“I realized the choices I had were all good. There’s really not a bad choice,” Gasol said.
Gasol had San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich offering him a chance to play with Tim Duncan and the defending champions, Miami Heat President Pat Riley trying to convince him to take his talents to South Beach, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook telling him he could be the missing piece in Oklahoma City, and heard another plea from his former coach Phil Jackson, former teammate Derek Fisher and Carmelo Anthony to join them in New York. The ultimate heart tug came when Kobe Bryant urged Gasol to stay with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“He wanted to pretty much retire together,” Gasol said of Bryant. “That was an attractive option. One part of me wanted to stick with him and try to turn it around. But deep inside of me, I felt it was time after everything that I’d been through that I wanted to put myself in a position where I was highly stimulated. Kind of change directions a little bit, fresh start and get going again.”
That led Gasol to the Chicago Bulls. Joakim Noah gave Gasol the brutally honest truth about the team’s promise and shortcomings during a meeting that included Bulls executives in Los Angeles. Derrick Rose, a reluctant recruiter, even reached out to place a call, something he failed to do with Anthony last summer or even LeBron James four years ago. The more Gasol thought about it, the more Chicago made sense.
“I thought the Bulls had a great opportunity, a great potential to achieve something special,” Gasol said. “Having a nice mix of young players that are extremely hungry that haven’t got to that level yet but are close. I wanted to be a part of that, and my gut also told me, ‘Hey, this is a place you want to be.’ ”
Gasol, 34, turned down more lucrative offers to join the Bulls on a three-year, $22 million deal that put him in the Eastern Conference for the first time in his 13-year career. The last time he switched teams, from Memphis to Los Angeles in 2008, Gasol helped the Lakers make three straight trips to the NBA Finals and win titles in 2009 and 2010.
But the past four seasons were difficult as Gasol dealt with numerous trade rumors, two coaching changes, a failed partnership with Dwight Howard and Steve Nash and so many roster changes that the team was unrecognizable. Last season, Bryant was limited to just six games and the Lakers had their worst season since moving from Minneapolis.
“A couple of rough seasons after a great run,” Gasol said. “I thought it was time to be in a different position, to be in a position where I had a chance to explore my talents and add to the quality and value of the team I would join. I’m excited to be a part of this team, this franchise. I feel energized. I feel rejuvenated.”
Gasol has only missed the postseason four times and the Bulls hope that his championship experience can propel them in a wide-open conference that was leveled when LeBron James went back to Cleveland. Rose said the versatile Gasol gives the Bulls an added dimension because of his ability to operate with his back to the basket, open up the floor with his jumper and make plays with his passing.
“He makes the game simple. Little things that you don’t even pay attention to,” Rose said.
With Noah, the team’s leader in assists last season, the Bulls will have two of the best passing big men in the NBA. Noah doesn’t expect to have any problems playing with Gasol on either end of the floor.
“A lot of people talk about his defense, and things like that, but I think with our team, he’s not going to have to guard stretch-fours. Pau’s going be at the rim, and I’ll tell you what, he’s pretty hard to score over. He plays the game the right way. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to be part of the recruiting process when it came to him,” Noah said. “I’m so excited about being able to work with Pau, somebody who has unbelievable talent and unbelievable experience, too, somebody who has won championships. I’m in my eighth year, and, just to have somebody who, at 30 years old, I can still learn from is pretty special.”
Gasol’s decision came down to more than just the best place to ply his trade; he also wanted to find a location that was “cultural rich” and diverse. The son of medical professionals, Gasol thought of becoming a doctor before he grew to be a 7-footer with rare basketball talent. He also enjoys the opera, forging a friendship with tenor and conductor Placido Domingo during his time in Los Angeles.
“To me, it was important on a personal level because I’m not just a basketball player,” Gasol said. “I have other interests, other desires than basketball, and Chicago had a lot to offer from that aspect.”
Gasol didn’t have any doubt about his decision, but got the ultimate approval when he informed Jackson, who knows a thing or six about winning championships in his new town.
“Once I picked Chicago,” Gasol said, Jackson “sent me a text saying I’m going to love Chicago, I was going to be happy here and it was a great choice.”