LOS ANGELES -- Pau Gasol looked out onto the court, where the team from his past played the team of his present, then looked up to the scoreboard, where the clock ticked down toward the start of his future.
The Memphis Grizzlies, Gasol’s team from draft night in 2001 until the 2008 trade that sent him to the Los Angeles Lakers, were finalizing the Lakers’ 55th loss of the season. Same old story for the Lakers: hang tight for a half, lose by double digits. And a frustratingly frequent tale for Gasol: sidelined by injury, missing his 20th game and counting, with a bout of vertigo guaranteed to keep him sidelined for the Lakers’ two remaining games on the road.
He’ll be a free agent this summer, which means this might have been his last home game at Staples Center. It certainly meant he felt the emotional impact. As the game drew to a close he reached toward the seat to his right and tapped teammate Jordan Farmar’s leg to signal that it was time for them to leave. Except Gasol wasn’t really ready to leave. He congratulated his brother, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, then playfully shoved Marc away so he wouldn’t sweat on Pau’s nice, movie-ticket-taker- burgundy red jacket. He moved on to other players and coaches, stopped to talk to a couple of fans, then chatted with courtside regulars Jimmy Goldstein and Dyan Cannon.
He stopped and signed autographs for fans on the other side of the courtside seats. He leaned in behind a woman who took a selfie with her phone. He entered the tunnel and accommodated more fans who reached through the rails to have him sign programs, hats, tickets and -- just when he was ready to cut things off -- a fan who dangled a No. 16 Gasol golden Lakers jersey.
Finally he said no mas.
“I gotta go in,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
He blew the fans a kiss with both hands, bowed and moved on to the Lakers' locker room.
“I always appreciate the fans,” Gasol said. “You never know. The last couple years when I walked out of this building it’s been emotional. This year it’s been a little bit different because we haven’t been successful as a team, we had a lot of injuries, I haven’t been able to finish the season playing. So I kind of had it more in my mind.
“The last couple of years I didn’t know if I was going to be back. This year with even more reason, because now I’m a free agent. It’s just a way of me appreciating everyone and our fans.”
The fans showed their appreciation, giving him a warm cheer when he was showed on the scoreboard video screen late in the game. Will the Lakers do anything similar -- something along the lines of the golden parachute they granted Kobe Bryant? The Kobe contract might actually preclude a Gasol gift by eating up too much salary cap room. Gasol can’t expect to match the $19 million he made this season; he might get about half of that, from what some general managers say. It's also possible that the Lakers could sign him to a short deal that would give them the possibility of using him as a trade asset next season.
But a multi-year contract would alter any Lakers plans to make a big splash in the 2015 free agent market -- or even to bring in the additional pieces the Lakers would need around Bryant and Gasol.
That’s why Sunday was the night for sentiment. Come July 1 it will be all business.
“You’ve got to put heart and emotions aside a little bit and think what’s going to be the best position for me to succeed, not just individually but collectively,” Gasol said. “And hopefully help put myself in a position where I can win a championship. That will be the goal. Where can I win and where can I be a key piece to help a team win, whether it’s here or another team? I don’t know exactly what’s going to be the structure or the roster [with the Lakers], so there’s going to be a lot of question marks here. But I’m open to listen. I’m a good listener. I will listen to what’s offered.”
Then there’s the possibility of playing with his brother in Memphis.
“It’s appealing,” Gasol said. “We have a lof of fun always in the summers [playing together with the Spanish national team]. But I don’t know if it’s going to be completely 100 percent up to me, because there’s going to be a lot of teams that are going to be probably limited or conditioned to a trade, and the Lakers will probably have some say in that. We’ll see. It’ll be an interesting process. I don’t know if the Grizzlies are one of the teams that are most interested.
“I’d love to play with Kobe more, because he’s a friend, he’s a winner and he’s a guy that I’ve been through a lot and won championships with. I would love to play with my brother, but you can’t have everything. Just try to think where is the best position for me to succeed collectively and individually.”
Time passes so quickly in the NBA, turning from ally to enemy. Gasol made the Lakers championships contenders when he arrived in February of 2008, and they were on their way to three consecutive NBA Finals. In April of 2014, the only player in uniform who was around for that heyday was Farmar. It’s no accident that he was sitting next to Gasol.
“[The bond is] even sweeter for us because we lost one [NBA Finals] first,” Farmar said. “ We got all the way there, we lost, and then we learned as a group and came back to win back-to-backs. So we’re a little closer. It’s a little more special. It’s experiences you can’t really teach. You just have to go through it and know what it takes. It’s hard to pass that knowledge on to young guys. There’s just no way they can understand the dynamics of a championship team unless you’re on that caliber of a team.”
You can see why playing for another team consisting primarily of those young players wouldn’t appeal to Gasol at age 33. You also can see how a 33-year-old who has missed 53 games over the past two seasons with injuries stretching literally from his feet (plantar fasciitis) to his head (vertigo) might not have GMs filling his voicemail inbox this summer. But he’s still an experienced big man who averaged 17.4 points and 9.7 rebounds this season.
“In this league, no one person can do it by themselves,” Farmar said. “You need to put a team together of guys that understand the importance of winning,
that are committed to it and fit well together. I think that’s what it comes down to. The front office knows that. I think Pau, whether it’s here or someplace else, will be on a team like that.”
For the past three seasons we’ve wondered if the Lakers would send him someplace else before the trade deadline. Now it could be of his own volition. That’s why this wasn’t just another night in Staples Center, the building where the two most recent Lakers championship banners hang as a result of his handiwork.