For centuries, Spain’s most intoxicating export was its sherry. That changed with the emergence of Pau Gasol, a unique basketball talent from the fiercely independent region of Catalonia. A seven footer who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot with either hand, he made the quantum leap from international curiosity to two-time NBA champion after a trade from the lowly Memphis Grizzlies to the lofty Los Angeles Lakers. Even Pau has to drink to that one. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Pau Gasol was born in Barcelona, Spain on July 6, 1980. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His father, Augusti, was a hospital administrator and his mother, Marisa, was a doctor. Both parents played professional basketball in Spain.

Pau hoped to follow his mother into medicine, but he ended up filling his father’s enormous shoes. Indeed, after he and younger brothers Marc and Adria began attending their dad’s hoops games and practices, they started spending more and more time at the gym. Pau began playing organized hoops around the age of seven.

The organized youth leagues in Europe are starkly different than the city playgrounds and rural gymnasiums of the U.S., where no-blood, no-foul is typically the rule. In Spain, players are whistled for anything beyond incidental contact. Thus, big men are not usually skilled in the art of muscling up shots from the post or banging under the boards.

That did not apply to Pau, who usually handled point guard duties for his teams. Although he was tall and skinny, there was no inkling that he would one day stand seven feet tall. Consequnetly, he developed the mindset of a backcourt player. To this day, Pau credits his days as a floor general as the genesis of his widely praised passing skills.

Pau got the basketball bug big-time in the summer of 1992, when the Olympics came to town. Barcelona was a buzz with the U.S. Dream Team, which starred Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. He wondered if he would reach that level some day.

Around the age of 13, Pau began to put some meat on his bones, and he soon gained confidence in the paint. He was now well over six feet, and the decision was made to move him to the forward position.

In 1998, Pau entered his first year of medical school at the University of Barcelona. That same year, he became the star of FC Barcelona’s junior squad, leading the teamto victory at the Albert Schweitzer Tournament and the European Junior Championships. It was time to put his medical career on hold and get serious about basketball.

In 2000-01, Pau established himself as one of the finest players in Europe. In just under 24 minutes per game, he averaged 11.3 points and 5.2 rebounds. Just 20-years-old and now towering over opponents at an even seven feet tall, Pau was being eyed hungrily by NBA scouts.

Was he good enough to be a high lottery pick? In three years in the FC Barcelona organization, Pau had became known as one of the the top all-around players in the ACB, Spain’s top basketball league. His numbers didn’t blow anyone away, but his team outlook and unselfishness were just what the NBA was looking for in a championship-caliber support player.

ON THE RISE

Many compared Pau to Toni Kukoc, another big man who could handle and shoot the ball, though the Spaniard was clearly a superior athlete. The two had something else in common: agent Herb Rudoy. Rudoy’s job was to disentangle Pau from the final season of his Barcelona contract, which would require a $2.5 million buyout. Since buyouts over $350,000 counted against an NBA team’s salary cap, Rudoy had to find a team that was willing to foot the bill, or at least to draft his client high enough so he could pay that sum himself.

Billy Knight, GM of the Memphis Grizzlies, thought Pau had incredible potential—perhaps even All-Star skills. When the Atlanta Hawks grabbed him with the third pick in the draft, Knight engineered a deal that brought him to Memphis for the team’s signature player, Shareef Abdur-Rahim. The Grizzlies then took Duke’s Shane Battier with their first-round pick. Along with these two, the Memphis starting five would include flashy Jason Williams, Lorenzen Wright and veteran Grant Long.

Pau confirmed Knight’s suspicions from the get-go, scoring 27 points in his first NBA start. As the season progressed, the Grizzlies realized that he created all kinds of matchup miseries for opponents. Pau finished the campaign first among all rookies in scoring, rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage. He led Memphis with 17.6 ppg and 8.9 rpg.

Although his defense left much to be desired, Pau proved an adept shot-blocker, swatting balls at the rate of 2.1 per game. He even recorded a pair of seven-block performances. His quickness, long arms and anticipation made him a player who could force opponents to rethink or reconfigure their shots around the rim.

