Don’t Play Around
Already a hero in Spain thanks to his Olympic exploits, Pau Gasol is now a hero in the USA, too.
There are two reasons we’re posting this feature from SLAM Olympic Hoops ’08. One, Pau Gasol just played a major role for L.A. in their second straight title run. The least he earned was the republishing of one of our features on him. Second, come August 1, SLAM Presents WORLD HOOPS 10 will be hitting newsstands. Covering the inaugural World Basketball Festival, which is to be held in New York August 12-15, this special issue will broaden your knowledge of international ball, showcase some of the world’s best young players and highlight some of this summer’s freshest kicks and gear (and, obviously, it’ll get you up to speed on all things WBF). If any of that sounds interesting to you, be sure to check for the SLAM Presents WORLD HOOPS in a few weeks. For now, this Pau Gasol feature from two summer’s ago should suffice.—Ed.
by Sam Rubenstein
Pau tambien juega. Pau is also playing.
It was written on the t-shirts of the Spanish national basketball team as they ran through the tunnel to the court in Saitama, Japan, to face Greece in the title game of the 2006 FIBA World Championships.
Meanwhile, Spain’s superstar big man Pau Gasol, fresh off of a bigger-than-the-box-score 19-point, 11-rebound, three-block performance against Argentina, was hobbling onto the court on crutches. Gasol’s big game against usually dominant Argentina had been cut short by injury, forcing him to the sidelines. In the final moments of the game that would send Spain to the championship match, Pau was reduced to a mere spectator. As Gasol watched Andres
Nocioni’s open look at the game winner come up short, Gasol knew Spain had advanced to the championship round but paid the steep price of losing their best player. There was still one more game to play.
The Pau tambien juega t-shirts were created, and according to team captain Carlos Jimenez, “When (Pau) walked into the locker room before the game, he saw it and was extremely emotional. He told us, ‘Go and get them,’ and, ‘We can do it.’”
Inspired by their fallen teammate, the Spaniards played with ferocity, claiming their title and securing an automatic berth in this summer’s Olympics. Pau was proud of his people.
“I knew I had played a good tournament, and it’s a pity not to have been in the final and not to have helped my teammates, but to be honest, they didn’t really need me,” he said, going so far as to call it “the best day of my sporting career. To be champions at the highest level is the most beautiful thing that could ever happen to me.”
Of course Pau felt the physical ache of a fractured fifth metatarsal in his left foot, but as he would elegantly put it after the fact, “A gold medal around my neck takes away all the pain.”
The son of a physician and a hospital administrator, Pau Gasol once planned on becoming a doctor himself, going so far as to attend a year of medical school in Barcelona at age 18. It could have been Dr. Gasol diagnosing somebody else’s pain, but the kid who started playing at 7 and was a point guard through age 13, kept growing and growing. A career as a professional basketball player became a real possibility. A versatile and mobile seven-footer with a game made up of a full kit of low post moves, virtually ambidextrous with a nice shooting touch, he rose to national prominence as a player. He was on the team that won the Junior European Championship in 1998 and was MVP in ACB league in Copa del Rey with FC Barcelona in 2001, all of which built his NBA Draft profile to high Lottery status. In the ancient times, when players from Europe were still an unraveled mystery to the United States, Pau Gasol was selected by the Grizzlies (still Vancouver at the time, on their way to Memphis) with the third overall pick of the infamous 2001 Draft.
Pau has gone through a series of phases of notoriety in the NBA. The first came when he won the Rookie of the Year in a landslide, easily beating out Richard Jefferson on the strength of playing all 82 games and putting up 17.6 points, 8.9 boards and 2.1 blocks per game, dunking on so-called rugged Americans while Charles Barkley screamed “PAU!”
Then, when the professional athlete metrosexual craze was in vogue (it was, even if you blocked it out of your mind), nobody had more exotic facials or protein-enriched shampoos than Gasol.
From there, he did a complete 180 and became a shaggy, bearded woodsman, bridging the gap from Bill Walton to DeShawn Stevenson and Baron Davis. Gasol’s unique appearance(s) and presence on a team rarely in the spotlight overshadowed the consistency of 18-20 points per game and 7-10 boards over a six-year period where he only made one appearance on the All-Star team.
The Grizzlies became a good enough team to reach the Playoffs, but they never made any noise once they got there. They were balanced, led by old-school professors like Hubie Brown and Mike Fratello, but they never received the all-powerful NBA alpha male experience that people expect from their Playoff heroes. Pau heard the claims of softness, despite his rebounding, despite a game that was closer to the low block than the three-point line and his consistent production. He heard that he couldn’t take a Playoff game from Western Conference juggernauts the Spurs, Suns and Mavs, in three consecutive years. That he never grabbed the series or even a game or two by its throat raised further questions about Pau, even if the truth was that he had few teammates who could help carry the load.
In ’06, in the third successive sweep, Pau’s numbers against Dirk and the Mavs—who were en route to the NBA Finals—were not spectacular enough for the demands of an NBA superstar expected to empty the clip on his way out. That was the last time the Memphis Grizzlies would reach the Playoffs, as the Spanish championship ultimately took Gasol out of commission.
