Kobe Bryant's latest stop on his farewell tour around the NBA stopped in Chicago on Sunday night. The five-time NBA champion was showered with praise from a sellout crowd, watched a two-minute pregame video presentation celebrating his 20-year career and heard chants of "Ko-be!" echoing around the stadium throughout much of the fourth quarter. And yet, for as emotional a night as it was for Bryant, playing in the same building built by his longtime idol, doing so against one his closest friends in Pau Gasol only added to the ambience inside the United Center.
Gasol finished the Bulls' pregame video in unique fashion, introducing "my former teammate, and my friend, from Lower Merion high school, No. 24, Kobe Bryant."
"It was great. Pau, we’re like brothers. It’s so strange. I always thought we’d be retiring on the same team," Bryant said after the Bulls' 126-115 victory. "Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. But to have him do that meant so much to me. It’s strange. This is the last time I’m going to be facing him. That’s weird. Unless we play pickup ball in Barcelona somewhere."
Both Gasol and Bryant have enough memories together to last a lifetime. The pair spent seven seasons together in Los Angeles, winning titles in 2009 and 2010. They battled in the Olympics - Gasol for Spain, Bryant for Team USA - in 2008 and 2012, played together in four different All-Star games and against each other once, last week in Toronto. But Sunday had a sense of finality to it, as Bryant played his 15th and final game inside the United Center, and his last against Gasol.
Gasol got the best of his old pal in the pair's final meeting, scoring 19 points and grabbing seven rebounds in 37 minutes. He added five assists and five blocked shots and the Bulls won consecutive games for the first time in five weeks, while Bryant's Lakers fell to 11-46, moving one loss closer to the chance at drafting Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram in June's NBA Draft. But past the victory - the Lakers have lost five straight, and 15 of 17 - Gasol was able to soak in one last memory with Bryant. The two embraced at midcourt before the opening tip and chatted together at the free throw line early in the second quarter.
After Bryant hit four consecutive jumpers in a five-possession span to tie the game early in the third quarter, Gasol responded with one of the Bulls' 13 3-pointers from the top of the key. He held his follow-through and glanced over at Bryant. When Bryant was substituted out with 45 seconds remaining he hugged Gasol, and did so again after the final horn sounded.
Gasol admitted the pair's time at All-Star weekend last week - Gasol was added after Jimmy Butler's knee injury - allowed the two to spend time together. But the finality of Sunday's game added importance for both players.
"We shared a few moments, but knowing this one was the last one on an NBA floor, it’s special to share that moment, to have the bond that we have, the respect and admiration and friendship," Gasol said. "So it’s awesome and I love it. I feel honored that I have this type of relationship, where I’ve earned his respect throughout the years and that we won a couple championships together, which is pretty amazing."
That relationship grew, in part, because of the way Gasol helped shape Bryant's post-Shaq legacy. When O'Neal demanded a trade and was subsequently dealt to the Heat after the 2004 season, the onus was on Bryant to prove he could win without his era's most dominant center. Gasol arrived four seasons later, beginning a seven-year stretch in Los Angeles that revived Bryant's career; Bryant's Lakers missed the playoffs in 2005 and were knocked out of the first round in 2006 and 2007.
Following a mid-season trade in 2008, Bryant and Gasol led the Lakers to the NBA Finals that summer where they lost to Kevin Garnett and the Celtics. The following season the Lakers won 57 games and beat the Magic in the Finals. One year later they repeated over those same Celtics. In that three-year stretch Gasol averaged 18.7 points and 9.8 rebounds, including 18.3 points and 10.4 rebounds in 67 playoff games. For as much as Bryant wanted to win one by himself, those titles aren't possible without Gasol playing Robin to Kobe's Batman as cohesively as he did.
"It’s a huge honor. Proud that I was able to have the opporuntity to contribute to his legacy and live those moments with him and the rest of the guys. So we developed a nice relationship on and off the floor. And mainly off the floor, which is the most important because on the floor will go away.
"Off the floor is what matters the most. Really honored to be part of his legacy and have experienced the things that we went through as teammates, through the good times and also the bad times because he always had my back and always tried to motivate me to be better and pushed me when I needed to be pushed. So I appreciated that as well."
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The storybook ending that could have been was never written. Gasol left Los Angeles for Chicago after years of constant trade speculation despite his continued success into his 30s. Bryant did his best to keep his longtime friend and versatile 7-footer in Los Angeles, but knew it Gasol's time in Los Angeles - and likely Bryant's last championship window - had closed.
"I tried everything under the sun to convince him to stay, but you know Pau is such a prideful person and when he felt like he was being disrespected with all the continual trade talks despite the success that he had," Bryant said before Sunday's game. "And the benching, he just felt completely disrespected. I understood that as a man and there was nothing I could do but just wish him well."
Perhaps coincidentally, both Bryant and Gasol mentioned in their postgame interviews the possibility of the pair one day playing pickup basketball in Barcelona together. That will have to wait for now. Bryant has 25 games remaining in his NBA career while Gasol is in the midst of another season of revival, averaging 17.0 points and 10.8 rebounds in this his 15th NBA season. He's due to become a free agent at season's end.
But Sunday's special circumstances allowed both players time to reflect on the past and enjoy the present, even for just a night. And it allowed Gasol to reflect on the legacy he believes Bryant will leave behind.
"I think his legacy is just a guy with championships, records, all the milestones he accomplished. But he just left his mark. He inspired a lot of young players, a lot of young players trying to be lke him, his hero, his idol, the guy they follow and try to do the things that Kobe does on the floor.
"He’s at the top of the list. He’s as competitive as it gets. A guy that never likes to lose, always likes to prove that he’s better than you and is always ready to compete and prove it, own up to it. He doesn’t just talk about it, he owns up to it and he competes as hard as possible. Incredible competitor. One-of-a-kind."