Pau Gasol has become the odd man out in this strangest of Lakers seasons. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
NEW YORK — In this mess of a Lakers season, there has remained one crazy, befuddling constant: Mike D'Antoni's decision to embarrass and then bench Pau Gasol.
Good for Earl Clark.
But when D'Antoni began his stint as Lakers coach by not playing Gasol in the fourth quarter, replying, "I was thinking I'd like to win this game," it was a big-time putdown.
It seemed like too much, too soon, especially for someone who has meant so much to the Lakers.
"It's hard to know personalities if you don't get in touch with them," said Gasol, his relationship with the Lakers coach now cordial and tension-free but still anchored in disagreement.
The coach and player met at a Manhattan Beach restaurant a few weeks back, and most folks were left with the impression they had a meeting of minds.
"It was an effort on our part to try and come to an understanding," Gasol said. "But I don't think it's translated to an understanding. Nothing significant has happened; it's probably even gone a little backwards."
Jim Buss said recently he was told by D'Antoni that Gasol was a happy camper now because D'Antoni was saving Gasol's knees and prolonging his career.
It was amusing news to Gasol, who played 37 minutes against Minnesota and 40 versus Detroit.
"Never heard that," he said.
We talked Monday morning over $10 coffee at the Ritz-Carlton hotel adjacent to Central Park. The sports columnist picked up the tab while the $19-million-a-year basketball player promised to get the next one — as if he will be with the Lakers long enough to pay off.
"If this coach stays and Dwight Howard remains with the Lakers," I asked, "what about you?"
"It would be hard for me to deal with another season knowing the facts you just mentioned," said Gasol, 32 and with one year remaining on his contract.
"So do you ask for a fresh start elsewhere?"
"It's a possibility," he said, "yes."
He will not request a trade before this month's deadline, he said, although he knows there is interest from other teams for a starting center and he will be returning to the bench soon.
"I'm not a quitter," he said. "Just because things look better on the other side of the fence, I'm not going to take the easy way out.
"I have a certain level of loyalty here, and I've been through a lot of great, amazing things. And there have been others that have been hurtful. But that's life.
"I don't have cancer, my mom wasn't dying and I'm still playing basketball. I love the Lakers and Los Angeles, and none of that has changed just because certain things are out of my control."
Athletes don't come much more friendly than Gasol, who treats everyone attentively from team president to arena janitor.
In fact, he refused to blame D'Antoni for misusing him.
"He has his philosophy and system, and the Lakers hired him," said Gasol. "It's not his fault.
"His philosophy is to play with one big guy and four guys spread out, so then he had to make a decision: Dwight or Pau?"
It was an easy decision. The Lakers are committed to making Howard happy so he will return.
"That is correct," Gasol said.
And Gasol is under contract for next season.
"There you go," he said. "I understand that."
So what happens next?
"They try to decide how I can be productive in this mix, while I know I'm not going to be in position to do what I do best and help us win more games. It's frustrating, but it's not going to stop me from playing as hard as I can in whatever role."
We all have bosses who don't always get it right. Believe me, I know.
"I'm fortunate to be doing what I am for a living and being highly rewarded for it," Gasol said. "But it hurts me that this unique opportunity we have with such good players is not being maximized."
Kobe Bryant has already praised Gasol and said he has no worries how Gasol will respond to his disappointment.
"We've won championships together, so Kobe knows," said Gasol. "I like the place where he's at now, unselfishly doing what he can to help us win."
As dominant as Gasol was in the Olympics and as highly regarded as he is in the NBA, he said there have been times when he has felt disrespected by D'Antoni.
"But I'm not going to let it affect me. In a way he's messing with my season, but not my career. I know what I've accomplished, and I still feel like I'm one of the best players in the world."
This isn't his first brush with disappointment. Before last season he was gone in a trade for Chris Paul only to return in a flash when the deal was vetoed by the NBA commissioner. His name continues to be mentioned in trade rumors.
But without knowing what Howard is going to do, it's unlikely the Lakers will risk trading Gasol.
"Dwight is a huge presence defensively," said Gasol. "But in a perfect world I'd love to see us dominating as an interior couple, thereby making everything easier for our teammates.
"I'm always trying to pass to Dwight to get him going. He hasn't been very effective from the post, so I want to give him easy shots and get him into rhythm. You know he's going to get fouled and then he'll make one out of two."
Gasol still has a sense of humor, and he will continue to need it.
"Nothing is going to change, but I have no doubt we could coexist and dominate every single game," Gasol said, the proof in how well he played alongside his brother for Spain.
"I believe 100% if I was starting inside with Dwight we could make the playoffs. I just don't know if coming off the bench gives the team a chance to be better and win more games."
I also took care of the tip for coffee in case Gasol is still here a year from now and picks up the next round.