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Marc and Pau Gasol thrive in NBA without letting basketball consume their lives
5:20 | NBA
Marc and Pau Gasol thrive in NBA without letting basketball consume their lives
Tuesday January 19th, 2016

Lightning struck twice at a small home in the east of Spain. The first bolt crackled in the curiosity of a basketball natural—a tall, thin boy who would later become a pioneer for his country and one of the very best in the history of his profession. The second echoed in the boom of his brother, a striking talent who would someday chart his own course through the ranks of the best basketball leagues on the planet. They were born Pau and Marc Gasol, and long before they had won NBA titles, world championships, and top individual honors, they improbably sprouted as two branches of the same family tree.

“Of all the millions of kids that play this game worldwide and dream of playing a high level, pursue a basketball career, and fantasize about the NBA, this family produced the two best big men from one family in the world,” Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace said. “Not in Spain. Not in the city of Memphis. In the world.”

The very fact that the Gasols made it to the NBA, much less thrived in it, is a triumph over probability. Both won the genetic lottery, making them mobile, coordinated seven-footers. What the Gasols share, however, goes well beyond blood; Pau and Marc are two elite athletes who dedicated themselves to a sport without ever letting their lives be consumed by it. Their basketball prosperity, along with their brotherhood, is distinguished by their perspective. 

Within it, the Gasols find peace. They find the means to separate and prioritize what matters most, even as they both navigate the world on their own terms. A shared sensibility works as a bridge between two brothers who can’t help but distinguish themselves.

“It's always the case where it's like the older sibling is the more poised, responsible, less adventurous one, you know what I mean?” Kobe Bryant said. “If they're standing there on a cliff and they're getting ready to bungee jump, Pau might ask how the bungee jump works. ’Is it completely safe?’ And Marc, being the younger one, would just jump.”

Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images

***

When the schedules of Pau’s Bulls and Marc’s Grizzlies align, the two always meet for a meal. In Memphis, Marc—now married and with a young daughter—hosts Pau at his home. In Chicago (as with Los Angeles before), Pau takes his brother out for sushi. Sunda, a trendy Asian fusion spot in River North, is a Gasol favorite, though on their latest meeting they dined at one of Pau’s more recent discoveries. Both explore a menu with an open mind—an approach perhaps best rewarded by Japanese cuisine.

As the courses flow, the Gasols discuss their health, their lives, and their foundation. Their rhythm feels easy and lived-in. Noticeably absent from their conversations, however, is the sport they have in common. For two professionals who spend an incredible amount of their time preparing for, learning about, and actually playing basketball, Pau and Marc devote precious little space to the game when they have an opportunity to reconnect. 

“For as much respect and love as we have for this game, there are other things things in our lives that are important to us, too,” Marc said. “We both understand that life is much bigger than basketball.”

The most unfortunate side effect of Michael Jordan’s ascendance to global stardom is the sporting world’s ongoing fascination with the single-minded. We lionize madmen; those held up as champions of sport are the individuals who dedicate themselves to it obsessively. “Basketball junkie” is made to be a positive and players who express off-court interests are chided for trying to lead a fuller life. Track a tweet from any NBA player regarding how they spent an off-day and you’ll find dense responses from the world over telling them to get back in the gym. Somewhere along the way, the idea of being a professional athlete was misconstrued as foregoing any kind of normal, healthy life.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

For the Gasols, the game has its place. Both found fame in skill—the kind that can only be earned through dedicated practice. Their playing style is informed by understanding basketball on a cerebral level, which wouldn’t be possible at all if Pau and Marc weren’t committed to thinking the game. Nevertheless, both see basketball for its boundaries. They’ll talk shop if one or the other has something specific they’re intent to express. Otherwise, the Gasols have more important matters to attend to: the latest with Marc’s daughter or a book that one brother particularly enjoyed. 

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There’s something to be said, too, about the way those lines act as a courtesy. Both Pau and Marc, for all their wide-ranging interests, hate to lose. Yet when they’re able to meet during the regular season, one brother just lost to the other or soon will. There’s no real trash talk between them—just an understanding that they’ll have 48 minutes to battle one another on the floor and hours to enjoy beautiful food while discussing everything else.

