Spain’s Pau Gasol fights for a rebound with Argentina’s Facundo Campazzo, left, and Gabriel Deck during a preliminary round game on Thursday. (Eric Gay / Associated Press)
It’s been more than two years since Pau Gasol found out he would be an assistant coach for the Portland Trail Blazers.
Portland coach Terry Stotts announced the move outside the visiting locker room at Staples Center, the very building where Gasol cemented his legacy as an NBA champion alongside his friend, sometimes nemesis and sometimes teammate Kobe Bryant.
A foot injury had kept Gasol from playing for the Trail Blazers that season and, needing the roster spot, Portland decided to waive him. They graciously kept him on their bench so he could start to pass on his knowledge of the game to Trail Blazers present and future.
He would be around the NBA even if he could no longer be in the NBA, his career ending when his body decided it had had enough.
There was just one problem — Pau Gasol wasn’t done playing.
That was the thought that’s driven him here to these Olympic Games, trying to write the final pages of his career on his terms.
“I love the game. I wanted to finish my career playing,” Gasol said after Spain’s Olympic debut. “I had such an incredible and extraordinary career that I didn’t want an injury to finish it for me.”
Gasol, 41, still looks enough like the versatile big man who won two championships with Bryant and the Lakers. He can face up and swish a jumper and find the right angles on the court to mitigate his deteriorated athleticism.
This isn’t just a nostalgia act. But the nostalgia is there.
In Spain’s opener against Japan, Gasol’s neck flared as he howled at the ball after blocking a shot. In their second game against Argentina, Gasol fought off Luis Scola for a tip-in and score, again showcasing the emotion that made him such a likeable running mate for Bryant, post Shaquille O’Neal.
Spain’s Pau Gasol celebrates after making a basket against Argentina on Thursday. (Eric Gay / Associated Press)
Injuries, though, eventually caught up with him after he left Los Angeles in 2014. He made a pair of All-Star games with Chicago and played two modestly productive seasons with Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. After the Spurs bought Gasol out to allow him to sign with a contender, he joined the Milwaukee Bucks, but a fractured foot limited him to just three appearances.
He scored his last NBA points on March 10, 2019, giving him 20,894 over an 18-year career. And while he worked toward a comeback last year, that number is almost certainly staying where it is.
But for now, that’s not what matters. That Gasol managed to rehab his foot, to do it during a pandemic, to do it while carrying the grief from Bryant’s premature death, all of it — it’s made this return to the Spanish team even more special.
“It’s given me something to look forward to,” Gasol said.
Since Bryant’s death, Gasol has been a significant presence in the life of his former teammate’s family. He attended Bryant’s Hall of Fame ceremony earlier this year, escorting Bryant’s daughter Natalia through a crowd of people the night before her father was enshrined.
And then there was the ongoing pandemic — an issue that gave Gasol more that he needed to recover from while also forcing him to sort of figure it out in nontraditional ways.
“It’s isolated everyone. I had to be really disciplined and kind of create my own routine and regimen,” Gasol said. “The doctors didn’t give me a lot of hope at different occasions. But I kept fighting and I kept believing that it was going to work out. And it worked.”
So Gasol is in Tokyo for one last run with the Spanish national team, a group he’s had tremendous success with. He’s enjoying this ride with his brother, Marc, the two men sharing time on the long bus trips back and forth from the basketball venue outside Tokyo.
“I’m very happy for him. I’m proud of him. He didn’t have to do this,” Marc Gasol said. “You know, he’s done everything you can do as a professional athlete. He’s a role model in every level that you can be as a human being and as an athlete. … I don’t want to put words in his mouth but he wanted to show himself and everybody that he cares so much about the sport and he wanted to leave it on that note on playing on the court.
“So I’m just proud of him. That’s it. Just watching him, enjoying every second, every bus ride. … It’s been a lot of fun to watch him do this.”
Gasol has done it all in basketball — international star, NBA success, influential style and skills. Everything, really, except for a gold medal. That’s why he fought for another chance, one last shot to extend his career and end it the right way.
“I worked my butt off to do it. And I felt like it was worth the effort, it was worth the risk. And I just felt like I deserved to finish at this stage,” he said. “I like doing extraordinary things, you know? And I felt like this was something that it was worth working for and fighting for.”
Because when you’re a player, that’s what you do.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.