Pau Gasol came to L.A. just three years ago and quickly helped the Lakers to a pair of NBA championships. From day one he enjoyed an unbroken honeymoon with fans.
But it wasn't just the winning that so endeared him to them. It was the unselfish play, the commitment to teamwork and his multiple-skill set — 15-foot jumpers, baby hook shots with both hands, clever inside passing.
He was such a sweetheart on and off the court that soon a Pau Gasol imitator — tall, thin and scruffy — took up residence on the sidewalk at Hollywood & Highland, joining Superman, Batman and Chewbacca on the tourist's must-see list of L.A. attractions.
But when the team fell shockingly short this year, Gasol took plenty of heat for his play. Murmurings of criticism eventually broke into boos during the later games of the series. The humiliation peaked in Game 3 when Coach Phil Jackson repeatedly jabbed Gasol in the chest and berated him for playing soft. Snoop Dogg even sent out a tweet questioning Gasol's manhood.
The ever-popular Gasol was always classy as a champion. Now Los Angeles was getting a look at him in defeat.
The morning after the stunning, Apocalypse Now loss to the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals, a foul mood was in the air at the Lakers' El Segundo training center. Gasol had made the critical late-game mistake when he foolishly fouled Dallas' best player far from the basket. Then he fumbled away a difficult exchange with teammate Kobe Bryant with three seconds left.
But Kobe had blown it, too, jacking up 29 shots on his way to 36 points and zero assists.
When the gym doors opened after practice, the media mob rushed in eager to assign blame and cultivate conflict. The biggest bunch headed for Gasol. The questions were variations on two themes: What's wrong with you? And isn't Kobe a ball hog who's hurting your game?
A short, fat radio reporter thrust a mic up at the 7-foot-tall Gasol. “Pau, do you think maybe Kobe should pass the ball more in the fourth quarter? Do you think you guys would maybe be less predictable if Kobe didn't take all the late shots?”
The four-time All-Star listened thoughtfully, stroked his perpetually stubbled-yet-manicured chin, pulled on his perpetually washed-yet-rumpled hair and looked down with a sheepish half-grin.
“It's always good to be less predictable,” he finally agreed. “But Kobe is our leader. He's the most clutch player in the league.”
The radio guy recited Kobe's string of recent late-game failures, but it didn't work: There was no spark of a Kobe-Pau feud here, no retro revival of the old Kobe-Shaq turf wars.
After 15 minutes, Gasol had answered every question — no matter how idiotic, repetitive or provocative — without crossing the line from candor to condemnation.
“I'm trying as hard as I can,” he said. “I wish I was more effective. I don't know why I'm not.
“But it's not Kobe.”