“When the game is over, one is going to be in a better mood than the other,” Pau said. “But at the end of the day, we still love each other and we're still brothers. We still have a great respect and admiration for each other. Life goes on.”

Members of the Spanish national team marvel at the way the Gasols are able to compartmentalize the hyper-competitive parts of themselves. Their one-on-one games are the stuff of legend. Players, coaches, managers, and even members of the Spanish Basketball Federation committee linger at the end of practice to watch the two brothers, also two of their team leaders, bump and provoke one another as only siblings can. There is no fury quite like that of family members locked in competition; growing up together arms each Gasol with the knowledge of what buttons to push and what moves to plan for. They shove. They elbow. They yell back and forth over foul calls. They claw for every point, resolved never to surrender an inch. One-on-one, as the Gasols play it, is a feisty and prideful game.

William West/Getty Images

Thunder big man Serge Ibaka, who joined the Spanish national team in 2011, tried to jump into the Gasols’ post-practice melee. He lasted two days before bowing out. The boil of the matchup is so intense that Wolves guard Ricky Rubio, after his first practice with the national team, sincerely thought Pau and Marc would come to blows and dispense with the game altogether. Then, just as it appeared the Gasols’ tempers might flare further, they hit game point. Within minutes they were hugging, laughing, and off to dinner. Rubio called his own brother in disbelief. As competitive as their own one-on-one games had been, they were nothing like this. 

“I’ve never seen two dudes fight that much and then, after all of that, hug each other and be brothers,” Rubio said. By this point, the Gasols have mastered that discord. Sometimes they will be teammates. Most times they will be opponents. In all cases they are Pau and Marc, basketball peers whose fire is matched equally in admiration. All that they’ve accomplished together in international play—and all that they might in the NBA, were they ever to end up on the same team—draws from both sides of that dynamic.

“You enjoy competing at the highest level with each other,” Marc said. “We don't make excuses. We just go out there and try to do the best we can. We challenge each other and push each other every day. That's part of the secret. When it comes to competition, we're ready because every day in practice, we'll push each other.”

***

The Gasols, in a sense, even play like brothers. There’s a familial likeness in the way both shake defenders on the low block, even if Marc’s style is more bludgeoning and Pau’s more technical. Both can play the high post as well as the low, interlocking their complementary talents as scorers and playmakers. Marc, when at his best, is a terrific team defender who anchors the middle in a way his brother can’t. Pau, when playing alongside his brother, assumes the kind of dominant offensive role that his brother often won’t. These aren’t opposites so much as natural counterbalances, joined by an overlapping view of how basketball should be played.

“We see and approach to the game, I think, the same way,” Pau said.

Their deviations come as translations of their distinct personalities. Both Gasols are clever, discerning players, though one gets the sense from their respective styles that they arrive at similar ends through different means. “I would say that maybe Pau is more of a scientist and Marc is more of an artist,” said Sergio Scariolo, coach of the Spanish national team. There’s something to that idea. Pau, a dedicated student who attended medical school during his first professional season in Spain, navigates the game as a collection of dependent variables.

“Pau sees the game many, many layers ahead,” Kobe said. “As a result, he's extremely smart. Aside from the skills and the fundamentals that he has—being able to handle the ball, pass the ball, shoot the ball, great touch with his left, great touch with his right, plays back-to-the-basket, front-to-the-basket—he's obviously extremely versatile. But I think intellectually is what really puts him a step above. So it's not just the moves that he makes but it's also the things that he does on the court that set up one, two, three moves ahead.”

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Marc, while no less cerebral, works by feel. His Defensive Player of the Year campaign in 2013 was a showcase in instinctive positioning, managed one half-step at a time as he tracked an opponent’s possession. Gasol consistently stationed himself just where he needed to be due to an understanding of how his teammates operated. Working with that knowledge made Gasol’s defense almost predictive; though not especially quick, Marc would—and will still, when Memphis’s defense is in tune—thwart a scoring opportunity by guessing ahead of the play. Most possessions have little tells for those perceptive enough to identify them. Marc very much is, though he and the Grizzlies have had trouble syncing up to meet their typical defensive standards this season.

