nearly two hours later, Bryant cracked his voice slightly as he realized the finality of it all.
“To have him do that at the beginning of the game meant so much. It’s the last time I’m going to be facing him,” Bryant said. “That’s weird, unless we play pick up ball in Barcelona somewhere and play one-on-one.”
Bryant then offered a hearty laugh before stressing he has not reconsidering playing in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janiero for a possible third consecutive gold-medal game between the United States and Gasol’s native Spain. Gasol sounded equally joyful and emotional in the Bulls’ locker room.
“It was awesome. The Bulls gave me that opportunity to be a part of that video,” Gasol said in an appreciative and eager tone. “The guys in the department here are really good. I’m happy, proud and honored to be a part of that moment. I’m happy for him and sad at the same time this is the last time we actually competed against each other. Hopefully we can play some one-on-one down the road and go at it again to talk trash like he does.”
The physical and emotional bond the two shared sparked Bryant to describe themselves as “brothers.” But like all siblings, Bryant showed a playful and mischievous side when dealing with Gasol after the Lakers acquired him from Memphis on Feb. 1, 2008. That summer, Bryant experienced both frustration (an NBA Finals loss to Boston) and elation (a gold-medal win over Spain in Beijing). So both to motivate and tease Gasol, Bryant opened training camp for the 2008-09 season performing one interesting tactic.
“I have my gold medal just hanging in his locker, rubbing it in,” Bryant said, laughing. “I said, ‘Dude you finished second in the Finals. You finished second in the Summer Olympics. You can’t finish second again in June this year. You get your [act] together.’ That was the message.”
The Lakers then won back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010. Nearly six years later, Gasol may have sounded foggy on details. But he hardly forgot about Bryant’s sharp tongue.
“He brought it and talked [smack] about it. He said ‘Good job finishing second,'” Gasol said before reconsidering. “I don’t know if he brought his medal. But he definitely talked trash. It was close, but not close enough unfortunately.”
Gasol and Bryant soon experienced other disappointing events.
The Dallas Mavericks swept the Lakers in the 2011 Western Conference semifinals. The Lakers traded Gasol on Dec. 2011 in the Chris Paul deal before the NBA blocked it. Gasol then experienced injuries and reduced roles away from the post under former Lakers coaches Mike Brown (2011-12) and Mike D’Antoni (2012-14). Bryant mostly supported Gasol. He argued the Lakers should retain him and vouched for more post-oriented roles.
All of which led to a tough decision for Gasol in the 2014 offseason as a free agent. He eventually signed with the Bulls to a three-year deal worth over $22 million as opposed to deals he could have signed with the Lakers that were worth $29 million over three years or $23 million over two years.
“I tried everything under the sun to convince him to stay,” Bryant said. “But Pau is such a prideful person. He felt like he was being disrespected by the continual trade talks despite the success we had. With the benching, he felt disrespected. I understood that. As a man, there was nothing I could do but wish him luck.”
Still, Bryant described the change of scenery as “so strange.” Bryant then shared, “we always thought we’d be retiring on the same team and we’d be going out together.”
“He came to my house and we talked and tried to convince me to stay and fight through together how the situation was at the time,” Gasol said. “But emotionally myself, I was at a place where I needed to move on and put myself in a different situation after all the emotional wreck of those last three years. I was always on a thin line. I was pounded in different directions.”
Since then, Bryant has appeared at peace with accepting the end of his 20th and last NBA season. Gasol has seemed at peace with his improved play on a playoff contending team. And, of course, the two looked at peace as they reestablished a bond that became cemented through both success and turmoil.
“I love our relationship and the relationship we developed,” Gasol said. “It goes beyond basketball. That’s what’s so special about it. I’m happy we shared that and that’s how we are toward each other. I don’t think he has that connection with many people.”
But Bryant doesn’t need to when he has that connection with Gasol.