How Pau Gasol rode a finesse game to basketball’s greatest heights

EL SEGUNDO, CA - SEPTEMBER 25:  Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers poses for a photograph with the NBA Finals Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy during Media Day at the Toyota Center on September 25, 2010 in El Segundo, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Pau Gasol poses for a photograph with the Larry O’Brien Trophy during media day Sept. 25, 2010, in El Segundo, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will formally welcome its Class of 2023 on Saturday. This week, Yahoo Sports is highlighting notable names in this class, leading up to the big ceremony.

Perhaps the longest-lasting legacy of the Dream Team is how their performance spread the gospel of the game to a generation of kids outside the United States. One of them was an 11-year-old who came up playing in the shadow of the Sagrada Familia.

Pau Gasol had grown up with the game; both of his parents played. When the Dream Team came to Barcelona, though? That’s when he fell in love with it.

It wasn’t because he wanted to emulate the rim-rattling dominance of the NBA’s greatest physical marvels. It was because of how artfully they all worked together. Because, as he’d tell Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins, “I like beautiful things.”

And man, did he play like it.

Arguably “the most unappreciated great player of his generation” will get his due on Saturday, when Gasol is inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He’ll be enshrined as part of a class featuring Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker, as well as Gregg Popovich and Becky Hammon, for whom Gasol played during a late-career stint with the Spurs.

He’ll also join the late Kobe Bryant, with whom he teamed on Lakers squads that won back-to-back NBA championships. The pair forged a bond that extended far beyond the court, with Gasol helping the legendarily obsessive Bryant access aspects of himself besides that “Mamba Mentality.”

“I’m more naturally inclined to show my softness from a personal level and an emotional level, and I think that’s something maybe I influenced him to in a way,” Gasol once told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “I’d say, ‘It’s OK to be normal or act kind and vulnerable or soft at times. We don’t have to be so hard all the time.'”

Ah, that word. “Softness.” The bane of every European player’s existence — and a particular pain for Gasol, an irrepressibly nice guy whom teammate Nazr Mohammed described as “a multi-layered, refined type of person.”

The figure Gasol cut always screamed “global citizen” — an opera-loving karaoke showman, ever gracious and generous. He played like a caregiver — the kind of kid who responded to learning that Magic Johnson had contracted HIV by deciding to become a doctor so he could cure AIDS. (Gasol actually enrolled in medical school in Barcelona before dropping out to focus on basketball; during his career, he observed spinal surgeries and devoted time to children’s hospitals in Memphis and L.A.)

On top of being a cosmopolitan counterpoint to the “ball is life” grindset, Gasol was a lithe power forward who played a fluid face-up game and was less burly than most of his American positional peers. As the son of a doctor and nurse administrator, he also came from what some scouts sniffed at as a “privileged upbringing” in Barcelona’s suburbs.

All this forced Gasol to have to prove his toughness, repeatedly, even after he’d made it to the top of the mountain. He found that burden of proof maddening.

“Because a guy has a set of skills and is more of a finesse player, then he’s labeled as a ‘soft’ player,” Gasol told Adrian Wojnarowski, then of Yahoo Sports, back in 2009. “I’m not bothered by it because I know I’m a competitor. I’ve competed my whole career and nobody has given me anything … I’m a winner.”

A six-time All-Star, four-time All-NBA selection and two-time champion, Gasol retired as one of just four players ever to score 20,000 points, grab 11,000 rebounds, dish 3,500 assists and block 1,500 shots in the NBA. The other names on the list: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.

“He had a quiet animal within him,” Garnett once said of Gasol. “And just like any beast, when they’re quiet and they’re sleeping, if you rub his head really hard, you’re probably going to get your head bitten off.”

Gasol is also one of the most decorated international players of all time. In addition to the three Liga ACB championships and a Copa del Rey title with FC Barcelona, Gasol served as the linchpin and literal standard-bearer of Spanish national teams that won 11 medals in international competition.

