The Constant Gardener

Yaron Weitzman

Blessed with the ability to do a little of everything on the court—and determined to keep getting better at all of it—Marc Gasol has become one of the game’s most valuable players.

He won’t share many details, but the remnants of his pregame snack do. They’re scattered around his unkempt Barclays Center locker on this blisteringly cold January night. A small box of GoPicnic hummus and crackers is nestled underneath some shorts, a yellow wrapper that once held gluten-free crackers finds itself trapped under a folding chair leg, a blue and white container with the words “METABOLIC DRINK” printed on it leans against the wooden locker’s left wall. It looks like something Neil Armstrong might have brought with him to space.

At the moment, Marc Gasol is out on the court warming up. It’s about an hour before tipoff of what will turn out to be a relatively effortless Grizzlies win, and the not-nearly-as-big-as-he-used-to-be big man is working on his outside shot. His feathery touch is on full display. The ball seems to glide through the air after Gasol shoots it. The net barely moves as shot after shot falls through.

After about a half-hour of work, Gasol begins to make his way off the court. He stops to sign autographs for a bunch of kids, poses for a selfie with an older fan and then retreats back to his locker room chair. There, he takes a swig of his NASA-looking drink.

Now, at the age of 30 and in his seventh season in the NBA, Gasol is playing the best basketball of his career. Before this season he’d never averaged more than 15 points per game; this year he’s averaging 19, with 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks, while shooting 50 percent from the field. His Grizz have spent the entire season near the top of the Western Conference standings (they’re currently 37-12, the third best record in the NBA). They were always great on D, but this year the Grizzlies are actually scoring efficiently, too, 105.3 points per 100 possessions to be exact, the ninth best number in the league. The team, in its 20 years of existence, has never had an offensive rating that high. 

The man behind this improvement is Gasol, who advanced stats show is more involved in the offense this year than ever before. His usage rate (an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor) is a career-high 25, a close to four percent uptick from last season. It’s also tied with Mike Conley for the highest mark on the team. 

On the court, there’s not much the 7-1 center can’t do, and on this night, where he goes for 18 points in 30 minutes, the Nets have no answer for him. Gasol hits all types of shots from all types of spots. Dunks, rainbow fadeaways, baby hooks. Mid-range jumpers, which this year he’s taking more frequently and hitting a higher percentage of. He never holds the ball for long and seemingly always makes the right play.

“He’s like a point guard on the elbow,” says Knicks point guard Jose Calderon, who has played with Gasol on Spain’s National Team. Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio, who also played with Gasol for Spain, uses the same description but adds something else, too: “I always tell Conley that I’m really jealous of him,” Rubio says. “Marc sets the best picks. He’s so big, but also he holds the screen for a long time. He’s not worried about rolling to the basket to get himself more numbers.”

It’s a perfect metaphor for Gasol’s game, an example of a tangible skill he brings to the court, but one that might go unnoticed by most. Against the Nets, Gasol’s back-breaking screens, both on and off the ball, lead to more than 20 Grizzlies points.

In the third quarter, Gasol throws a beautiful no-look, behind-the-head pass to a cutting Tony Allen, one which proves Allen prophetic. Prior to the game he joked with a reporter about how part of his paycheck should be sent to Gasol because of all the points Gasol creates for him.

“That’s Big Spain, man, he’s the best center in the NBA,” Allen added, before explaining how Gasol’s defensive presence allows him to take more gambles on that end of the court, where Gasol is a monster, a nimble beast as smart as he is strong. He can push big men off their spots and swaddle up dribblers as soon as they enter the paint. He can blow up an opposing pick-and-roll by jumping out above the three-point line or falling back into the lane. Watching him man the defense’s back line is like watching a conductor lead an orchestra, only this one can talk.

“He just has amazing defensive awareness,” says former NBA player Shane Battier. “He understands how to use his length to his advantage and is always in the right spot on the court.”

Battier has known Gasol since the latter’s high school days. Battier’s wife taught at Lausanne Collegiate School, the small Memphis private school that Gasol attended. When Gasol was a student there, Battier, along with his then-teammate Pau Gasol, Marc’s brother, watched myriad of Marc’s high school games together.

Back then, though, Marc looked different than he does today. His hair, now cut close, would grow long and floppy; when sweaty it sometimes fell down around his eyes. His face, now long and thin and bearded, was round and smooth. His body, now cut and trim, was, well—it certainly wasn’t that.

marc gasol
NBAE/Getty

“Growing up I was always very skinny but Marc…he was, you know, bigger,” Pau Gasol says while laughing. “He always had a bigger frame. Everyone’s body structure and metabolism is different.” Marc’s apparently caused him to balloon to nearly 350 pounds.

“If you had told me that he’d eventually become an MVP candidate, I would have bet you my entire NBA salary,” Battier says. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a bigger physical transformation.”

