A philanthropic, opera-loving, multilingual former medical school student, Lakers power forward Pau Gasol has a game that is as refined and varied as his tastes
This is an article from the March 29, 2010 issue
Pau Gasol walked out of class on Nov. 8, 1991, not sure where he was headed. It was recess at Escola Llor, the private school he attended in suburban Barcelona, and students were starting a soccer match. Gasol wandered the perimeter of the field as if in slow motion, neither playing nor watching, enveloped in a fog that was emanating from a foreign metropolis 6,000 miles to the west. He tried to comprehend the words and letters he had just heard in class: Magic Johnson and HIV. "I was deep in thought," Gasol says. "I was trying to figure out what it meant and what I should do. It was one of those moments that sticks in your mind and stays there your whole life."
For many of today's athletes, too young to have seen a president assassinated or remember a space shuttle falling from the sky, it was the first such moment. When the fog finally lifted, Gasol came to a conclusion about his future. He did not decide then that he would move to Los Angeles and play for the Lakers and lead them to a NBA championship.
He decided that he would become a doctor and try to cure AIDS. He was 11.
Making the NBA, and especially the league's upper reaches, is for the single-minded. The best players are often identified by the time they hit puberty, then hermetically sealed in AAU programs and club teams, ushered from hotel to gym and back to hotel. Any pursuit outside basketball is deemed a distraction, frivolous and ultimately pointless.
Gasol is unique in that he has become one of the most skilled post players in the world without ever retreating inside the basketball bubble. His name is pronounced pow, which sounds ideal for a power forward. But he was actually named after the hospital in which he was born, Hospital de Sant Pau, as well as the renowned Catalan cellist, Pau Casals. At 13 Gasol could play Tchaikovsky on the piano, and at 18, as his American peers plotted premature jumps to the NBA, he enrolled in medical school at the University of Barcelona, where he cut open cadavers and dreamed of a career in a lab.
Even later, after he quit med school, grew to 7 feet, became the No. 3 pick in the 2001 draft and was named the Rookie of the Year with the Grizzlies, his coach, Hubie Brown, asked him what he planned to do after basketball. "I'll be a doctor," Gasol said. Now that he is 29, a linchpin of the reigning champion Lakers and a three-time All-Star, he realizes obtaining an M.D. is out. But his education never ends. He teaches himself Italian and French, plays the works of French composers on his keyboard and kicks back with 1,000-page historical novels. Playing in the NBA has also made him fluent in trash talk, but as he said after a game last month against the chatty Nuggets, "I don't listen to things that don't make sense."
He has chosen cultural immersion over isolation. In L.A. he has been to concerts at the El Rey, the Orpheum and Largo; musicals at the Pantages; and operas at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, after which he reviews the performance backstage with tenor, friend and countryman Plàcido Domingo. Gasol prefers to watch documentaries and independent movies. He attends matches featuring another friend and countryman, Rafael Nadal. Gasol lives in Redondo Beach, across the street from the shoreline, where he takes in the sunset when he feels his mind getting too crowded. "I like beautiful things," he says, which is why he fell for basketball in the first place, at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, when the Magic-led Dream Team was in his hometown, giving its hoops recitals at Palau Sant Jordi.
Gasol flashed back to those halcyon days earlier this month, from behind the wheel of his black Porsche Cayenne, tinted windows rolled down, famous tangle of brown curls visible to the passengers outside. He was navigating L.A. surface streets at rush hour, an art in itself, on his way to Children's Hospital in Hollywood. The one-hour hospital visit is a standard stop for athletes, but Gasol contributes more than photo ops and autographs. At Children's Hospital he met with doctors in a conference room, quizzing them about their treatment of patients with scoliosis, asking how they ensure that their procedures do not stunt lung development. "We all looked at each other like, How does he know this stuff?" says Dr. David Skaggs, chief of orthopedic surgery. Next month Gasol is scheduled to sit in on a spinal surgery with Skaggs, dressed in scrubs. "We talk to him now almost like he is a surgical colleague," Skaggs says.
The goals Gasol set when he was 11 have obviously been revised but not forgotten. He has an official partnership with Children's Hospital and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, and he is a Spanish ambassador to UNICEF, specializing in AIDS among children, a position that has taken him to South Africa and Angola. "I wasn't able to become a doctor like I planned," Gasol says. "So I try to make an impact in other ways."
The Lakers have discovered that Gasol's intellectual curiosity is not a distraction at all but in fact a key to one title and perhaps more. The triangle offense requires a big man with a brain because, when he catches the ball in the post, he has myriad options to choose from. "He's either the hub or the hole," says Los Angeles assistant coach Jim Cleamons. Gasol can find Kobe Bryant cutting across the lane, kick the ball out to point guard Derek Fisher at the three-point line or lob it down to center Andrew Bynum on the block. He can also keep it, which opens up another wide array of possibilities, given that Gasol can drive left as well as right and finish with either hand. Get in his jersey, and he beats you with a blinding first step. Give him space, and he drains a 15-foot jumper. Double-team him, and he finds the open man, like a European Magic Johnson. According to Cleamons, Gasol picked up the triangle faster than anybody since Scott Williams, who joined the Bulls 20 years ago, and his decision-making helped it hum. "There is a rhythm to it, a poetry," Cleamons says. "It's like a good movie or a nice book. It's domination with mind as much as body."
