By JOSEPH WILSON
BARCELONA, Spain — With Dwight Howard gone and Kobe Bryant injured, Pau Gasol is looking to reassert himself as a leader of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Knees allowing, he wants to be the dominant player of old who helped Bryant & Co. win NBA titles in 2009 and 2010.
“I think I have the most uncertain period behind me,” Gasol told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “The team has suffered a lot of changes, but as far as me, I am back in the position of a lot of responsibility, which I like, and I’m just going to focus on getting healthy.
“Now with Dwight gone I am the reference inside and I am more like I was a couple of years back when we made the finals three straight times and won two straight championships,” he added.
The Lakers enter a difficult point, with Howard snubbing the storied club to sign with the Houston Rockets. Bryant is still out indefinitely recovering from a torn Achilles tendon.
Gasol wasn’t surprised by Howard’s decision to leave after just one season because it was “always a possibility.” He described his former teammate a “nice guy” and a “hard worker.”
Gasol spoke to the AP in the Barcelona airport, where he had just returned from a trip as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador to a refugee camp established in Iraq for the thousands fleeing the violence in neighboring Syria. Gasol called attention to the shortages of water, medicine and schools in the camp that was built for 15,000 but has taken in 50,000.
Gasol said this work provides balance to his life as a pro athlete. It contrasts with the commotion surrounding his team, especially during last season when the Lakers were swept in the first round of the playoffs after beginning the year as a title contender.
“I’ve made five trips to the field (with UNICEF) and seen all kinds of different things and people suffering a lot of different situations,” Gasol said. “Obviously, it puts things in perspective, and all the other things I might deal with my team or with my profession are much less important or meaningful than the lives of people that are on the line every day.”
In September, Pau and brother Marc Gasol, a center for the Memphis Grizzlies, will be launching the “Gasol Foundation,” which is focused on children’s health.
Despite the loss of Howard and Bryant’s injury, the Lakers are not overhauling the team. Instead, they seem prepared to wait for Bryant to get healthy and go for another run with him and Gasol as their pillars.
The Lakers did waive Metta World Peace, but they signed Nick Young, Jordan Farmar and Wesley Johnson and Chris Kaman.
Yet even with Howard off to Texas, there are still two factors that will play an important role in whether Gasol can return to peak form at age 33 and entering his 13th season in the league: his health and his coach.
Gasol had surgery followed by stem-cell treatment on both knees in May. He said after resting for most of this summer, he’s increasing the intensity of his rehab.
“These next two months are the key months to find out how they really are,” said Gasol, adding he wasn’t in pain.
While Gasol wants to be the Lakers’ second scorer again after Bryant, he still hasn’t heard if coach Mike D’Antoni agrees.
The Spaniard said he had spoken to Bryant, point guard Steve Nash and general manager Mitch Kupchak about the team after Howard decided to leave, but he has yet to speak to D’Antoni.
Gasol had a rough first season with the former Suns and Knicks coach and lost his guaranteed starter’s job. Nevertheless, Gasol is looking forward to this season.
D’Antoni “had a tough position, I had a tough position,” Gasol said. “I had a job to do, he had a job to do, so there really is no mystery. I know he had challenges. It was a very challenging season. Next season is a different one and a new chapter. So we’ll start out fresh and do our best.”
A career scorer of 18-plus points a game, Gasol had his worst scoring season in 2012-13, averaging 13.7. The four-time All-Star is aiming to improve.
“I have a great motivation,” he said. “It’s the last year of my contract, so I want to get back to being one of the top players in the league.”