Excited to stay with Lakers, Pau Gasol leads Spain past Russia
LONDON -- The pressures of the two basketball worlds were squeezing Pau Gasol on Thursday. Despite helping the Lakers win two NBA championships in 2009 and 2010, he heard that Los Angeles might package him into a complicated trade for All-Star center Dwight Howard. At the same time, Gasol hoped to lead Spain to the gold-medal final for the second straight Olympics.
Had any basketball star ever been faced with this parallel and dueling set of circumstances?
"It's a lot going on," Gasol said Friday night, at the end of his long 24 hours. "But I'm excited by how things are looking."
Gasol found out that he was not traded -- that, in fact, he was retained by the Lakers to form the most talented roster of his career. When the NBA season begins, he will play alongside Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Howard, who came to the Lakers via a blockbuster four-team deal in which the franchise gave up Andrew Bynum. A short time later, Gasol generated 16 points and 12 rebounds to launch a comeback 67-59 victory over Russia in the Olympic semifinal Friday.
The easiest statement to make about the evolution of basketball since the debut of the Dream Team in 1992 is that the world is evolving, even as it is shrinking. Gasol has been among the leaders of this peculiar growth since he was named NBA Rookie of the Year in 2001-02. The rewards have been enormous, but so too have been the responsibilities. Spain has grown to depend on him to lead its national team every summer. Gasol helped the Spanish capture the gold medal at the 2006 World Championship and the silver medal at the last Olympics in Beijing. The Lakers have also leaned on him heavily since his 2008 acquisition from the Grizzlies, a pickup which led to three consecutive NBA Finals trips.
Gasol has grown accustomed to the year-round pressures that come with straddling the two worlds of the NBA and FIBA. Perhaps those experiences helped him prevail on Friday.
He said he was stretching before the game when he was approached by a reporter from NBC. "Well, Craig Sager came to me before the game, chasing me," said Gasol. "He was telling me that [the trade for Howard] was official. He wanted to get some thoughts while I'm stretching before the Olympic semifinal. And I tell him, 'Look, I'm trying to focus here.' So I had to give him a little something so that he could go away and allow me to stretch."
For the last two years, Gasol had heard rumors of his impending trade from the Lakers, including the news that he was being shipped to the Rockets in a deal for Chris Paul last December, a trade that never materialized. Gasol spoke Thursday night with his Lakers teammate, Bryant, who also happens to play for the U.S., Spain's biggest rival in these Olympics. "I talked to Kobe, he knew more things than I did," said Gasol. "And it was relieving to talk to him because he gave me good insight."
After learning that the Lakers were going to be able to acquire Howard without dealing him, Gasol was able to focus with his Spanish teammates, to whom he refers as family -- a reference that goes beyond the presence of his younger brother, Marc, as Spain's starting center. Marc Gasol, who has been dealing with a shoulder injury throughout the summer, was off to a terrible start -- 1-for-6 shooting with three turnovers -- as Spain trailed by as many as 13 points in the second quarter, and 31-20 at the half. But Marc followed his brother's example to make big plays down the stretch. The Russians also suffered from a quadriceps injury to Andrei Kirilenko, who would finish 2-for-12 from the field. "He took a shot and wanted to play," said Russian coach David Blatt. "Obviously it had a big impact on him."
As the first half ended, Pau Gasol began to assert himself with a kind of global authority. He controlled the backboard and settled his team down by earning free throws around the basket. Spain tried to make a run in the third quarter when Pau drilled a catch-and-shoot three and then slammed down a put-back to slash the Russian lead to 44-43. By establishing himself in the post, he was able to kick the ball out to Jose Calderon (14 points) for a three to draw even at 46-46 entering the final quarter.
The Spanish have dealt with a variety of injuries throughout the tournament, and, at times, they've looked as if they were pacing themselves in preparation for a final rematch with the U.S., which beat them four years ago in Beijing. Strong second-half defensive showings enabled them to recover from deficits against France in the quarterfinal and Russia on Friday.
"It has been a very complicated road. We've had a lot of hurdles this time," said Gasol. "We are so fortunate that we have our second chance."
As focused as he was on the opportunity that he and his countrymen had earned in London, Gasol also thought about the teammates he had lost -- and gained -- 5,000 miles away. "I am kind of bittersweet because Andrew [Bynum] leaves and he is a good friend and I have great respect for Andrew," said Gasol. "I'm very excited about the team that we have now and our chances, and I'm very looking forward just to get it started and to be together and to start from day one. It's a lot of emotions these days -- playing in the Olympics and this moment with my team, and then obviously exciting news from back home, back in L.A."
So it is for the star of the new basketball world: Everywhere he goes feels like home.