His offensive game benefits from the same situational literacy. Read-and-react systems need players like Marc, who in an instant can redirect a possession to more productive ends. The Spanish national team found particular use for those talents as an antidote to zone defense; Gasol’s ability to understand and manipulate the adaptive spacing a zone affords made him a valuable on-the-fly facilitator.

“One of the most-used sets in our system against the zone is: Give the ball to Marc,” Scariolo said. “See where Marc is—if he's in the low post, if he's in the short corner, if he's in the high post—hit him and then adjust from then on.” 

Javier Soriano/Getty Images

The life in an artist’s work, though, lies in its emotion. When Pau yells in a game, it serves largely to alert an official to contact. Any other eruption dissipates as quickly as it came. “If he has a moment of anger or frustration out on the court,” Kobe said, “he's quickly able to center himself and compose himself immediately.” Marc’s temper runs hotter. Grizzlies guard Mike Conley smirked at the thought of how the Grizzlies sometimes give Gasol a hard time in practice, stoking the fire until it erupts. A ball might be flung across the gym or punted up into the stands. In all things, Marc wears his heart on his sleeve.

“If he's mad,” Rubio said, “he'll let you know.”

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Pau sees the same passion in his brother but believes age and experience have taught him to better control it. Time mellows all. Of course, that doesn’t stop Pau from needling Marc in much the same way when the brothers are locked into some meaningless competition or another, just as it won’t stop Pau and Marc both from taking the verbal jabs at their younger brother, Adria, when the three play any kind of game at all. “Anything we do, I think, turns quickly into competition,” Marc said. “Anything. You name it—even the least competitive thing you can imagine. If there's a winner and loser, it's going to turn into a competition.”

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​​

Yet when the games matter, the talk stops. The two barely speak from opening tip to final buzzer of an NBA game, save for some light chatter during a dead ball here or there. This is the rhythm the Gasols come to naturally. There was never a discussion governing how much or how little they would talk on the floor because part of valuing a relationship lies in understanding what might stress it. Pau and Marc know how seriously the other takes even the smallest of competitions. From that came the need to let their professional bouts stand apart. 

“We both respect each other’s space,” Marc said. 

There was a time when those games between the Grizzlies and the Lakers, Pau’s former team, brought out the nerves in both brothers (“butterflies,” as Marc has called them)—the closest that athletes of this caliber can come to feeling the power of a particular moment. It was a fleeting, visceral sensation. These days, when the Grizzlies meet the Bulls, the Gasols find a place in the game for appreciation. This opportunity is rare, and as Pau, 35, and Marc, 30, have gotten older, they’ve learned to hold on to those moments that most athletes—and most brothers—will never have. For so few will the personal and professional ever intersect at this magnitude. The Gasols encounter it a handful of times every year. They hope, someday, for a seven-game series.

***

Pau Gasol is the kind of person who will intentionally kick his ball over to a group of kids during pregame warmups just to wander over and say hello. He is the kind to make his own trips to visit sick children at local hospitals in his time off—trips that the Bulls’ PR team only learns of when a photo or two emerges online. He is the sort to travel to the Middle East and Africa as an ambassador for UNICEF. There will always be criticisms of Pau’s game. Some are fairly deserved. Yet those who come into contact with Pau speak of him glowingly. They cherish his loyalty. They admire his curiosity. But most of all, they reiterate how much he genuinely cares about other human beings. 

“He's one of those people where if you're around, you can feel the warmth, the goodness in him,” said Jerry West, who knows Pau well from his time as general manager of the Grizzlies. “You can. He's a soft-spoken person. Very gentle and a real gentleman. He doesn't have an edge to him. If you're around him, you can't help but like him.” 

