Pau Gasol may be a hero in his native Spain, but when the Memphis
Grizzlies' rookie forward arrived in the United States at the end
of September, he was just another bewildered 21-year-old alone in
a foreign country. Separated from his family, which had planned
to move to the U.S. with him but had yet to obtain visas, Gasol
spent his first month in a Memphis hotel room, relying on nods
and shrugs to fill in the gaping holes in his English. Not
surprisingly, the only place Gasol felt at home was on the
basketball court. After all, that's why the Grizzlies traded up
to the third pick in this year's draft to take this spindly
7-foot kid with the preposterously long arms: because he's
talented and understands the game.
However, when Gasol joined his new teammates for a pickup run on
his second day in town, even the basketball court felt foreign.
He found the players engaged in some sort of strange full-court,
one-on-one layup drill. They would hurtle down the court with the
ball, regardless of court balance or teammates, and launch crazy
shots. Where was the teamwork, the passing, the cutting, the
offensive motion? Confused, he approached Shane Battier, a fellow
Grizzlies rookie. "He came up to me looking puzzled and said,
'American basketball is sort of different,'" Battier says with a
laugh. "I told him not to worry, that this is how we play pickup
ball in America. Once we got refs and a scoreboard out there, it
would all be different. He looked sort of relieved after that."
That Gasol would feel lost amid the me-first anarchy of an
American pickup game is not surprising, for in that regard he is
typical of most European players, who grow up playing the more
egalitarian, team-oriented game that is prevalent overseas. In
many other respects, though, Gasol represents a new breed of
European player, one who can become the foundation upon which a
franchise is built.
Never before has an NBA team used such a high draft choice to
take a European player or given up so much to get one. The
Grizzlies traded budding star Shareef Abdur-Rahim, a 24-year-old
Olympian who averaged 20.5 points and 9.1 rebounds last season,
to Atlanta to obtain Gasol, yet before last season he wasn't even
a star on his own Spanish club team, FC Barcelona. Only after an
early-season departure by Rony Seikaly, the team's center, did
Gasol--who will play both forward positions for Memphis--get
substantial playing time and a chance to excel. "To be honest,
until last year a lot of NBA scouts didn't even know who he was,"
says Donn Nelson, an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks
and one of the NBA's premier overseas scouts. "Even going into
the draft, a lot of teams didn't know anything about him."
The Grizzlies also got center Lorenzen Wright and guard Brevin
Knight in the deal, but it is upon the progress of Gasol that the
trade will ultimately be judged. "In Pau we saw a player with
extraordinary length [Gasol's wingspan is 7'5"] and a real
basketball presence," says Grizzlies general manager Billy
Knight. "We really think he can be one of the young pillars of
Pillar of the team? Third player in the draft? These sound more
like the accolades bestowed upon an American college star than a
kid from Barcelona, especially considering that until now, only
one Spaniard has played in the NBA, and that was forward Fernando
Martin, who played 24 games for the Portland Trail Blazers in
1986-87. "It's not that the [European] players have changed that
much," says Nelson. "It's that we've changed. After years of guys
coming over, teams are finally beginning to trust these players
and their abilities."
Traditionally, the European player has been either 1) a lumbering
big man like former Portland center Arvydas Sabonis; or 2) a
deadeye shooter like Sacramento Kings forward Peja Stojakovic or
Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki. Gasol, an excellent passer and
athletic finisher (he can dunk from the free throw line), is
neither, and though he has drawn comparisons with Atlanta Hawks
forward Toni Kukoc because of his ball handling and Nowitzki
because of his size, he has also been compared with a certain
bald-headed pogo stick from Minnesota who is Gasol's favorite
player. "Pau reminds me of Kevin Garnett when Kevin came into the
league," says Scott Roth, a Grizzlies assistant who coached
against Gasol in the European Championships this summer. "He's
strong, he's wiry, he's skilled and he's got more of a Garnettish
Pete Babcock, general manager of the Hawks, also hesitates to
compare Gasol with other European players. "He's a much different
type of player than Kukoc," says Babcock, who scouted Gasol in
Barcelona last spring. "I don't know who to compare him with in
the NBA, because he's a 7-footer who can play the perimeter and
handle the ball. I saw one play [in Spain] when he cleared a
defensive rebound, brought the ball up the court, went behind his
back through traffic and then distributed it."
Gasol's introduction to the game came through his parents, Marisa
and Agustin, who both played second-division basketball (the
rough equivalent of mid-level intramural college ball) in Spain.
Starting when he was eight, Pau would accompany Agustin, a 6'3"
guard, to a gym in the upper-middle-class Barcelona suburb where
the family lived. Although always tall for his age, Pau played
point guard until he was 13, and even after that, coaches
encouraged him to hone his perimeter skills.