The Grizzlies won a respectable 23 games under coach Sidney Lowe, and Pau was named NBA Rookie of the Year. He and Battier both made the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team. It marked just the third time in 20 years that teammates had shared this honor.


 

 

 


1992 Dream Team Wheaties box

     
 

Pau proved his rookie performance was no fluke by bettering almost all of his stats in 2002-03. He averaged 19 points a game (including five straight 20-point contests to start the year) and finished in the league’s Top 10 in shooting at 51%. For the second year in a row, he did not miss a game. His play did little for the Grizzlies, however, as the team went 28-54

Though his numbers dipped slightly in 2003-04, Pau continued to be the team’s most consistent scorer. In fact, he reached double figures in all but two games. Memphis responded with its best season yet, posting a franchise record 50 wins and securing a berth in the playoffs. But as the regular campaign drew to a close and the Grizzlies prepared for the playoffs, Pau strained his right arch and sat out the final four games. In the opening round against San Antonio, he seemed out of sync. Memphis was bounced by Tim Duncan and the Spurs in four games.

That summer, Pau joined the Spanish national team for the Olympics in Athens. Spain rolled through its pool with a 5-0 record but stumbled against the United States in the quarterfinals and finished sixth. Pau starred nonetheles, leading the tournamnt in scoring at 22.4 ppg. He was also the top shot-blocker.

Pau signed a new deal with the Grizzlies prior to the 2004-05 campaign, pulling down max money—six years at $86 million. Instead of sitting back and counting the zeros in his contract, he looked for ways he could reach the next level as a player. Like most European players, he was reluctant to seize control of an NBA team. But Memphis assistant coach Mike Fratello convinced Pau that he had the talent and temperament to lead the Grizzlies. Fratello pointed to Dirk Nowitzki, who was spreading his wings in Dallas and urged Pau to follow his lead.

MAKING HIS MARK

Pau responded well to Fratello’s prodding. He began to see the Grizzlies through the prism of his own play. On nights when he was feeling it, he demanded the ball and scored. When defenses collapsed around him, he happily dished to open teammates. In games when the shot wasn’t working, he devoted more energy to defense and rebounding. One way or another, he was determined to produce every time out. Even when coach Hubie Brown resigned and handed the team to Fratello, Pau barely missed a beat.

Unfortunately, this new approach was sidetracked when Pau hit the injured list at the end of January and missed more than 20 games. The Grizzlies learned how to survive without him—so well, in fact, that he had to reestablish his role in the final three weeks before the playoffs. But veterans Bonzi Wells and Jason Williams, who picked up the offense in Pau’s absence, resisted the idea of letting him back in. Their stubborness ultimately cost the Grizzlies in the postseason. This time it was the Phoenix Suns who dropped Memphis in four, and again Pau was only a sporadic contributor.

To no one’s surprise, Wells and Williams were jettisoned after the season. The Grizzlies looked to replace them with veterans who would more readily accept a supporting role. Damon Stoudamire, Eddie Jones and Bobby Jackson came in to provide leadership. In training camp, the trio let Pau know that he was the team leader. The Memphis coaching staff concurred, designing most of the team’s set offensive plays to go through him. After Stoudemire went down with a bad knee, Memphis picked up Chucky Atkins. He and Pau truly clicked.


Pau Gasol, 2002 SI for Kids
     
 

Pau entered his fifth NBA campaign with a new look—a Grizzly Adams beard that completely obscured his chiseled features. He said he wanted to appear older but admitted later that he was too lazy to shave over the summer, when for the first time he decided to opt out of playing for the Spanish national team.

Teammates noticed a new attitude from Pau, too. He was harder and tougher. Once considered soft around the league, he dispelled these notions with some well-placed elbows and a fresh determination not to back down.

Lorenzo Wright credited the change in Pau to the whiskers. But more likely it was the absence of his nagging plantar’s facetious, which was cured with three months of rest. Whatever the case, the NBA quickly realized that one of its most intriguing players had evolved and was now approaching the elite level. The NBA zebras saw this, too. Pau got hacked as much as any Memphis player, but only during his breakout season did he start to hear the quick whistles normally reserved for the league’s marquee stars.

