Lakers' Gasol: Hardened veteran
It's redemption time for a big man who's had to contend with unsavory labels
He's different. That much you can tell the first time you meet him. You're trying to introduce yourself to Pau Gasol and he's the one shaking your hand and asking your name like it's important to him.
The first time the Los Angeles Lakers passed through Memphis after the league-changing trade that brought him from Beale Street to Hollywood in 2008, he was asked about the homecoming. He picked out Ron Tillery, who covered him for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, in the back of the crowd and said, "Well, as Mr. Tillery and I were discussing earlier ... "
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It was nothing really, just a simple show of familiarity and respect, and yet it was different than just about anything I'd ever seen a professional athlete do in such a setting.
You don't meet athletes like Pau Gasol every day. He's human and real, smart enough to go through a year of medical school before turning professional as a basketball player, well-read and multi-lingual. On off-nights, he's as likely to be at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown L.A. watching an opera as he is to be out at a hip restaurant in Manhattan Beach.
On the court, he's developed into the most skilled big man in the NBA with the brains and vision of a point guard.
He's different, and while you appreciate him on one level, you don't always know what to do with him.
Which is how terms like "soft" became affixed to his reputation, when in reality his game, like his personality, is impressively refined.
"I'm always about finesse and speed," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, noticeably resisting the temptation to tweak Gasol as he often does with the local media, knowing it will echo back to Gasol at some point.
"I think finesse and speed is what basketball is about. It's not about bump and grind, although it does get more forceful in the playoffs."
Building a reputation
Could Gasol be more physical on the court? Of course. Was he strong enough in 2008, when the Celtics roughed up the Lakers in the Finals? No.
Even he would admit that as he devoted the last two years to weight training and has put on about 15 pounds of muscle.
But soft? That doesn't resonate with Gasol in the simplified way it was applied to his reputation after the 2008 Finals.
"I don't hate that word because it really doesn't have anything to do with me," Gasol says calmly, even though it's obvious bile is rising within him as we walk off the empty practice court before Game 3 of the Western Conference finals in Phoenix.
"It doesn't affect me, because it's like you're not talking about me. You think you might be talking about me, or you think you might be picking on me, but to me, it just slips away from me, it just bounces off."
While Gasol clearly -- and with good reason -- rejects the premise that his game is soft, it's also clear that his pride isn't able to shrug those characterizations off as easily as he suggests.
It bugs him. That much you can tell from his tone, which grows forceful as he talks. And that much we could see in his play in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night, when he poured two years of annoyance into every rebound and dunk he threw down against the Celtics. He came away with 23 points and 14 rebounds, then shrugged when asked if there was any point he was so obviously trying to prove.
"You know, for me it was important just to play hard, be aggressive and help as much as possible out there, win the first game," Gasol said. "That was my mindset tonight. There was no statements to be made. My goal, our goal is to win the championship, not just the first game and not just to make a statement right now."
The next day, Gasol took it a step further, flipping the script on the toughness question by bringing up the age question of his chief rival in this series, Kevin Garnett.
"On Kevin's part, he's also lost some explosiveness," said Gasol. "He's more of a jump shooter now you could say, comes off the lane. Before he had a really, really quick first step and was getting to the lane and he was more aggressive then. Time passes and we all suffer it one way or another, but he's still a terrific player, a terrific competitor, and he's going to bring everything he's got. You can count on that."
It was out-of-character and yet completely understandable. Maybe even laudable, depending on which side of this rivalry you sit.
Jackson called the Lakers' big men "thin-chested" before Game 5 of the conference finals, but a few days earlier he'd made a point of defending the Spaniard's honor, knowing sometimes Gasol needs a carrot, not a stick on this sensitive issue.
"In the final game [Boston's 131-92 win in Game 6], they ran Pau over the first or second play of the game with no call and that kind of set a tone for what that game was about," Jackson said. "So that stands out in everybody's mind.
"But we were actually more concerned with Lamar [Odom] than we were with Pau in that series. Because Andrew [Bynum] couldn't really play, and Lamar ended up not really exploiting his strengths in that series, if you want the real history."
The Lakers and Gasol, by coincidence or fate, have drawn the Celtics in the Finals again, arriving back at the place all those labels were affixed two seasons ago.
Redemption, and a reckoning, can be had.
"When we talk about it in a serious manner, all joking aside, he signifies that, 'Yes, there's things that he has to improve on,'" Jackson said of Gasol. "And to his credit, he's done the weight work, the extra things that give him the opportunity [to be more physical].
"Now he has to provide the force behind that opportunity. Obviously he's kind of got the hand strength and upper body strength, now to apply it is his choice."
A beautiful mind
It was a quiet moment at a loud time of year. The Lakers were wrapping up their shoot-around, and the bus was waiting for Gasol.
Hubie Brown, who coached Gasol in Memphis and was doing the radio broadcast of Western Conference finals, caught his eye as he walked off the court.
