Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol reflect on when it was time to 'move on'

LOS ANGELES -- They shared a warm embrace at half court before tipoff, each wearing huge smiles, the byproduct of two teammates who grew as close as brothers during a memorable six-and-a-half-season run that featured three NBA Finals and two championships.

Then there were a few matchups Thursday night at Staples Center when Kobe Bryant guarded Pau Gasol one-on-one in the post.

"I wanted to make sure there was no double-teams or anything," Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers star, said afterward. "Just let us play like it was practice."

But after Gasol posted 21 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists, 1 steal and 1 block in the Chicago Bulls' 114-91 blowout win, it was hard not to think about everything that led to the All-Star forward leaving the Lakers in the summer of 2014, when he took less money to join the Bulls in what he deemed a much-needed fresh start.

Though Gasol was often involved in trade rumors toward the end of his tenure with the Lakers, Bryant declared in the summer of 2012 that, "As long as I'm here, [Gasol is] going to be here."

However, the summer before, the Lakers had tried to trade Gasol in a three-team swap that would've netted them Chris Paul and made Gasol a Houston Rocket.

The deal was nixed by then-NBA commissioner David Stern, but the damage was done, and, as Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told ESPN in December 2014, "It was really hard on [Gasol] from that one moment when we had a deal that fell through.

"From that point forward, it was just hard -- and understandably so -- on him. Very hard. He did not want that to continue."

By the summer of 2014, Gasol was ready to leave, and Bryant revealed how difficult it was to talk the 7-foot Spaniard out of that position.

"I understood where he's coming from," Bryant said. "I went over and hung out at his pad for hours, and we just talked. It was a pride thing for him. It was like, we're brothers. He said, 'Kobe, I want to play with you forever, but what [Lakers] management did to me is just disrespectful.'

"I said, 'Pau, c'mon with your silly pride thing. They're giving you [a lot of money]. Put that to the side.'

"He was like, 'Dude, no. It's principle at this point.' I think, as his brother, I understand completely where he's coming from -- bringing two championships here and then to hear his name being thrown in trade rumors all day long and have [Lakers coach Mike] D'Antoni bench him.

"So I understand where he's coming from. Listen, we're people before we're basketball players, especially for a player that brought so much to this organization, I completely understand where he's coming from. If I didn't understand it, we wouldn't be as close as we are to this day."

Bryant's remarks were relayed to Gasol, who recalled their sit-down.

"I did tell him that I wanted to play -- if I could -- with him forever," Gasol said, "but I was ready to move on and put myself in a situation where I thought I was going to be a lot happier and I could play the way I've been playing and the way I've been improving the last two years. That's it."

Was there anything Bryant could have said that could have changed Gasol's mind?

"He wanted me to stay, obviously," Gasol said. "But just the situation, as we all know, was not ideal for me and I had to move on."

Gasol signed a three-year, $22 million deal with the Bulls, turning down a richer offer from the Lakers to stay.

That said, Gasol has nothing but admiration for his former teammate.

"We had incredible times," Gasol said. "That's my career as an NBA player. We had some rougher times, because of all the changes and the decisions that were made. But we always stuck together, and our relationship is stronger. I'm extremely happy that I was able to share those moments with him and go through all of those things."