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Image courtesy of NBA
Kobe Bryant - LA Lakers
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Image courtesy of NBA
Pau Gasol - LA Lakers
A yellow mist is descending upon Barcelona as child after child dons a Lakers jersey in support of one of the city's most beloved sons. This Thursday evening will see Barcelona Regal host a preseason friendly against the LA Lakers and in doing so Pau Gasol will be returning to his roots.
Standing at seven foot tall, Pau can boast to being a two-time NBA winner with the LA Lakers, three time 'NBA All-Star', 'NBA Rookie of the Year' with the Memphis Grizzlies, Spanish League Champion and MVP (Most Valuable Player) with Barcelona, however being tallest in his family is one title that still eludes him. Younger brother Marc, is an inch bigger. Marc is also a current NBA player and was actually used as part of the trade to move Pau from the Grizzlies to the Lakers.
Gasol’s return is not only highly anticipated by his Catalan supporters though; teammate and basketball legend Kobe Bryant is equally as interested in the welcome that the Barcelona power forward/centre receives on Thursday night.
The TNT and Sporting News NBA Player of the Decade revealed that, “It will be an amazing experience for Pau to come back to where it all started for him and I can’t wait to watch the reception he gets.”
Though Bryant managed only six minutes of match time in the last preseason game in London, it seems that those lucky enough to get tickets for the Barça Regal game can expect to see a bit more of the Lakers shooting guard. Having undergone knee surgery in the off season, Bryant had only completed two full practices since the Lakers training camp started again. Coach Phil Jackson had stated how he wanted to play Kobe for two segments in the match against the Minnesota Timberwolves, but one ended up being enough before the ice bags came out again. On his playing time in Barcelona the number 24 admitted,
“Hopefully I can play a few more minutes than I did against the (Minnesota) Timberwolves but we’ll just have to wait and see how everything goes.”
The London game saw the Lakers slump to a surprise 111-92 loss, but fans should not lose hope of witnessing basketball genius. Bryant, who has featured in the last 12 NBA All-Star matches and lists Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan alongside his father as his basketball heroes, gave fans a sense of what to expect.
“It’s going to be great fun with lots of energy. Both teams will obviously be playing hard and of course you always want to win but unfortunately it just doesn’t always work out like that.”
Answering in both English and Spanish he admitted to reporters that he does not follow Barcelona basketball very closely but the prospect of playing in Europe is one that, when the right moment comes, he would consider very seriously.
“To be honest I have always wanted to play in Europe. It is great to come to places like Barcelona and London in preseason but it would be great to have an international tournament. The NBA champions against the European champions would be a proper competitive match and I would be in favour of having it.”
Naturally this means that the only way to guarantee his chance of playing in such a tournament would be for Bryant to become an NBA winner again for a sixth time; a challenge with difficulties he is all too aware of.
“We (LA Lakers) have been fortunate enough to win it for the past two years so although we know how to win, it will no doubt be tough to do it again this season.”
Speaking from Sala Paris, within the Nou Camp and a stones throw from the Club Museum, it was impossible to forget that no matter how crazy people get for the return of Pau Gasol and the arrival of the LA Lakers, football is the sport that runs through the veins of Catalunya.
The footballing tradition and staggeringly successful history of Barça was never going to stay out of the limelight for too long and sure enough one of the most frequently asked questions to Bryant was, ‘Who is the best football player in the world?’
With clearly only one name to choose and one answer that would be acceptable, given the location, the Barcelona press were delighted, when their answer came,
“It has to be Messi. We are similar in that we both score a lot but we also set others up too. If you look at the best players they always go hard and give everything.”
Quick to divert the media's attention back onto his good friend and Catalan giant Gasol, Bryant concluded,
“Just look at Pau for example. For a big guy, he is like lightening with his super fast feet and he is also very skillful. He is an anomaly because he does so many different things so well and those types of players are tough to find.”
The Bryant, Gasol friendship is one that is as easy to spot on the court as it is off it. The teammates are known to speak in Spanish to one another during games so the opposition are none the wiser as to their next few plays and movements. Furthermore, Bryant jokingly revealed that had it not been for Pau moving to the Lakers, he may have transferred clubs.
“I bumped into him in 2007 on my way to a weights session and we began talking. We were both considering transfers for the following season so I told him that if he signed for the Lakers then I would stay. Laughing, Bryant continued, "That all ended up coming true!”
Despite the legendary status of Kobe Bryant, without a shadow of a doubt the main star on Thursday will be Pau Gasol. He's a crowd favourite thanks to his nationality, his history with Barça Regal and the success he's achieved with the LA Lakers. At the end of the open-air practice session Gasol took the mic and said a few words to demonstrate his love and gratitude to the Catalan fans.
“This is a special occasion for me. Thank you so much for this great welcome, and I hope you get to enjoy Thursday’s game.” With that the girls swooned and the little boys simply jumped for joy. Do not be surprised to see lots of little kids dressed in yellow for the next few days. Bed time is going to be impossible for parents of mini basketball fans this week.