Gasol has been dissecting defenses with a surgeon's touch since he arrived in Memphis in 2001. The Grizzlies did not know what to make of the 21-year-old who lived with his parents in the suburbs, listened to classical music in the car and was "as likely to talk about Pavarotti as basketball," says then Memphis assistant Scott Roth, now with the Warriors. Pau's mother, Marisa, was a doctor in Spain. His father, Agusti, was a nurse administrator. But they bought a house in Germantown and put their younger sons, Marc and Adrià, into Lausanne Collegiate School, whose enrollment includes students from 40 countries speaking 20 languages. Marc played center on the basketball team, but he weighed 330 pounds, earning the nickname Big Burrito. When he played one-on-one with Pau after Grizzlies practices, he was gassed.
While Marc needed to slim down, Pau had to bulk up. Built like a willow tree, he could not always hold his position in the post, but he learned sets and plays so well that he knew where everybody was at all times. "You know who I coached in Milwaukee like that?" says Brown, now an ESPN analyst. "Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar." By Gasol's second season the only power forwards who could guard him straight up were Kevin Garnett and Karl Malone. Gasol took the Grizzlies to the playoffs three times but never won a postseason game, and midway through 2006--07 he asked to be traded. At the end of that season a frustrated star in Los Angeles asked to be traded as well. They were already linked.
On Feb. 1, 2008, the Lakers were 28--16, but they had not won a playoff series in four years, Bynum was out with an injured left knee and, though he had backed off his summer trade demand, Kobe was near his boiling point. "They had to do something," Bryant says. "They couldn't just sit there anymore. I was pushing them because I felt like I was playing with my hands behind my back. I had no guns. I was going to war with nothing." Bryant was ripped for being petulant and spoiled, but he was prodding his bosses the same way he would his teammates, urging them to find a way. General manager Mitch Kupchak packaged Kwame Brown's $9 million expiring contract with two first-round picks, backup point guard Javaris Crittenton and Aaron McKie, who had to be lured out of his job as a 76ers assistant so the salaries would match. Kupchak also shipped to Memphis an overweight center notable only because of his last name: Gasol.
The morning after the deal the Lakers met in the lobby of their Toronto hotel to catch a bus, and trainer Chip Schaefer rubbed his eyes. "I had the strangest dream last night," he said. "I dreamt we traded Kwame Brown for Pau Gasol." As the Lakers came to grips with their good fortune, Gasol flew from Memphis to L.A., where he took an 8 a.m. physical at the team's training facility in El Segundo. There to welcome him was a beaming Magic Johnson. "Now let's go get the championship," Johnson said.
At week's end the Lakers had gone 144--44 (.765) since the trade, winning six playoff series and reaching two Finals. They had the best record in the Western Conference this season (52--18), and Gasol was averaging 17.5 points and 11.1 rebounds while deferring to Bryant in the closing minutes. "This organization has had some pretty significant moves," Kupchak says. "There was Jerry West [acquiring] Shaq and Kobe. There was Bill Sharman drafting Magic and James Worthy. Before that there was the trade to get Wilt Chamberlain. I don't know where this ranks, but when we look back 10 years from now, hopefully it's up there."
The Grizzlies were the marks, the suckers, plundered in the same way the Pirates are when they try to do business with the Red Sox. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich went so far as to suggest that the NBA needed a "trade committee" to keep teams like Memphis from sabotaging themselves and upsetting the balance of power. "We got nailed by a lot of prominent people," Grizzlies G.M. Chris Wallace says. "But the one thing I kept asking my staff the whole time was, 'I wonder how many of them have actually taken the time to watch the tape of Marc Gasol.'"
After Marc graduated from Lausanne in 2003, his parents urged him to attend college in the U.S., and he met with coaches from Ole Miss and Memphis. But he needed to reshape his body, and he could not do that from a classroom. So he turned pro, headed home to Barcelona, and the pounds began to melt away. The Lakers drafted him in the second round in '07, projecting him as a backup.
Memphis needed more. Marc emerged as a starter last season, promising but still pudgy, slogging his way through back-to-backs. When he returned to Barcelona in April, Grizzlies strength and conditioning coach Jason Biles shipped him massive cardboard boxes jammed with weights, exercise balls and weighted vests. Marc wore those vests as he jogged four miles up and down the Collserola Mountains overlooking Barcelona. When Biles crossed the Atlantic in the summer to check on Marc's progress, Marc met him at the airport. "I honestly didn't recognize him," Biles said. "I thought it was Pau."
Besides their length and scruff, they do not have much in common. Pau glides around opponents; Marc charges through them. Pau goes to art house theaters; Marc goes fishing. Pau debates; Marc scraps. "They have totally different mentalities," says Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins. Yet Marc talks to Pau at least every other day and lives in Pau's old condo in downtown Memphis. "Little brothers have to go their own way sometimes," Marc says. "But Pau has always been the best example for me to follow."
