CHICAGO—Every time the Los Angeles Lakers play a road game, the arena is littered with purple and gold jerseys. It doesn’t matter the city or the home fanbase. The Christmas Day crowd at the United Center was no different, but the Lakers and Bulls fans in the crowd were united on at least one thing: an enormous standing ovation for Pau Gasol when the starting lineups were introduced.
“It was weird,” Gasol said after the Bulls’ 113-93 win over the Lakers, in which he had 23 points and 13 rebounds. “It was an emotional game. I was excited to play against the team that I played with for so many years. At first it was hard to get going, but once you start playing you start playing the game the best way you can.”
Soreness and old age deprived Gasol of a matchup with his longtime Lakers running mate, Kobe Bryant. Bryant sat out his second consecutive game, his heavy work load catching up to his 36-year-old body.
“It was extremely difficult [not to play],” Bryant said before the game. “I love this city. The fans have always been great. There’s always a lot of energy in the building.”
Bryant would have loved to play because it was a Christmas Day game, and because of his long-standing respect for Gasol, who meant so much to him in Los Angeles. It was after the Lakers’ 2008 deadline trade for Gasol that the team began their late-decade run, making three straight Finals and winning the title in 2009 and 2010.
When Gasol hit free agency this summer and decided he needed a change of scenery, it was tough for both stars.
“We started this rebuilding process together,” Bryant said. “When he came here, that’s when things turned around. He’s a part of this franchise. It was tough for him to go and leave what he’s helped build, and it was tough for me to see him go.”
“It probably meant something to [Gasol] because he was there so long,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “When you win two championships with an organization like he’s done, he’ll be tied to those teams forever. That’s what makes winning a championship so valuable and important. So I think that organization will always have a special place for him.”
After a few disappointing, injury-plagued seasons, Gasol has been rejuvenated in his first season with the Bulls. He’s averaging 18.2 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2 blocks in 35.3 minutes per game, and playing with a focus and energy that had been missing by the end of his Lakers tenure. It helps that he’s playing for a team that’s looking more and more like a title contender each day, while the Lakers team he left behind is still in the lottery and not getting much better.
Gasol became a target for criticism towards the end of his years with the Lakers, an easy scapegoat who was hurt often and never really fit in with Mike D’Antoni’s offense. But Bryant was always a strong advocate, and lobbied hard for him to stay this summer as he was wooed by contenders like the Bulls, Thunder and Spurs.
“I told him, even when I talked to him about trying to bring him back, that I’d support him no matter what,” Bryant said. “Our relationship goes beyond basketball. That’s my brother. I support him no matter what he does.”
For now, Gasol is just happy this reunion is behind him. At least, until January 29, when he returns to Staples Center for the first time.
“Their team is struggling right now,” he said. “But I will move on and it will be much tougher emotionally when we play them in Los Angeles.