He played in five Olympics, winning silver in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, plus a bronze in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. (Nobody in the Redeem Team era played the U.S. tougher.) He also led Spain to gold at the 2006 FIBA World Championship and at EuroBasket 2009, 2011 and 2015; he still stands as the leading scorer in EuroBasket history.

“I have contributed my two cents to open doors,” Gasol told El País. “To widen that path and help basketball and the presence of international players grow.”

Nowadays, nobody bats an eye when a European prospect comes off the board early in the NBA Draft. Back in 2001, though, it arched plenty of eyebrows when the Grizzlies traded young star Shareef Abdur-Rahim and the 27th pick to Atlanta for the rights to the No. 3 pick … and then used it on a reedy 7-foot Spaniard.

The pick made Gasol only the NBA’s second Spanish player, joining Fernando Martín. It also made him the highest-chosen European player ever.

It wasn’t nearly as easy to get a good look at European prospects back then as it is today, with footage from developmental academies and international tournaments all readily accessible at the click of a button. From the sound of it, not too many front offices did their due diligence on Gasol.

“That was before the [international] scouting aspect really blew up,” Wizards assistant general manager Rod Higgins told Jonathan Abrams for his 2016 book, “Boys Among Men.” “We weren’t prepared for it, I’ll say it like that. He snuck under the radar big-time.”

That a 20-year-old 7-footer with guard skills on one of Europe’s biggest teams could remain a mystery underscores just how dramatically the scouting landscape has shifted in barely 20 years. You can only blame NBA lifers so much for not seeing Gasol coming, though. Barcelona’s staff didn’t, either.

As an 18-year-old, Gasol played just 25 total minutes for Barcelona’s senior team. In his second season, he only averaged 4.2 points per game. But when longtime NBA starter and future DJ Rony Seikaly left Barcelona after clashing with coach Aíto García Reneses early in Gasol’s third season, Gasol had a pathway to minutes and a chance to do something with them. He did:

“Everybody in Europe was asking me, ‘How is this possible?'” Reneses told Jenkins. “‘How did we not see this coming?'”

Once he arrived in the NBA, Gasol made his presence felt early. He came off the bench for his first three games in Memphis, playing behind sophomore Stromile Swift. Then, in his fourth game, Gasol hung 27 on Phoenix. No more coming off the bench, thanks.

Gasol stormed through his maiden NBA voyage, averaging 17.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.1 blocks in 36.7 minutes per game, running away with Rookie of the Year honors and becoming the first foreign-born player to win the award.

As Gasol rose, so did the expansion Grizzlies. After losing two-thirds of their games through their first eight seasons, they won a franchise-record 50 in 2003-04, making the first of three straight playoff runs. They’d get no further, though, swept each time in the opening round by monsters: a 57-win Spurs team, the 62-win “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns and a 60-win Mavericks squad that made it all the way to the Finals.

There’s no shame in bowing out to such fantastic opposition. In the moment, though, three straight sweeps can lead you to overlook stuff like “our 25-year-old center just became an All-Star while leading us in points, rebounds, blocks and assists” … and to start focusing more on the “quiet” in KG’s description than the “animal.” (As Chris Herrington once put it, Memphis has long “responded more to ordinary talents whose effort was palpable than to players, like Pau, whose rare gifts could make the difficult look easy.”)

After Gasol broke a bone in his left foot during the 2006 FIBA World Championship, and the Grizzlies opened 5-17 without him, the air was thick with frustration. An unhappy Gasol asked for a trade. It took a year, but he got it.

That the Lakers landed Gasol for a package headlined by center Kwame Brown — taken first in 2001, two picks before Pau (whoops!) — prompted near-universal shock. Jack McCallum described the deal as “so larcenously one-sided that [Lakers general manager Mitch] Kupchak’s picture should be in post offices coast-to-coast.”

Quoth Woj: “When reached with the news, one Western Conference executive said simply, ‘Are you kidding? [Expletive] me.’”

