The applause swelled as fans at Staples Center rose to their feet Thursday, generously welcoming back Pau Gasol and the memories of better times, of moments such as the one shown on the video board of Gasol leaning on the NBA championship trophy after one of the two titles he helped the Lakers win in his seven seasons here.
Gasol, touched by the reception, clapped and aimed two thumbs-up toward the crowd. Many fans wore T-shirts the Lakers gave them as they entered imprinted with the words "Thanks Pau" on the front and a list of his Lakers statistics on the back. The opening notes of the theme from "Welcome Back, Kotter" played but were cut off, ending as abruptly as Gasol's Lakers career ended last summer when he signed with Chicago as a free agent for less money than the Lakers offered him to stay.
To the thoughtful and sensitive Gasol, there was no price to put on peace of mind, feeling wanted, or the chance to play for a contender. He took the Bulls' three-year, $22-million contract over the faltering Lakers' proposed deals of three years for $29 million or two years for $23 million, and so far his choice has worked out for him competitively and emotionally.
Hitting his stride late in the game, Gasol tipped in the shot that brought the Bulls even in the final minute of the fourth quarter. He scored eight points in the extra time in a failed Chicago comeback as the Lakers pulled off a 123-118 double-overtimevictory. He roared when he put the Bulls ahead in the first overtimeand though there were jeers, most fans roared, too, caught up again in echoes of great moments they once shared with him. He finished the game with 20 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots.
There was always so much drama surrounding him here, especially when first Mike Brown and then Mike D'Antoni — especially D'Antoni — miscast him and misused his many talents. Even Kobe Bryant, his staunch friend and constant champion, couldn't help him there. Funny that current Lakers Coach Byron Scott, who said he'd hoped Gasol would return this season, said Thursday of Gasol, "I think he could fit in any system." Except those Brown and D'Antoni tried to impose.
"When things were going well here, it was exceptional," Gasol said. "They say L.A. and New York are two of the top cities, the best cities to win at, but they're probably two of the tougher cities to lose and struggle, because you get so much coverage that media have to create stories and sometimes the bad or negative stories are more attractive. So I felt like there was always a search for something bad or negative to talk about, some drama that was created whether there was some truth to it or not.
"Chicago so far has been great. Very positive. Even when we had that skid where we lost six out of eight, people were still positive, media were still positive. So I think it's important. We're all especially within the same city, we're a family, we all have to support each other and try to get things right for the best of everyone."
Gasol, who extended his streak of double-doubles to eight games, feels he's in a better place now. He was selected to start for the East in the upcoming All-Star game and doesn't have to deal with the trade rumors and uncertainty that swirled around him here. There's no drama enveloping him in Chicago, and that's fine with him.
"I feel very comfortable," he said, and it's showing in his play. He entered Thursday's game averaging 18.3 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game for the playoff-bound Bulls, while the Lakers continue to flail.
"I'm happy for Pau," Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said. "His last three years here, I think he would admit he did not play at the level that he could play at. Most of the reason for that had really nothing to do with him. It was time for him to move on."
He has been a cornerstone for the Bulls, along with Jimmy Butler. Coach Tom Thibodeau said he appreciated Gasol while watching him from afar for many years. But only now is Thibodeau learning the depths beyond Gasol's basketball statistics.
"You feel like you have a pretty good understanding of what his strengths are and what he can do for a team," Thibodeau said Thursday, "but then, when you get a chance to be around him every day, you see he's not only a great basketball player, he's a great person as well."
Gasol said he expected it to be emotional for him as he played in a "special building" in front of some of the many friends he made here. Bryant was absent from the pregame ceremony, recovering from season-ending rotator cuff surgery, but thanks to Gasol, the pleasant memories of better days were very much present.