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How Kobe Bryant inspired Pau Gasol to play in the Olympics

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“This is a huge gift that I’m experiencing,” said Pau Gasol before joining Spain and embarking on a quest for Olympic gold. “I’m privileged to be playing at 41 again at a high level after all I’ve been through.”

The list of what Pau has been through over the last few years is lengthy. He was first bought out by Spurs in 2019, only to sign with the Bucks. But a foot injury he had suffered allowed him to play in only three games with Milwaukee before having surgery in May. Gasol then signed with the Blazers but never got to wear Portland's uniform. He was waived less than two months into the 2019-20 season after it became apparent his recovery would take longer than expected.

Pau was at a crossroads, wrestling with uncertainty about his basketball future. “I wasn’t going to give up. I didn’t want to end my career with an injury,” he said. “I wanted to end playing on the court after playing so many great years and having so many great experiences.”

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Fighting through a pandemic while at the same time trying to deal with Kobe Bryant's passing, Gasol started the rehab process that he described as "very long" and "uncertain." Looking back on it, Pau admits that the only thing that kept him going was the memory of No. 24.

“I kept him in mind a lot of the days to say hey, Kobe would be pushing himself. Kobe would not be taking this workout easy or not skipping anything. He would be really disciplined, trusting and being committed to the work. He’s always a big presence with me. He’s always going to be an inspiration and motivation in my life.”

Pau Gasol, USA Today

Eventually, Pau signed with Barcelona, bringing his basketball career full circle. He played limited minutes at the end of their season, helping the team win another La Liga title. And now, he will try to do the same for his national team. But even he admits none of it would've been possible without the inspiration he drew from his late friend.

“He really pushed himself to the limit. He pushed through a lot of injuries and a lot of pain and discomfort. He was relentless and very disciplined on his rehab and his recovery. During my recovery, I always had him present.”

Pau Gasol, USA Today

Gasol, the three-time Olympic medalist, already helped Spain win their tournament opener against Japan -- he had 9 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, and 2 blocks. But that's not what he's in Tokyo for. Playing in his fifth Olympics, Gasol's only goal is to bring home the gold medal. That would be the perfect ending to a Hall-of-Fame-worthy basketball career.

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