The Grizzlies have morphed from 60-game losers to playoff contenders, not in spite of the trade—the only time in league history that one brother was traded for another—but because of it. "Pau has been like an NBA organ donor for us," says Wallace, who turned the draft picks and cap space and other spare parts from Los Angeles into nine players on the current roster. Marc is down to 265 pounds and is averaging 14.8 points and 9.5 rebounds while shooting 58.3%, with an undefendable '80s skyhook and a first step that would make Pau proud. In a game against the Knicks this month Marc wheeled around David Lee, raced to the rim and rose for a reverse dunk, a demonstration of quickness and athleticism that was unthinkable more than six months ago.
Marisa and Agusti cheered that play from section 103 at the FedEx Forum, where they have spent more time than they ever imagined. After Pau was traded, his parents planned to follow him to Los Angeles, and Agusti secured a job there at a health-care company. Even though the Grizzlies had obtained Marc's rights, he was a free agent and expected to re-sign with his Spanish team, Akasvayu Girona, where he was the ACB League MVP.
When Marc returned to Memphis instead, the Gasols decided to stay, having developed a taste for barbecue and Beale Street. "I know it's different than where we're from," Agusti said, "but we love it here." The Gasols still live in the same house in Germantown. Agusti works online for Grifols, the health-care company that hired him in L.A. Marisa volunteers at St. Jude. Adrià is a sophomore on the basketball team at Lausanne, already measuring 6'8". "He's built like Pau," says Lausanne head coach Kenneth White, "with a mean streak like Marc." Adrià's skills have not yet caught up to his size, and it is premature to call him a prospect. But the Gasol boys are late bloomers.
Pau chose medical school, not because he didn't like basketball but because he truly showed more potential as a doctor. He played only two games for FC Barcelona in 1998--99 and rejoiced when he got to throw an inbounds pass. The next year he was forced to drop out of med school because of road trips, but he still sat on the bench and scored just 4.2 points per game. "He wasn't strong enough," says coach Aito Garcia Reneses. In 2000 Barcelona signed former Heat center Rony Seikaly to start at power forward, but he clashed with Reneses and left the team during a road trip to London early in the season. Gasol was promptly handed Seikaly's spot, and six months later he was the highest-drafted European player of all time. "Everybody in Europe was asking me, 'How is this possible?'" Reneses said. "'How did we not see this coming?'"
Gasol had to grow into his body, and when he did, his quickness and range made him a mismatch for every power forward he faced. More than 40 NBA scouts attended the annual Copa Del Rey tournament in 2001, which features the top eight Spanish teams, and Gasol led Barcelona to the title while being named MVP. "I remember him raising the trophy," said Walt Szczerbiak, the U.S. ambassador for the ACB League, "and he almost hit the king of Spain in the face." A new basketball monarch was born.
Gasol was Michael Jordan in Spain but just another 7-footer in the NBA, at least until he supersized his job market. Los Angeles is a cozy destination for a foreign player, mainly because Bryant spent much of his childhood in Italy, where he developed an appreciation for the European game. Gasol and Bryant speak Spanish on the court so opponents do not know what they are thinking. They stage shooting contests to see who has the better left hand. Even when Gasol points out that Lakers post players need more touches, which Bryant could interpret as criticism, it creates no friction. Gasol has become, in Hubie Brown's words, "the perfect Robin for Batman."
He fits just as well with coach Phil Jackson, devouring the Ernest Hemingway novels that Jackson hands out and then analyzing Hemingway's depictions of early-20th-century Spain. Jackson and Gasol conflict only over practice times, which Gasol wants pushed back, to accommodate what Jackson terms "the Iberian lifestyle."
The Lakers' European flair is part of the reason they are so successful—and, their critics would say, so soft. That tired label, worn at some point by almost every foreign player in the NBA, was affixed to Gasol when the Lakers bowed in the 2008 Finals, when Celtics center Kendrick Perkins appeared to swallow him alive. After the series, and after Gasol's subsequent exit interview at the Lakers' practice facility, he stopped in the weight room, a place he had never spent much time. "I am committing right now to getting stronger," he told the trainers. Gasol lifted more in the next year than in the previous 27 combined, and when the 2009 Finals rolled around, he absorbed body blows from Magic center Dwight Howard and even dished out a few of his own as the Lakers outlasted Orlando.
Gasol is proud of his newfound muscle, but it will never be what defines him, what makes the music. Coaches talk about teaching his post moves and his passes to their sons, of catching themselves watching in wonder from the bench. "There are other players who can do the same things as Pau," says Reneses. "But for some reason it's just not as nice to look at."
Grace and fundamentals do not usually make highlights, but you can find them if you look. Take for instance a game against the Pacers in early March, midway through the first quarter, the Lakers biding time until the playoffs. Gasol takes an entry pass from Fisher in the post, fakes to his left, dashes to his right, finishes with his left. Next possession he takes an overhead pass from Bryant at the elbow, looks over the top of the defense, lobs to Bynum for a layup. Two possessions later he holds the ball on the block, waits for a double team, threads a bounce pass to swingman Ron Artest cutting down the middle for a dunk.
Three plays. Sixty-four seconds. Beautiful things.
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