Pau Gasol's 'special night' saying farewell to 'brother' Kobe Bryant


Pau Gasol's 'special night' saying farewell to 'brother' Kobe Bryant

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.

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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."

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment


Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie


Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

Los Angeles—Lauri Markkanen called himself “The Finnisher” when asked what the movie of his life would be called.

Apparently, that moniker didn’t apply to the All-Star Skills challenge as he took down the best big men but couldn’t close against a former Bull, Spencer Dinwiddie, in the final.

The contest highlights players’ ability to dribble around cones shaped like NBA logos, throwing a chest pass into a net while having to complete a layup and then 3-pointer before their opponent does.

Markkanen took down Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid before facing off with Dinwiddie. He held a pose after hitting a triple to beat the uber confident Embiid, in what will likely be used as a memorable gif following the weekend.

His confidence doesn’t come across as blatantly as Embiid’s, but that snapshot shows he’s no humble star in the making. He didn’t even practice for the contest, by his own admission.

“I heard some of the guys did,” Markkanen said. “I didn’t do much, just before the competition, I did a little warm-up.”

Missing on the first pass attempt into the circular net in the final, it gave Dinwiddie the advantage he wouldn’t relinquish, hitting on his second 3-point attempt before Markkanen could make it downcourt to contest.

“It’s a lot harder than I’ve seen,” Markkanen said. “I thought it was gonna be super easy but it was kind of tough. Maybe I need to hold my follow through (on the pass).”

“I saw he missed (the first shot) and I started going. I thought he would’ve missed it too. I think I would’ve gotten it on the third shot.”

Being one of the multi-dimensional big men in today’s game who can be adept on the perimeter as well as the interior, it almost seems like the contest was made for Markkanen. Although he doesn’t do much handling in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, it’s clearly a skill he will develop as time goes on.

The last two winners of the skills challenge were Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, and Markkanen was well aware of the recent trend.

“The last two years the bigs have won,” Markkanen said. “I’m kind of pissed that I couldn’t keep the streak going after (those two). I think there’s a lot of guys who can do that now, it’s why they changed the format to bigs versus smalls.”

For Dinwiddie, who was discarded by the Bulls last season after a promising start in the preseason so they could pick up R.J. Hunter, he’s taken advantage of an opportunity with Brooklyn.

“I think for Chicago it was just another series of unfortunate events,” he said. “They were in win-now mode. I was an unproven guard on a non-guaranteed contract and they felt Michael Carter-Williams gave them a better shot to win.”