Gasol stopped, thought nothing of the time or consequences for being late, and embraced Brown.
"You're doing great, people are starting to see the whole you," Brown said, thumping on his chest, motioning to his heart. "It's about time."
"Yeah, it's about time, thank you," he said. "Better late than never."
Brown has always had an affection for Gasol since he came to know him in 2001, Gasol's first year in the league. He was struck by the young Spaniard's intelligence as much as his talent.
Though Gasol was still wispy and young, his feel for the game was as highly developed as his skill-set.
Brown was immediately intrigued.
"From the day that we came to coach him in 2003 to the day I left, he's one of the most cerebral players that ever played for me, starting with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson," Brown said.
"That's the category he's in in terms of what is going on. Not just at his position, but he understands every play. He understands the second, third, fourth option. He understands the game plan and at that young age, that's an extremely tough thing to do."
It's hard to say how Gasol developed such an understanding for the game. He watched basketball growing up but was not obsessed with it. He practiced hard but spent more time studying for medical school and keeping his grades up.
He credits the coaches of his youth in Spain -- Juan Montes, Quim Costa and Aito Garcia Reneses -- for helping his development.
But it's clear Gasol is blessed not only with superior agility and athleticism for a man of his size but intelligence, both kinesthetic and the kind that can be quantified on an IQ chart.
He said his IQ has never been tested, but when you watch him pick up complex schemes and details as quickly as he has, speak English better than many Americans, then shift effortlessly to Spanish or Catalan, it becomes evident: Gasol has a beautiful game and a beautiful mind.
Everything just kind of comes naturally, from my footwork, I just react and I have the skills to be able to do different things.” -- Pau Gasol
"You know, it just comes easy to me," he says, a bit shyly. "I really absorb things quickly. You don't have to tell me something too many times for me to catch it and understand it.
"Everything just kind of comes naturally, from my footwork, I just react and I have the skills to be able to do different things."
When Gasol came to the Lakers midway through the 2008 season, Lakers coaches were amazed at how quickly he picked up the triangle offense.
Some players take a full year to understand Tex Winter's triple-post offense, but Gasol seemed to master it after one practice. Since then, his understanding and mastery of it has grown.
"I think I talk to Pau more than anybody," teammate Ron Artest said. "I ask him questions all the time. He's always thinking the game. Offense, defense, he's always thinking the game. He knows the triangle so well, so I always ask him questions.
"He helps me a lot."
Appreciation from afar
Suns coach Alvin Gentry needed little prompting to recite an extended ode to Gasol.
"He's a whole different story," Gentry said of the three-time All Star. "If you start talking about the best low-post players in the NBA, you get to about one before you call his name.
"I don't think there's anybody that has better moves than him. Just the footwork, he's superior. And he's a very cerebral player."
"Cerebral" is the kind of word coaches use to describe a smart guy, a player who sees the game as a coach does, who understands things at a macro and micro level and doesn't need much explanation during film sessions.
Aside from Gasol's intelligence, his background enables him to think and play that way.
He grew up playing point guard, working on dribbling up court, perimeter shooting and running an offense. He was never a star, though. He wasn't even much of a prospect until his late teens.
The star of FC Barcelona and Spain's junior national teams was actually Gasol's best friend, Juan Carlos Navarro, who became known as "La Bomba" for his high-arching 3-point shots.
Gasol didn't even crack FC Barcelona's rotation until his final season with the club, and only then because the team needed someone to fill in for Rony Seikaly, who clashed with the coaching staff and left the team during a road trip.
"I was the bigger star when I was young, but of course now, he came to the NBA and he is the man," Navarro said last year, before the Lakers hosted FC Barcelona in an exhibition game.
Six months after he replaced Seikaly in the lineup, Gasol became the highest-drafted European player ever when the Grizzlies traded up to take him No. 3 overall in 2001.
Memphis was high on Gasol, but he managed to exceed their expectations when he averaged 17.6 points and 8.9 rebounds and was named the league's rookie of the year.
He still had a lot to work on and refine.
From the day that we came to coach him in 2003, to the day I left, he's one of the most cerebral players that ever played for me, starting with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.” -- Hubie Brown, Gasol's former coach
"When he first came over here, he complained on every play," Brown said. "To the point that it disrupted him in transition defense. Coaches are never happy about that. Now, he does less of that.
"He's also an 80 percent free throw shooter now, which is important at his position."
Still, the things most people remember about his days in Memphis are that he never won a playoff game and another label he picked up while he was there: "metrosexual."
Gasol -- refined, sophisticated and dressed in well-tailored European-made suits or designer jeans -- said he'd never heard the term before then and thinks it's kind of funny now. But it's also a coded word, one that fits with "soft" and "finesse" to undercut Gasol's accomplishments.
Fair, fitting or not, there is only one way for Gasol to change those perceptions, one team he must defeat.
That team wears green, and the Lakers will play it again Sunday night.Ramona Shelburne is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.