The lingering injury from the FIBA tournament directly impacted his day job, the ’06-07 NBA season with the Grizzlies. Without his presence inside, his rebounding and scoring, the Grizzlies were thrown into rebuilding against their will. The season became a lost campaign that evolved into letting the kids play. Pau did end up playing in 59 games, but they were 5-17 before he first suited up, and in the Bestern Conference, a start like that is a death sentence for the season.
The Grizz then started this past season without a clear plan, floating aimlessly and without much attention through the preseason as the Conference and League talk in general was dominated by the turmoil of Kobe Bryant’s frustration. Kobe was demanding help, though few observers thought that Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak would actually get on the phone and bring him someone worthy. If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that anyone can be traded. Kevin Garnett, Shaq, Allen Iverson—and those are just the SLAM 10th anniversary cover boys. Kobe Bryant was the next NBA icon due to change into a new uni.
Then, on February 1, seemingly out of thin air, at a time when the Lakers were playing well (though not at all resembling title favorites), Kupchak and L.A. up and pulled off one of the most lopsided trades in sports history. The Lake Show got Pau while the Grizzlies “got” Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, two Draft picks, and oddly enough, the Draft rights to Pau’s brother Marc, a fellow Spanish team member.
Pau’s impact with the Lakers was instantaneous.
Mitch Kupchak had stepped up and delivered a change that Kobe would later describe as going from an “F to an A-plus.” No. 24 praised the new look of his team: “I love what we’re doing here. We have a great relationship, we have great chemistry. We have all the pieces in here to make a run for a long time.”
The biggest piece is Pau Gasol. Whether the Lakers become champs this year or not, they are set up to compete for the title for years to come. Asked about being that missing piece, Gasol speaks of the team: “We are in a good way and path. We are going to continue to be that way. There’s always a missing piece, and that’s for my teammates to judge and say. I definitely want to help this team get better and accomplish their goals.”
When the trade season ended, featuring the moving of names like Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Shaquille O’Neal and Ben Wallace, the biggest impact of all, by a Hollywood mile, was Pau’s. The overachieving Lakers weathered Andrew Bynum’s injury and took off like a rocket toward the top of the hyper-competitive West.
Pau made his debut in a new jersey in New Jersey, going for 24 and 12 on a night when Kobe was held to just 6 points. Beginning with that game, the Lakers ran off Ws in 11 of 12, losing only to Atlanta, as they established themselves as a definitive title contender, not a mere first-half wonder like Portland.
Looking back, Pau hadn’t asked to be “the man” in Memphis. He never complained about respect or suffering while carrying a bad team. Or about his minutes. Pau just spent his days in Memphis playing for five different head coaches, and with a “best” collection of teammates including names like Jason Williams, Shane Battier, Drew Gooden, Mike Miller, Eddie Jones and Damon Stoudamire. Each one could be described as a decent complementary piece, but not a serviceable second-best player on team with serious contention in the West as a goal. Given all this, it was no surprise that Pau accepted his role as the clear No. 2 with L.A. from day one. There was never the slightest hint of him not deferring to the guy already in place. Content to fit in as the star second banana, a Phil Jackson-coached team so desperately needs the base that holds up the triangle.
Pau fit in quickly, then used the turning on of the Playoff lights to make his presence felt in a big way. Pau dropped 38, 16, and 8 in Game 1 of the Lakers’ postseason, leading L.A. in a romp over the Denver Nuggets while Kobe struggled. Pau was typically humble in victory. “Every guy on our team is doing an amazing job out there, and I’m just one of them,” he said. Not a bad Playoff-opening salvo for someone who had never won an NBA postseason game.
With Pau, Kobe and the rest of the Lakers hitting full stride, L.A. swept the Nuggets, topped the Jazz in 6 and took out the defending champion Spurs in 5 games. With the Lakers the Finals’ favorites as we go to press, there is every reason to believe they will win it all, capping a remarkable transformation for Pau from cellar dweller to top of the League.
NBA title or not, Pau’s status as one of the handful of best “second options” in the NBA is secure. Meanwhile, his role in international play is even more pronounced; this is the reigning MVP of global play. Even though Gasol’s aforementioned foot injury prevented him from playing in the ’06 FIBA championship game, he was crowned MVP of the tournament for his performance along the run to the title. Gasol put up 26 and 10 in a 101-57 destruction of Panama. 16 in a 92-71 win over Dirk and Germany. 28 against Angola. 21 and 16 in a 50-point blowout win over Japan. 19 and 15 vs. Serbia & Montenegro.
Pau saved his best performance for the critical quarterfinal showdown with Lithuania, delivering a monster 25 and 9, including a tap-in at the first-half buzzer that gave him 15 points and gave the Spaniards a 47-30 lead. The stage was set for the Argentina semifinal game and then the Pau-less Gold-medal game against Greece (who had beaten the Americans in the other semifinal), where his teammates secured the MVP trophy for him.
Repeating in a global tournament will be no easy task, especially with the retooled USA Basketball leadership and roster obsessed with re-establishing basketball domination.
Kobe, LeBron and Coach K should watch out, though, because Pau tambien juega. Pau is also playing.