This was confirmed by Pau’s selection to the All-Star Game, the first time a Griz had been so honored dating back 11 years to the days when the franchise played in Vancouver. A few weeks later, he reeled off three monster games in a row—36 points against the New York Knicks, 33 points against the Charlotte Bobcats and 44 points against the Seattle Supersonics. Pau finished the year with new career highs in points (20.4), rebounds (8.9) and assists (4.6).

Despite Pau’s scoring prowess, the Grizzlies spelled success with defense. They harassed outside shooters, forcing them to put the ball on the floor. Pau was usually waiting by the rim, meaning opponents had to settle for tricky mid-range jumpers. As a result, Memphis allowed the fewest points in the NBA and the second-lowest shooting percentage.

Unfortunately, Memphis’s growth would not continue—the Grizzlies eventually imploded with back-to-back 22 win seasons. The franchise fell into in disarray. Battier led the departure of veteran talent, leaving Pau by himself in basketball purgatory. Then a gift from basketball heaven—he found himself a part of one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history.

On February 1, 2008, Pau was dealt to the Lakers along with a 2010 second round draft pick for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crrittenton, Aaron McKie, the rights to Pau’s younger brother, Marc, and 2008 and 2010 first round draft picks. Despite Pau’s already flourishing career, he embraced the opportunity to distinguish himself as a winner in Los Angeles.

The trade triggered a wave of frustration throughout the NBA. The Lakers had just lost their young center, Andrew Bynum, and were looking at another disappointing season. Pau was the perfect fix, and it cost LA nothing in the short run. Critics pointed to the cozy relationship between the Lakers and Grizzlies. Jerry West had been the Memphis GM for several seasons, and Memphis owner Michael Heisley needed to shed big salaries so he could more easily sell the team.

Pau and Kobe Bryant clicked from the start. The Lakers put together an incredible 27-9 run, capturing the top seed in the Western Conference and making it to the NBA Finals. It marked the first time a Spaniard had reached the championship round of the playoffs. The Lakers faced the Boston Celtics, a classic match-up that tugged at the heartstrings of fans on both coasts. Though LA lost in six games, Pau proved his worth as a player throughout the postseason. In 21 games, he averaged 17 points, nine rebound and four assists.


Chucky Atkins, 2001 Heritage
     
 

Next up for Pau were the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. He viewed the international tournament as an important step in his growth as a player. Pau helped Spain push a fully stocked Team USA —which included Bryant and LeBron James—to the brink. Spain settled for the silver medal, but not for lack of effort from Pau. He averaged 19.6 points on 65 percent shooting. He scored 21 points in the exciting gold-medal game against the U.S.

After his rugged Olympic experience, Pau was ready to shed the “soft” label the plagued him throughout his pro career. He returned in 2008-09 with a hunger that would propel him to a dream season. The Lakers began the year on a roll, and Pau was named to his second All-Star Game, as a reserve for the West. In February, he was voted the Western Conference Player of the Month, as the Lakers went 11-2 and beat the best the Eastern Conference had to offer in Boston and Cleveland.

Pau finished the regular season with impressive numbers—18.9 ppg, 9.6 rpg, and 3.5 apg. Led by the triumverant of Pau, Bryant and Lamar Odom, the Lakers won 65 games to finish with the best record in the West. In the playoffs, they disposed of the Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets in succession. LA rolled into the NBA Finals against the upstart Orlando Magic.

The Lakers proved their dominance by beating the Magic in five games. Coach Phil Jackson entrusted Pau with a crucial job—containing Orlando superstar Dwight Howard. He was up to the challenge.

Pau also chipped in on the offensive end. In Game 2, he made the shot that sent the contest into overtime and then sealed a 101–96 victory with a layup. few nights later. Pau’s breakaway dunk late in the fourth quarter of Game 4 gave the Lakers the go-ahead points in a 99–91 victory. In the fifth and final game of the series, Pau led all players with 15 rebounds.

Any thought of Pau being soft ended. He refused to back down to Howard and muscled up whenever he needed to.