Marc describes Pau as active, loving, and simple. Pau describes Marc as peaceful and low-key. By nature, Marc tends to deflect the spotlight; he is quick to redirect praise to those around him and makes a point to live below the constant noise that surrounds the NBA. He has virtually no social media presence. Even the free agency that landed him a max contract to stay in Memphis for five years came and went almost silently. To hear Conley discuss his teammate, Marc comes across as an NBA riff on Henry David Thoreau—perfectly content to retreat to “a lake house away from the world with no electronics at all.” Marc, whom Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger calls “pure-hearted,” wishes to live deliberately.

He’s done so since 2006, when an unexpected opportunity with the Spanish national team—brought on by an injury to Fran Vazquez—jump-started his basketball career. It was then that Marc’s physical transformation began in earnest. Marc’s weight gain while attending high school in Memphis is well-chronicled and well-photographed; West, whose son Jonnie played basketball with Marc at Lausanne, said that their typical food runs looked as if they had ransacked a McDonalds. Some estimates put his high school weight in the mid-300s. It wasn’t until 2006 that Gasol began to approach his body with a professional ethic. Doors have opened for him ever since.

Marc parlayed his opportunity with the national team into a contract with Akasvayu Girona (Catalonia) that fall, and was selected with the 48th pick of the NBA draft the following summer by the Los Angeles Lakers. Marc elected to stay in Spain for the 2007–2008 season, during which his draft rights were traded in the Lakers’ deal to acquire Pau. The fates of the Gasols were bound.

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Pau, though, had an even deeper role to play in the course of events that would eventually bring Marc to Memphis. Wallace, in his first year as the Grizzlies' general manager, traded away Pau for a collection of pieces that could guarantee little immediate value. Marc was the one piece that offered hope and reason for excitement…provided that Wallace could convince him to return to Memphis after finding professional success in Spain.

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/Getty Images

The push began with Marc’s parents, Agusti and Marisa, who had left their country and moved their family to Memphis after Pau was drafted in 2001. Wallace, in his efforts to do right by the franchise, had traded their eldest son halfway across the country. The next week he met them at a restaurant across the street from the FedEx Forum to explain why that trade was needed and, in the same breath, to make his pitch as to why the Grizzlies would be the perfect place for Marc to begin his NBA career.

“I had a lot of selling to do,” Wallace said.

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A month later, Wallace traveled to Girona to meet with Marc and his parents, both. At the same time, Wallace was negotiating with his team’s owner, the late Michael Heisley, on a potential salary offer for the younger Gasol. The currency imbalance between the dollar and the euro in 2008 mitigated any commanding financial advantage Memphis would have held over powerhouse clubs like F.C. Barcelona. Wallace, then, had to convince Heisley of the value in giving the No. 48 pick in the draft a three-year deal worth more than $10 million. Deliberation dragged on both sides and within 48 hours of Gasol’s decision deadline, Heisley remained unconvinced. So he called Pau.

The elder Gasol’s message was simple and direct: Mr. Heisley, my brother could be better than I am. Memphis made its move, and the history of the Grizzlies was re-written in that moment.

“I don't know that we would've gotten this deal done if he had not gotten that assurance from Pau,” Wallace said.

***

Marc grew up in the city where his older brother became a star and returned there seeking stardom of his own. That parallel structure lends itself to a particular narrative—one in which Pau’s presence and legacy are treated as some burden to be overcome. Framing the Gasol story in that way misunderstands them completely. Brotherhood, as an identity, needn’t be adversarial. Two brothers can find their way forward without treating their relationship as some sort of trial. Marc came into his own as a player by using Pau as an influence and a sounding board. There’s nothing in their dynamic for him to grow out of, nothing in Pau’s record that Marc should feel the need to conquer. 

“People say, ’Well, you're not Pau's little brother anymore.’” Marc noted. “I’m always going to be Pau's younger brother and Adria's older brother. Twenty years from now, when we're not talked about as much, we're still going to be brothers. It's just part of your life.”

The Gasols of 20 years from now might not even be involved in basketball in any kind of official capacity; if any NBA stars could play at a high level only to step away from the game completely, it would be two brothers with worldly interests, healthcare initiatives of their own, and full lives beyond the hardwood. Their fascination with the game they love may never die. Time, though, only tends to broaden the horizons of men this curious, filling their days with balance and their meals together with boundless conversation.

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