Lakers’ Gasol proves his worth, even if fans don’t notice

The World’s Tallest Actor With Bed Hair And Braces returned to his day job Thursday, back to the Lakers and the season’s most pressing question.

What is it going to take for people to finally appreciate Pau Gasol?

Making his season’s first appearance after sitting out the first 11 games because of a hamstring injury, Gasol took the Staples Center floor against the Chicago Bulls to an ovation that was less than standing.

Folks cheered, but only slightly louder than if he’d been here all along.

Gasol scored the game’s first basket, and the clapping was polite.

He scored the third and fourth points on free throws, and the yawns were evident.

He then scored the second basket on a fast break layup placed in the rim with the gentleness of a guard, and finally there was some recognition that this was somebody special returning to something special.

Those cheers lasted only as long as it took folks to serenade Kobe Bryant with, “M-V-P.”

Even now, it seems, folks just don’t appreciate the value of a guy for whom those same letters could be chanted.

As the 108-93 victory over the Bulls reinforced, Gasol could be cited as the team’s Most Vital Player, or at least its Most Victorious Player.

It should be no surprise that, breathless and straining and struggling to find his legs, Gasol still put together a season opener of 24 points,13 rebounds, and defensive leadership that made the young Bulls look old.

“It wasn’t pretty, but it was pretty effective, that’s what I try to be,” said Gasol afterward.

It should also be no surprise that this 9-3 team suddenly looks like a potential champion again.

You may not notice Gasol on the court, but you cannot miss him in the standings.

Since the start of the 2007-2008 season -- during which Gasol arrived in February -- the Lakers are a vastly different team when he’s part of it.

During that time, when Gasol has been on the court for more than three minutes, the Lakers are 116-35.

When he has not, they are 44-24.

“I missed it, I missed it a lot,” Gasol said. “It is so much fun to play.”

It is no coincidence that the Lakers have yet to lose three games in a row since Gasol arrived in February of 2008. It is also no coincidence, perhaps, that since then his popularity here has barely moved a tick.

It’s like, he’s just Pau. The messy hair, the unkempt beard, the nerdy sprints, the gentle whines.

He is too polite to cause a stir, too restrained to inspire a cheer, and too consistent to elicit an emotion.

He’s just Pau, exactly 18.9 points per game in each of the last two seasons, around nine rebounds, about three assists, maybe one block.

He can be so boring, well, did you see his acting debut earlier this week in “CSI: Miami?”

While his role initially involved pulling a teenager from the smoldering wreckage of a car, for his final act he played dead.

Hard to appreciate it. Wrong to not see past it.

For most of his first two seasons here, I consistently leaned on Gasol for not being tough enough, but those questions were answered last spring, when he averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds during the postseason while battling everyone from Superman Dwight Howard to Crazy Man Kenyon Martin.

He doesn’t look like a battler, but he is. He doesn’t act like a big man, but he’s huge. Those who were somehow still wondering about him this fall should have reached the same realization after the Lakers’ first 11 games.

They not only lost to Dallas and Houston at Staples, but were overwhelmed in Denver, and the numbers were crunching.

A team with Andrew Bynum was being outrebounded for the season? A team with Bryant was 14th out of 30 teams in points allowed?

If you didn’t appreciate Gasol before his early absence, you should now, although Lakers Coach Phil Jackson understands.

“There are a number of things he does that are unnoticeable to the average person,” Jackson said before the game.

Jackson talked about Gasol’s defense, about a quickness and flexibility that allows other players to cover more of the floor.

Sure enough, throughout Thursday Gasol was screaming and waving and directing a defense that forced 15 turnovers while blocking four Bulls shots.

Jackson also talked about Gasol’s passing, about how his penchant for sharing is contagious and leads to more team offense.

Sure enough, Thursday night, six Lakers scored in double figures, the bench finally energized with Lamar Odom’s return there.

Finally, Jackson talked about Gasol’s basketball smarts, his ability to make the right play at the right time.

This was visible at the end of the first half Thursday, as the Lakers were walking off the court with a commanding lead they would never lose.

“Kobe!” shouted Gasol as he wearily lagged behind the other players. “Kobe!”

Bryant stopped, turned, and Gasol stuck out in his fist for what appeared to be an I’m-back bump.

Their fists met, and soon several other Lakers stopped and turned and reached out their hands to touch the glue.

When it comes to Pau Gasol, the Lakers know.

The rest of us should, too.