Pau’s summer would only get better as he led Spain into EuroBasket 2009, the championship of European hoops. The Spaniards tore through the draw, and Pau was terrific every step of the way, earning tournament MVP honors for his great all-around play He topped the tourney in scoring (18.7 ppg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg), and finished second in field goal percentage and rebounding.

The Lakers reloaded for 2009–10 looking to repeat as NBA champs. Their key addition was Ron Artest, a defensive specialist who could fill up the basket when his shot was working. That made Odom the sixth man, which gave Jackson lots of options. He could go big with Pau, Bynum and Odom, go small with Pau, Odom and Artest, or mix things up to create specific match-up challenges for LA’s opponents.

With an occasional reminder from Kobe, Pau took it to opponents all season long. He nearly doubled his blocked shots and also reached double-digits in rebounds (11.3) for the first time as a pro. His scoring stayed steady at just under 20 a game, and as usual he shot well over 50 percent. He made the All-Star Game and was named Third Team All-NBA for the second year in a row.

The Lakers began their championship defense against Oklahoma City in the opening round of the playoffs. The Thunder gave them a scare, evening the series at two games apiece with a pair of home victories. LA took the next two games, with Pau leading all scorers in Game 5 with 25 points. A few nights later, he hit the winning bucket in Game 6 when he followed a Bryant miss at the buzzer. Pau played even better in a second-round sweep of the Jazz, recording a postseason-high 33 points in Game 4. He also dominated Utah on the boards, hauling down 58 rebounds in four contests.

The Suns did a better job against Pau in the Conference Finals, keeping him in check on the glass. He found other ways to beat Phoenix. His 29 points in Game 2 helped the Lakers open up a 2–0 series lead. LA won in six games.

In the NBA Finals, the Celtics never found an answer to stopping Pau. Even in defeat, he was among the top scorers and rebounders on the court. In Game 6, with the Lakers facing elimination, Pau looked like an old-time center, snatching rebounds out of the air and whipping passes to open teammates. He led the Lakers with nine boards and 13 assists in an 89–67 wipeout.

The turning point in the series may have been the knee injury suffered by Kendrick Perkins, which thinned out Boston’s front line. Jackson told Pau he could be a difference-maker if he kept the pressure on the Celtics in Game 7. That’s just what he did. Pau was a monster on the boards, grabbing 18 rebounds. He also scored 19 points. Pau simply outlasted Boston. By the end of the game, he was living at the foul line as LA eked out an 83–79 victory for its second title in as many years.

Pau is a living example of how a basketball player can remake his image when opportunity knocks. In his case, the call came from Los Angeles, and he welcomed the chance to transform his game. With a couple of NBA titles, a European championship and an Olympic silver medal, he looks every bit the winner and tough competitor.

PAU THE PLAYER


Kobe Bryant,
2008 The Sporting News
     
 

Looks can be deceiving, especially in Pau’s case. His rangy body masks superior athletic skills, particularly for a man his size. Always a solid scorer, he has learned the NBA well enough to blend mind and matter and contribute in any number of winning ways. That has made him one of the league’s biggest match-up nightmares, along with Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. He can beat his man off the dribble with either hand and can shoot with either hand, too.

Centers are worthless trying to defend Pau, and most big forwards have a hard time keeping him under control because of his quick moves and reliable jumper. Put a two-guard on Pau, and he starts posting up right away. He has become more comfortable in the post in general, and referees know this. He now gets the whistles that he begged for his first four seasons.

One overlooked part of Pau’s game is his decision-making. He reads the floor from the high pos, and rarely puts the ball up if he senses a teammate with a better chance to score.

Another change in Pau’s game is his stamina. He has learned to pace himself through 48 minutes. Pau now throws down power slams where in years past it was all he could do to strain for a tip-in or layup.

Defensively, Pau has strengthened his game. He has finally accepted the fact that there are some nights when he will be in a street fight trying to control another club’s star. His play against Dwight Howard in the 2009 NBA Finals is evidence of this.


Pau Gasol, 2010 Upper Deck


 

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