Pau Gasol emotionally watches Lakers retire No. 16 jersey

When Pau Gasol joined the Los Angeles Lakers just over 15 years ago, the 7-foot Spaniard banished his ego, redoubled his work ethic and, alongside Kobe Bryant, immediately turned L.A. into contenders who eventually became champions.

Now, Gasol and Bryant’s numbers hang side by side in the Lakers’ arena.

The Lakers retired Gasol’s No. 16 jersey on Tuesday night, in honor of the big man who spent the best seasons of his 18-year NBA career with Bryant in Los Angeles. The Lakers reached three straight NBA Finals after Gasol’s arrival in February 2008, winning championships in 2009 and 2010.

“I think I’ve done everything I can to embrace it and savor it, but tonight really exceeds any dream or expectation that I’ve had,” Gasol said before the game while wearing a championship ring on each hand. “It means a lot, and obviously with Kobe up there, it just adds something meaningful and powerful and sad and happy and painful and joyful. It’s a lot of things.”

[Pau Gasol thinking of Kobe Bryant ahead of Lakers honor: ‘He elevated me’]

Gasol’s banner was unveiled during a halftime ceremony that began with Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, presenting a video of an excited Kobe saying he was looking forward to the day Gasol gave a courtside speech central during his shirt removal. Gasol choked up as he watched the video and was in that exact spot, wiping tears from his eyes before addressing the crowd.

“I’m overwhelmed to see the faces here, all of you,” Gasol said. “It’s been my honor to wear this jersey, play for this franchise and help this team. . . . Never in a million years would I have believed that a day like this could come. It just tells you to never say never. push every day to be the best you can be.”

Gasol’s versatile game perfectly complemented Bryant’s scoring prowess when Gasol decided to be a backup player to Bryant’s superstardom, and the two also formed a deep friendship off the court that lasted until death of Bryant in 2020.

Gasol thanked Vanessa Bryant during his speech: “I love you, sister. I’m proud to be your brother and proud to be your girls’ uncle.”

The Lakers, owners of 17 NBA titles, typically only retire the number of Hall of Fame players, and Gasol is the front-runner for this year’s honor, with a strong chance of making the cut. Gasol made three of his six career All-Star teams during his time with Los Angeles, while averaging 17.7 points and 9.9 rebounds per game.

“The excitement, the anticipation, the honor received, it’s so great that it’s been hard to really take it in,” Gasol said. “I have to keep reminding myself that it’s a celebration. It’s great. It’s lovely. It’s great that you get to experience this in your life.”

Gasol, 42, chose to retire his Lakers jersey Tuesday night for a very good reason: He played his first seven NBA seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies, his first team after moving in the United States in 2001 and LA’s opponent on Tuesday.

Memphis traded Gasol to the Lakers in February 2008, and the deal transformed both franchises. While Gasol and Bryant immediately formed a dominant partnership, Memphis got a package that included Gasol’s younger brother Marc, who had 11 stellar seasons with the Grizz.

Gasol’s parents, his brothers Marc and Adrià, Vanessa Bryant and Lakers owner Jeanie Buss joined Gasol, his wife and two children on the court.

Gasol was only the second Spanish player in NBA history and the first to win a ring, and he believes his long and successful career helped erase the stereotype of the “soft” European player. Gasol noted that three Europeans are now arguably the top three players in the league: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic.

“I’m proud to see it,” Gasol said. “This inspires not only European kids, but players all over the world. Give it a shot if you really want it. It’s been great to see the game grow globally.”

Gasol’s shirt represents the number 13 retired by the Lakers in honor of 12 players. Bryant’s early career No. 8 and late career No. 24 are retired.

Report from The Associated Press.

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