T.J. SIMERS

Not seeing eye to eye, Lakers' Pau Gasol takes long view of coach

Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni has benched and seemingly embarrassed Pau Gasol. The 7-footer thinks coach is wrong, yet somehow he understands. It's just how he is.

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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.

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