“What they did in Memphis is beyond comprehension,” Popovich told SI. “There should be a trade committee that can scratch all trades that make no sense. I just wish I had been on a trade committee that oversees NBA trades. I’d like to elect myself to that committee. I would have voted no to the L.A. trade.”

(No such committee was ever formed. A few years later, though, Gasol was featured in a trade that was scratched: the 2011 deal that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers, Gasol to Houston, and Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic to New Orleans. NBA commissioner David Stern — acting as the owner of a Hornets franchise that the league had taken over from the insolvent George Shinn — infamously vetoed that one for “basketball reasons.”)

The haul seemed paltry. Brown had underperformed his lofty draft slot. Javaris Crittenton would become significantly more infamous off the floor. Aaron McKie, 35, was out of the league, signed only to make the salary-matching math work. Beyond them, just a pair of future first-round picks, later used on Donté Greene and Greivis Vásquez.

Oh, and the draft rights to “Pau’s fat kid brother.”

We’d eventually learn that Marc Gasol was a Hall of Famer in his own right. The “larcenously one-sided” deal — which offloaded the back-half of Pau’s $86.5 million extension and delivered immediate cost savings in Brown’s $9.1 million expiring contract — had laid the groundwork for what became the Grit ’n’ Grind era. At the time, though, all eyes were on the Lakers, who had prime Kobe and jack-of-all-trades Odom, but lacked size after Andrew Bynum dislocated his knee cap.

Now, suddenly, the Lakers had a new 20-and-10 All-Star big man — albeit one who’d never won a playoff series, or, for that matter, even a playoff game. The standard, Gasol knew, was higher in Hollywood.

“There are great expectations,” he said after the trade. “It’s the kind of pressure I’ve been missing, and the kind I’m going to have from now on.”

The pressure was mitigated by the situation being tailor-made for Gasol’s temperament. Lakers head coach Phil Jackson wrote in his 2013 book, “Eleven Rings,” that Gasol “was mature and intelligent with a deep understanding of the game and willingness to take on a diminished role, if necessary, to improve the team’s chances of winning.”

In other words, a perfect partner for Kobe — who, you might recall, had already seen a successful partnership with a Hall of Fame big implode.

While Gasol’s personality meshed well with Bryant’s, his skill set did, too. His size, midrange touch, low-post savvy, passing flair and basketball IQ made him ideally suited for Jackson’s triangle offense, with its emphasis on read-and-react decision-making. In Gasol’s fluency in the language of the game, Bryant found a kindred spirit; as he wrote in the foreword to “Life/Vida,” Gasol’s 2013 book, “If I could choose my brother,” it would be Pau.

Their connection helped restore the Lakers to dominance. They went 22-5 with Gasol in the lineup in 2007-08, earning the West’s No. 1 seed and propelling Bryant to league MVP honors. L.A. would roll through the Nuggets, Jazz and Spurs to earn a spot in the NBA Finals, before falling to the ancestral rival Celtics, a juggernaut in Year 1 of the Garnett/Paul Pierce/Ray Allen team-up.

Gasol drew heavy fire for his struggles against Boston’s frontline. With Garnett, Kendrick Perkins and the rest of the physical C’s helping limit him to just 14.7 points on 10.3 shot attempts per game in the Finals came a fresh round of jeers about Gasol being “soft.”

To some, that characterization was the province of players and pundits who found comfort in reverting to simplistic caricatures. To others, it was a convenient shorthand for an inconvenient reality: Gasol sometimes did get overpowered, and actually was, as Bryant said, “not naturally aggressive.” The debate rankled Gasol.

“I’m also my biggest critic, and I knew when I fell short and I noticed it, and it hurts me more than anything,” Gasol later told Abrams. “So that’s what really made me come back and want to be better, strong and more a complete player.”

