Pau, Kobe and Phil still connected

Pau Gasol has worked hard to maintain a crucial balance between basketball and life in recent years. Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports

By now the image is iconic. In the first few hours after Dwight Howard told the world that he was leaving the Los Angeles Lakers to sign with the Houston Rockets, Lakers star Kobe Bryant posted a photo of himself and forward Pau Gasol embracing on the court with the hashtags #vamos, #juntos, #lakercorazon and #vino.

Simply translated: "We go together, Laker heart, Vino."

It was a poetic response to the close of a less-than-elegant period in Lakers history. And at the time, most people took it as a dig at Howard, who never seemed very interested in developing much of a relationship with Bryant.

But a few months later, now that the emotions surrounding Howard's departure have faded, and everyone involved has moved on to other things, the photo and the message behind it look very different.

It really isn't about Howard at all. It's about Bryant and Gasol, the bond between them, the championships they won together and about what they might have been capable of had the Lakers organization not gone shopping for a superstar to succeed Bryant one day, marginalizing Gasol in the process.

Over the years, Bryant has often reminded people that it was the partnership between he and Gasol that took the Lakers to three straight NBA Finals from 2008-10. He's stuck up for the Spaniard publicly and privately.

But it wasn't until I read the moving foreword Bryant wrote in the beginning of Gasol's new book, "Life/Vida" (which will be released Nov. 26 through his personal website), that I realized the true depth of their bond.

Bryant writes that "If I could choose my brother," it would be Gasol. That "he would have the highest basketball IQ in the league" and "you'd have to search and search and you still would not find another player in the history of the game with his skill set." That "if his organization ever let him down, he would hold his head up high" and "would not lash out or let himself become entangled in the drama." That "we would both face adversity in our professions, so we would talk about our lives and our careers and the pressures of our celebrity" and that "our bond would be fortified by a trust only brothers share."

It is hard to imagine higher praise from Kobe. And his sentiments are echoed by the foreword written by former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who said of Gasol, "he's a son whom I could adopt very easily and embrace."

It would be difficult to read either foreword and not be touched by the sincere respect and affection Bryant and Jackson feel for Gasol. It would also be difficult to read either piece and not feel a bit nostalgic for those four short years the three men were joined together in pursuit of NBA championships.

It was too short a period of time to be considered an era. But it was too successful a period to be forgotten. Three runs to the NBA Finals, two championships, Bryant's only league and NBA Finals MVP awards, and the finest -- and happiest -- years of both Bryant and Gasol's basketball careers.

Looking back on it now, after what happened with the failed efforts to groom Andrew Bynum and Howard to take over for Bryant, it was a period of time that ended too soon.

None of the three men have had as much success since their run together ended with Jackson's retirement in 2011. You wonder if they ever will have it as good again.

Bryant is older now. So is Gasol. Jackson is retired, and the Lakers play a different style; one to which both Bryant and Gasol are having to adjust.

And the connection reaches beyond basketball. Gasol is, in Jackson's words, "a Renaissance man," intellectually curious, socially conscious, drawing on a deep emotional well.

His book -- a collection of intimate photographs from the past four years -- demonstrates his appreciation of the arts, music, food and literature, his passion for medicine and philanthropy, his approach to life and love.

Bryant and Jackson not only get all of that, they appreciate it.

It's why they got the best out of Gasol, and why he brought the best out of them.

"As a person, I think you give more of yourself when the people around you get you. I think that's what happens with each individual," Gasol said recently. "You feel comprehended. You feel embraced. You feel appreciated and you give more of yourself. You open up and you give more of your potential. From what I've been through with Kobe and Phil, people that I've been through a lot of things with, we've created a deep connection and friendship. They've seen all the sides of me and it's been one of the best things I've ever experienced."

The challenge for Gasol once Jackson retired and his role within the Lakers organization diminished has been to maintain his level of play, attitude and approach. It hasn't been easy, or successful every day.

"What is an injury? What's a trade rumor or a potential change of teams? What's it like to play for a coach who doesn't believe in me or trust my abilities 100 percent?" Gasol writes candidly in the book, which features photographs of him right after he was nearly traded to Houston in 2011.

"To me those are little bumps in the road. They are part of my profession and position, but they will pass, and the next day is a new day. When I look at the big picture and put things in perspective, I ask myself, 'Are they really that hard? I don't think so.'"

Gasol said he still calls and meets with Jackson occasionally. Their relationship is more of a friendship now. Bryant, of course, is still his teammate.

Things are different. They know their time as a basketball trio is over. The challenge, perhaps particularly for Gasol, isn't to recreate it but to take what he learned from it and move forward.

"Phil is such a positive influence," Gasol said. "He was able to get the best out of not just me, but each player. He got to know players, how to tweak them, how to motivate them, how to keep them on edge but not too much. He just was a great manager of the team and he thought over everything before he implemented it. He is a great thinker. He's an amazing human being that I learned a lot from.

"I try to take his principles and the knowledge he shared with me on a daily basis ... and adjust them to the new system and situation."

There's a wistfulness when Gasol speaks about Jackson and the good times gone by. But there's also a resolve in his voice not to let that be the end of his story, as if perhaps the best way to hold on to what Jackson taught him is to carry on without him, guided by everything the old coach tried to teach him about life and the game they love.

Bryant occasionally sounds the same way, working to embrace change rather than fighting it.

Jackson used to quote Buddha in times like these.

"Unceasing change turns the wheel of life, and so reality is shown in all its many forms," Jackson wrote in a the prologue to his book, "Sacred Hoops."

You get the sense Bryant and Gasol were listening. Two basketball brothers growing up together, moving forward. #vamos #juntos #lakercorazon #vino.