Among the regulars covering the Lakers is a woman working from a wheelchair. One night, maybe two or three seasons ago, as Pau Gasol worked his way through the pack of humanity in front of his locker after a game, he noticed that reporter, in her chair, positioned directly to the right of his.
Practically speaking, there aren’t many advantages to being over seven feet tall. Doorways are too small, Cars too tight, beds too short, and good luck buying anything stylish off the rack. There are exceptions, of course. You might be skilled enough to play in the NBA, and therefore speak virtually every day – unfailingly, after good games and bad, in both English and Spanish – to people with cameras and recorders pointed at your head. If so, all that height affords the opportunity literally to rise above, making the process a little less claustrophobic by standing tall.
Instead, Pau folded his comically long limbs into his seat and fielded questions.
Maybe it happened a few other times, but over the course of six-plus seasons and hundreds of games I have no other memory of Gasol doing group press sitting down.
It was a small, subtle act of kindness, completely intentional (I asked a few days later after practice) but done with the wherewithal and grace not to appear he was changing his routine or making himself uncomfortable just to accommodate her, something no reporter, disabled or otherwise, would ever want. Pau’s intelligence and civic-mindedness are hardly unknown. The guy could have been a surgeon and is an ambassador for UNICEF, just for starters. Pau was the rare player for whom the book Phil Jackson gave him every year was just one in a large stack consumed throughout a season. How many players learn (falsely, as it turns out) they’re about to be traded during intermission of a musical?
But the reason Gasol has so many staunch supporters in the media – this notable Pau honk included – wasn’t because he’s among the most interesting or nicest athletes we worked around. Gasol is someone for whom little moments of goodness, the small things that don’t have to be done but make the world better, were routine and genuine. He’s one of the best people.
I’ve held on to this little story for a while, figuring I’d use it once Pau finally left the Lakers. I’m amazed, but grateful, it took this long.
I’m certainly not blind to reality. Burdened by age and mileage domestic and international, Gasol’s performance had slipped over the last few seasons, even factoring in all the ways in which roster moves and coaching changes moved away from his strengths. Some of his wounds were self-inflicted. Pau was awful, for example, during the 2011 Playoffs, the team’s most visible symbol of a tremendously depressing end to the Threepeat quest, this after having rehabbed his image with two titles following the Finals loss to Boston in ’08. Still, while Pau’s bandwagon was never empty, it felt like so many Lakers fans jumped on and off with the wind.
Others were more a matter of perception and narrative. He was called soft, sent for his big boy pants, and had his coloration regularly measured in the always unflattering context of a swan. A swan from a movie about ballet. He was traded, then returned, then dangled to the league for most of three seasons. Always the perfect balance to Kobe in skill set, temperament, and basketball ethos, being the yin to Bryant’s yang led nonetheless to a near-constant push/pull of benefit and suffering. (With the good, I’m sure he’d say, overwhelmingly outweighing the bad.)
Now Gasol is gone to Chicago, a great result for him and the Bulls. Frankly, Pau would likely have benefitted from moving on – being moved on, more accurately – before now. I want him to perform well, to finish a brilliant career on high notes reminding everyone just how special a player he’s been. As it pertains to the legacy Pau leaves behind, my hope is any lingering animosity fades. Lakers fans, who want to win and like all fans find people to blame when they don’t, can focus on all the great moments Gasol helped provide and the dignity he displayed providing them.
I suspect that’s the way it will be. I certainly hope so, because few are more deserving of an elevated place in this city’s basketball history than Pau Gasol.