***

It didn’t start last year—Gasol has been steadily shedding pounds since his post-high school days in Spain—but a November 2013 injury to his left knee that knocked him out of the lineup for two months did force a change. “I felt like I wasn’t in good shape when I came back,” Gasol says. “But being away from the game, and having a lot free time, that made me rethink a lot of stuff and think about what I wanted to do, what I wanted my goals to be.”

Those, he says, were to be better on the court and feel better off of it. But for that to happen, some habits had to be changed.

The Gasol brothers run a foundation that focuses on teaching kids how to live a healthy lifestyle, and Marc decided to start following the advice he was handing out. He wasn’t looking to go on a diet; he just wanted to overhaul his. The weight he dropped over the summer, estimated to be around 50 pounds, was a result, not a goal.

“The more natural, and the less touched by human beings, the better,” is how Gasol describes his current diet. “We tend to screw things up usually, to commercialize and mass produce products. It’s just about learning about and understanding what you’re putting in your body”

Gasol used to go to McDonald’s all the time—“He loved the golden arches,” says Jason Peters, his coach at Lausanne—but nowadays he barely touches red meat. He grows his own vegetables in the yards of both his Memphis and Barcelona homes. He especially loves tomatoes—“as long as winter isn’t coming” (Gasol is apparently a big Game of Thrones fan)—and likes planting broccoli and cauliflower, too. On team plane rides he gets a special meal. “We’ll all be eating chicken or steak or something,” says Conley, “and Marc will be sitting there eating, like, quinoa and vegetables.”

He also changed up his exercise regimen, adding, according to Peters, distance running and hill training to his routine (neither Gasol, nor anyone connected to him, will share more details). Today, Peters and everyone else who knows Gasol from his high school days barely recognize him. When they turn the TV on they can’t believe their eyes. Gasol is listed at 265 pounds, but his true weight (also not being shared) may be even less.

“He eats very healthy, very balanced and is really strict with it,” says Pau. “He’s been putting in the work for years, trying to get better in every way possible, and now it’s paying off.”

Says Marc, “Being in better physical condition, that allows me to stay aggressive throughout the game.”

Marc then pauses for a second before continuing.  There’s one clarification he wants to add.

“I’m really surprised that everyone is surprised at how well I’m playing. I’m still playing the same way, just taking what the defense gives me and trying not to hesitate.”

***

Back in Brooklyn, the Grizzlies are in good spirits following their 103-92 win. There’s lots of laughter coming from the Barclays Center’s visitor’s locker room shower, and one suspects Gasol is playing a role. He’s known to clown around a bit and has enjoyed pulling off some pranks in his time. Both Calderon and Rubio, when asked if they have any favorite stories about Gasol, answer, “Yeah, but not for print.” But Jon Van Hoozer, an assistant to Peters at Lausanne, doesn’t mind sharing his.

It was Gasol’s senior year of high school, and Van Hoozer’s wife had just given birth to a baby boy who the couple decided to bring to a game. At one point Gasol went over to greet the pair, took the child and held him in his arms. He then turned to Van Hoozer’s wife. “I don’t know about this,” he said. “He’s got Coach Peters’ face.”

marc gasol
NBAE/Getty

After exiting the shower, Gasol dresses quickly and eventually settles into his chair. He sits there wearing black jeans and a baggy light blue t-shirt. It matches his Nike sneakers and has the words ROSHI’S GYM written across the front.

Members of the New York media surround him. They’re here to ask Gasol about his impending free agency (his contract is up after this year). They want to know whether he’ll consider the Knicks, or any other team outside of Memphis, as an option. Gasol looks calm and relaxed. He answers some questions with jokes.

He won’t say much of substance, but it’s hard to imagine him ever playing for a different city or team. Gasol has officially been a member of the Grizzlies for seven years, but he’s been a part of the organization for even longer. When Jerry West was the Grizzlies’ general manager, he sent his son Jonnie to Lausanne. He and Gasol were teammates and remain good friends today.

“Marc just loves Memphis,” says Jonnie West. “It’s a special place to him.”

To Gasol, the city is home. He visits coffee shops in the morning and grocery stores during the day. At night he can be seen in midtown restaurants enjoying some red wine. He’s an ambassador to the St. Judes Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, where he shows up several times a year. There he plays video games with the older kids and hosts tea parties with the younger ones.

“Down here he’s a god,” says Ryan Baum, a longtime friend of Gasol’s.

Gasol answers questions for about 20 minutes before the media session is shut down. In one corner of the locker room sits a folding table with tin pans full of food. Zach Randolph is finishing off what looks to be a plate of ribs. Gasol, though, never even glances in that direction as he rises up from his chair and makes his way toward the door. Instead, he heads right for the team bus. His quinoa and vegetables await.

Yaron Weitzman is an editorial assistant at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.