Kobe Bryant trademarked the slogan “Friends hang sometimes, banners hang forever.”
And Kobe truly did mean that. Outside of his basketball career, and his family, Kobe never entertained much. Very few cracked the code to get close with him, but the few who did seen past his stoic, hard ass personality.
“Yeah, he’d always say, ‘I don’t have time for friends. I’m too busy achieving, being the best out there or achieving greatness. I don’t have time for the sentimental stuff,'” Gasol said. “He would say that publicly, and there was some truth to that. But … “
But Pau knew the truth. He found the combination.
“You could see his toughness, his grit, his desire, his hunger, the Mamba mentality — be the best at all times, work harder than anyone else,” Gasol said. “But he had a very kind, very loving side, too.”
You wouldn’t know it at first glance, but Pau became the closest teammate, and eventual brother, or hermano as they called each other.
They didn’t take selfies together when they’d meet up for dinner in the later years of their careers, or after Bryant retired from the NBA in 2016. They never posted when Gasol would be at the Bryant house spending time with the kids. Neither Kobe nor Pau posted their private work outs in Spain and Italy.
Pau didn’t need the public to know Kobe’s affectionate side. He knew where they stood.
In the latter stages of his career, Bryant started dropping the veil ever so slightly and letting the world see what Gasol did.
“I’m more naturally inclined to show my softness from a personal level and an emotional level, and I think that’s something maybe I influenced him to in a way,” Gasol said. “I’d say, ‘It’s OK to be normal or act kind and vulnerable or soft at times. We don’t have to be so hard all the time and be on edge all the time.'”
Their connection began immediately after the Lakers pulled off the blockbuster heist in 2008, landing Gasol. But Gasol did not get the caring side of Kobe at the beginning.
Bryant knocked on Gasol’s hotel room door at 1:30 in the morning, the night Gasol officially became a member of the Lakers, and Kobe told him how it was going to be.
“I landed in Washington that first night to join the team, and after my physical he came to my room to tell me, ‘Hey, I’m very excited to have you. Very happy that you’re here, but now let’s go win a championship,'” Gasol said.
“I mean, it just doesn’t get more clear than that. He made sure I knew right away where he stood. There’s no confusion: ‘This is what I want. This is where I’m at, and this is where I will need you to be. Now, are you going to be on it? Are you going to be on board or are you not?'”
Gasol was ready, but Kobe had to make sure.
In their first game together, Kobe tested Gasol. He fed Gasol early to get him going and often spoke to him in Spanish on the court — so their opponents couldn’t understand them — and he generally kept up that demanding nature every minute of every game in the six-plus seasons they played together.
Kobe demanded excellence and Gasol for the most part delivered. But it wasn’t an easy road.
“There would be times where I’d have to, like, go put my arm around Pau and tell him it’s going to be all right,” Barnes said. “Because [Bryant] would cuss that motherf—er out in any language you can imagine.”
Kobe often took direct shots at Gasol’s toughness and game to the media. It was a constant narrative in Los Angeles throughout regular seasons.
But it never became personal for Gasol, he knew what Kobe was trying to do. Motivate the 7 footer who needed to be elite if Kobe was going to rise the legacy leader board and catch his idol Michael Jordan.
Kobe the player was a demanding, unapologetic asshole, who was going to win with or without you. He just had to know if you were up for the challenge. And once you proved your worth, he became even more demanding.
That is how Gasol will remember Bryant as a player.
But it is not how he will remember Kobe the person, the brother.
It is still hard for Gasol to talk about Bryant’s death. Mention Jan. 26 and Gasol’s mind races back to the moment he first heard about the helicopter crash that killed the former Los Angeles Lakers great, his daughter Gianna and seven others.
“You still thought that Kobe could have gotten out of that accident by his own feet and carried his daughter — and if there were any other survivors — with him to the hospital.
“We had that perception of him as that strong, as that invincible. If someone could have survived it, it was him.”
Gasol and his wife immediately left Spain and flew back to Los Angeles, it was something he had to do.
“We wanted to be close to Vanessa and the kids and be there, as Uncle Pau, for whatever they needed.”
The Gasols stayed near the Bryants’ home in Orange County for several months, checking in on the family often and trying to support them through the unthinkable tragedy.
Uncle Pau sent flowers to Vanessa on what would’ve been the couple’s 19th wedding anniversary in April and a birthday cake on what would’ve been Gianna’s 14th birthday in May.
The Gasols and Bryants went on a boat trip through San Francisco Bay in August and got dressed up as Star Wars characters for Halloween. And when the Gasols’ first child was born in September, they named her after Gianna.
“My daughter’s full name is Elisabet Gianna Gasol,” he said. “It’s a way, not just to honor Gianna, but to always have them present. They’re our family and in which way can you have them more present than to have it in your daughter’s name or your son’s?
“We had more issues coming up with her first name than with her middle name. It represents so much, the name. The kindness, the heart that Gianna had, the talent, just with the toughness that she showed. Her dad and her mom in her, it’s something that has a lot of meaning to us, and that’s why she’s named Elisabet Gianna.”
Gasol had gone to Gianna Bryant’s basketball games over the years and watched as her talent blossomed.
“She could have changed women’s basketball,” Gasol said. “Hopefully that will still happen, but she was that meaningful, that important to the game in what she could have meant. So I think it’s on us to have her present and to not let her passing take away from how much she could have impacted.”
That’s what Gasol finds comfort in now, nearly a year after Kobe’s and Gianna’s death.
But Gasol said he knows he is doing exactly what his older brother would’ve wanted him to do: looking out for Vanessa and her three daughters, and helping others learn from the legacy Kobe and Gigi left behind.
“Our relationship seemed to be meant to come together for some reason,” Gasol said. “And now after his loss and Gigi’s, it just brought us that much closer to what he meant to me, who he was, what he provided to my life and obviously his family and now my family, as I consider them.
“He was someone that I’ll miss for the rest of my life, but I’ll have him present in everything that I do.”