As it turns out, lifting weights helped. (Who’d have guessed?) The stronger Spaniard turned in arguably his best season, averaging 18.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game as the Lakers stampeded to a 65-17 record, taking the top spot in the West by 11 games. Gasol posted career highs in true shooting percentage and offensive rebound rate, finishing sixth in value over replacement player and fourth in the NBA in win shares, behind only LeBron, CP3 and Wade.

When the Lakers faced a tough test in Round 2 against Houston, it was Gasol who stepped up with 21 points and 18 rebounds in the decisive Game 7. And after L.A. dispatched Denver in six in the Western Conference finals, it was Gasol who went toe-to-toe with Dwight Howard, using his newfound strength to frustrate the Magic superstar on defense while repeatedly making him pay on the other end. Gasol averaged 18.6 points on 60% shooting in a five-game drubbing, becoming an NBA champion and helping Bryant win his first ring without Shaquille O’Neal.

Gasol carried that momentum into the 2009-10 season, playing like an MVP candidate for a Lakers team intent on defending its crown. And after another stellar regular season gave way to strong performances in the conference playoffs, Gasol once again found himself face-to-face with Garnett and the Celtics — a rematch of the 2008 series in which he’d come up small, a shot at redemption. He made the most of it.

With Perkins unavailable after tearing his right MCL in Game 6, Gasol dominated Game 7 inside, hauling in 18 rebounds — nine on the offensive glass — and scoring 13 of his 19 points in the second half to help the Lakers white-knuckle their way to an 83-79 win. They’d avenged their 2018 defeat. They’d become just the 11th team in NBA history to win back-to-back titles. And Gasol, with the biggest performance of his career, had showcased the beast beneath the beauty.

“I remember that day thinking I’m going to do whatever,” Gasol once told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. “We’re not going to allow this team to beat us on our home court in Game 7. We’re going to win this championship. I don’t care how it is. I don’t care what I have to do. It’s kind of like that survival instinct, of kill or get killed. And I was able to put myself into that killing mode of, ‘I’m just going to bite your head off, and I don’t care who you are, I don’t care [about] anything.’”

(Sounds like playing with Kobe might’ve rubbed off on Pau a little.)

Gasol began to slow down after the Finals runs, battling the accumulated mileage of all those playoff games, international competitions and multiple lower-leg injuries. He became a scapegoat amid the chaotic transition of power from Jackson to Mikes Brown and D’Antoni. He became a constant in trade rumors, as the Lakers sought the pivot that would keep them atop the NBA. Through it all, Gasol “proceeded with as much class and dignity as any man could have feasibly mustered.”

Even a slowed-down Pau could still wreck your shop; few players in NBA history have remained more productive through their mid-30s. His career-high scoring performance came not with Memphis or L.A., but with the Bulls, when he hung 46 and 18 on the Bucks in the midst of an All-Star campaign at age 34. He’d later find his way to the Spurs — a match that always seemed spiritually appropriate, given San Antonio’s glittering history with skilled, offbeat, worldly playmakers — and play a key role on a damn good 2016-17 team that won 61 games and might’ve taken down the Kevin Durant-ified version of the Warriors … if not for Zaza Pachulia’s foot.

A stress fracture in November 2018 — in the same foot Gasol hurt back in 2006, and almost exactly 17 years after his breakout rookie scoring performance against the Suns — effectively marked the end of the road. He’d go on a multi-year journey of rehabilitation before landing back in Barcelona for one last hurrah, and one last title, in a transformational career.

“It was hard for [critics] to recognize a finesse big and not a physical big,” former teammate and Grizzlies color commentator Brevin Knight told Kyle Goon of the Orange County Register. “We told him being who he was was gonna be good enough. People would appreciate his greatness as time went on. They definitely got on board.”

If you didn’t, consider this your chance to make up for lost time. Watch the highlights. You might find yourself agreeing with Reneses, Gasol’s former Barcelona coach: “There are other players who can do the same things as Pau. But for some reason, it’s just not as nice to look at.”

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