By the time he was 15, Pau was already 6'7" and playing on the FC
Barcelona junior team, but he didn't consider basketball to be
more than a diversion. His career plan was to follow in the path
of his parents--Agustin is a nursing administrator and Marisa a
general practitioner--and go into medicine. At 18 Gasol enrolled
in medical school at the University of Barcelona (Spanish
students can go straight from high school to med school), but
within a year the dueling demands of hoops and labs became too
much. Encouraged by the confidence of his coaches, he dropped out
to pursue basketball full time.
Gasol was a member of the national team that shocked the U.S. in
the 1999 junior world championships, but it was only last year
that he finally came into his own. "His progress was
spectacular," says Antonio Maceiras, the general manager of FC
Barcelona. "He became a starter and then in a month became the
star of the team." Last March, Gasol led Barcelona to a victory
over rival Real Madrid in the King's Cup finals, the tournament
involving the league's top eight teams. Women loved him, the
media swarmed him, and scouts began inventing new superlatives.
"The expectations for him are very big over here," says Maceiras.
Gasol has similarly grand expectations. Though polite and
good-natured in conversation, his halting English belies a quiet
confidence. There are no maybes or hopefullys, but
straightforward proclamations. "That's why I came here, to be one
of the best players in the league," he said a few weeks ago while
showing a visitor his collection of CDs, which includes
everything from Ja Rule to Jay-Z to Ricky Martin. When asked
about the last game of the King's Cup finals, in which he scored
21 points, Gasol says, "I told my team, 'Give me the ball, and
I'll do the rest.'" Did his coach approve of such forwardness?
"Yeah," Gasol says, looking up from his CDs, slightly confused.
"Why wouldn't he?"
Such confidence is rare in European players. Nelson says early
imports like Petrovic and Golden State Warriors guard Sarunas
Marciulonis had to overcome the preconceptions of refs, coaches
and other players when they came into the league a decade ago. "I
found myself talking to a lot of those guys, telling them to hang
in there," says Nelson. "It was very frustrating for them, and
many would turn inward and blame themselves."
Even Kukoc, heralded as Europe's answer to Michael Jordan,
wrestled for many years with the idea of playing in the U.S. and
didn't come over until he was 25. When Nowitzki entered the
league in 1997, he was tentative and deferential. "Dirk was
always humble," says Roth, who was a coach in Dallas at the time.
"He was always saying, 'I don't know, I'm not sure, I don't know
what will happen.' Pau is very confident."
This was especially apparent, Roth says, on one play during this
summer's European Championships in Turkey, in which Gasol
averaged 17.5 points and 9.8 rebounds and led Spain to the bronze
medal. In the first half of a game against Germany, a team that
featured not only Nowitzki but also 7'6" Mavericks center Shawn
Bradley, Pau drove baseline, cradled the ball and tried to
windmill it over Bradley. "Shawn blocked it, but that didn't
phase Gasol," says Roth. "About four or five minutes later he
came down the lane and dunked on Dirk in a crowd and got fouled.
After that, he had a little swagger to him, not cocky, but like,
'I got that one.'"
The most convincing proof of Gasol's confidence, however, is the
$2.2 million he paid to buy out the last year of his contract
with FC Barcelona so that he could sign a three-year, $7.85
million deal with Memphis in September. Meanwhile, Gasol is
trying to adjust to his new life in the U.S. One of the first
things he did was purchase the two obligatory accessories of the
American basketball star: a PlayStation 2 and a mammoth silver
SUV straight out of a P. Diddy video. Battier has helped Gasol
make the transition by taking him under his wing, treating him to
his first American fillet at a Memphis steak house ("I liked!"
Gasol says) and cracking him up with his corny Spanish accent.
Gasol has endeared himself to his Grizzlies teammates with his
enthusiasm. He also has shown a playful side, such as when he
took a camera from a Spanish reporter during training camp and
began taking pictures of the media, cooing and exhorting them
like a fashion photographer. In the middle of October, Gasol's
parents and two younger brothers finally arrived in Memphis, and
Gasol is looking for a house in Memphis, where his 16-year-old
brother, Marc, the middle child of the three Gasol brothers and a
talented 6'10" center, will play for White Station, a top high
school basketball power in the state.
On the court Gasol will no doubt struggle at times this season.
At 227 pounds, he will get pushed around, and it is imperative
that he bulk up his grasshopper frame, something he claims he's
prepared to do. ("I love to lift weights," he says, somewhat
unconvincingly.) He also must address the two biggest weaknesses
in his game: his jump shot, which is merely serviceable, and his
one-on-one defense. (He may get some help from the new
Ultimately, though, all involved understand it will take at least
two years before it can be determined whether this wiry Spaniard
is the shape of things to come. In the meantime, listening to
Jay-Z and owning a PlayStation and a souped-up SUV isn't enough.
As Gasol will soon learn, if you really want to be an NBA star,
one of the first rites of initiation is actually throwing one
down over Shawn Bradley.
OVERALL--TO TAKE A EUROPEAN PLAYER
BUY OUT HIS FC BARCELONA CONTRACT