The term "offseason" seems like a bit of a farce when you consider what forward Pau Gasol has been up to since the Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs in May. From visiting hospitals in L.A., to adding another silver medal to his collection in London, to continuing his charitable work with UNICEF, Gasol has been a busy man.
Gasol checked in with ESPNLosAngeles.com from the nation of Chad, where he is visiting in his role as UNICEF Spain Ambassador. Gasol hopes his trip will help bring awareness to the nutritional crisis going on in the Sahel belt, a region that spans across Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. In Chad alone, UNICEF estimates that more than 127,000 children are at serious risk of malnutrition because of severe drought.
McMenamin: Did you ever expect that your philanthropic efforts would take you all over the world? Did you ever expect to set foot in Chad?
Gasol: No. Not really. But talking to UNICEF right after the season, we were thinking about planning a trip but also thinking and being aware of the situation right now that the whole belt of the Sahel is going through. Obviously, it’s an emergency situation with a lot of kids in grave risk. So, I told them, ‘Look, just tell me where you need me to go. Tell me what country needs help the most and I’ll be there.’
McMenamin: I understand it’s a nutritional crisis. What exactly are you guys doing to help? Are you developing some kind of food source for the children? How are you focusing your efforts while you’re over there?
Gasol: UNICEF works more on the nutritional side of the crisis. Obviously with the lack of rain last year, the harvest has been really poor, so there’s a food crisis that affects 18 million people. They’re all at great risk of death because of it.
So, UNICEF provides them with nutritional centers to treat and prevent malnutrition. They also provide all the supplies -- the medical supplies, the formulas that (the children) eat, the treatment that they have to go through to get out of the malnutrition state. So, more or less, that’s what UNICEF does. They also coordinate with other NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are also here, which work at providing food and promoting agriculture and supporting by giving supplies and developing a way to get the water out of the ground (for treatment and consumption).
There’s a bunch of stuff that’s being done here because the infrastructure is so poor and so underdeveloped. There’s a lot of things that are being done and a lot of efforts that are being put into all these areas. But still, there’s more to be done.
McMenamin: Obviously you’ve been involved with various causes through UNICEF; is it devastating to be there witnessing this situation? Can you describe what it’s like dealing with children and your part on the ground while you’re there?
Gasol: It’s hard to see the reality. I think it’s positive for me to be here and experience and be able to share it with people who are interested in it and might want to listen to it because, obviously, these people need support. They need people who are willing to help them out and also to make people aware of what’s going on in other parts of the world. There are people that are much less privileged than we are, just by the simple fact of being born in a different country, in a different continent. We just don’t realize how lucky we are. I think it’s good for me to also create awareness so these people receive a little more help.
McMenamin: You told us in May when you got the citizenship award that you don’t do this for recognition, but when you find out about new issues like this that you can get behind, is it in conjunction with UNICEF? How do you choose the next issue to try to help with?
Gasol: We more or less analyze what’s going on at the time. Obviously when there’s an emergency like this one and a situation of crisis, a food crisis, I think that goes up in the priority list. But, if not, I like to create and be a part of more of a sustainable project, but obviously you have to attend to the basic needs and survival needs and rights in order to do something sustainable and long term. More or less, we evaluated every chance we had an opportunity to do something.
McMenamin: I kind of touched on this before, but can you give me a sense of what the conditions are like in Chad? Are you seeing children who are so malnourished that they’re having trouble doing basic tasks?
Gasol: The severe, acute malnourished children, they’re in really bad shape. All of them are in danger of dying. Luckily, if you catch them at an early state of it, you’re able to treat them and it’s not going to create any chronic effect after the treatment. But there are a lot of different layers. Malnutrition obviously comes from not eating properly, but also from not drinking clean water, which is another issue why I’m visiting and being here. The fact of being able to get water to drink that doesn’t cause you diarrhea or cholera ... there’s a lot of diseases that come from that.
There’s also nutritional programs that are providing now a lot of the things that are good for the hygiene and the sanitation of the people with the water. They give little tablets to clean the water. They give pieces of hand soap so they can wash their hands before eating because that’s another problem. So, they combine all these basic needs that we take for granted and wouldn’t think of, but here they take into account and now they’re putting all those needs together so when a mother takes her child to the center, they not only get treated for malnutrition but they also provide them with a couple things for hygiene and sanitation, because that’s another issue that’s important.
McMenamin: You’re committing yourself to being a child of the world, for lack of a better term. What does it mean to be in touch with everything that’s going on and opening your mind and your heart to what surrounds you?
Gasol: It means a lot. To me, it makes me feel extremely fortunate and privileged for not only what I have, but what I’ve been able to experience and how I’ve been able to help out and reach others and hopefully make other peoples’ lives better. So, to me, the position that I’m in and what I’ve achieved professionally in my life, it’s just given these opportunities to fulfill myself as a person and to be able to make a positive impact in other peoples’ lives at different levels. Obviously this is the most basic and vital level of all (in Chad), which is keeping children alive and giving them an opportunity in life. It’s something that’s pretty powerful.
McMenamin: Absolutely. Now on to a couple basketball questions before we go, if that’s cool with you.
Gasol: Sure. Go ahead.
McMenamin: Take me back to the gold-medal rematch of Spain vs. USA in the Olympics. Marc, your brother, has four fouls in the first quarter and a half and goes to the bench, yet it’s still a close game at halftime. You come out and play some of the best basketball I’ve ever seen you play in the third quarter. What was that game like? Did you feel like you had a chance to actually win it down the stretch? As the fourth quarter played out, what was it like just to be in another epic battle against the U.S. with the gold medal on the line?
Gasol: (Sigh.) Obviously, it was hard to lose the final game, as we did in ’08. It was another great opportunity for us to show that we had a chance. Obviously we didn’t get to finish it off, we didn’t get to win it, but I think we showed a great level of competitiveness, spirit and talent. It was a good game. Unfortunately we came out on the losing end of it, but I try to keep in mind how we fought throughout the game and how we fought not only in that game but throughout the championship, because we had to face some adversity throughout. We competed really hard and through conditions like Marc getting the fourth foul in the second quarter and not being able to play until the fourth and a couple other things that didn’t work, or didn’t go our way.
But, obviously, the U.S. always have a very powerful team full of quality players. I’m proud of my team, proud of my guys. I don’t think we’re going to have another chance like that. But it’s been a good run.
McMenamin: It could be you and Ricky Rubio in Rio, right?
Gasol: Who knows? Who knows?
McMenamin: You personally played so well, especially late in the Russia game and throughout the U.S. game, and both those games occurred I believe after the Dwight Howard trade was completed. Did that change your mental standpoint at all, or was that just you sensing it was medal time in the Olympics and you were playing on that level for your country regardless of the Lakers connection?
Gasol: No. The timing of the trade didn’t have anything to do with performing at a high level throughout the championship. Obviously I was glad to finish up strong, like I always try to do. You don’t want to get to the final game and be out of gas. It was time. It was another great opportunity for us to get another medal, to fight for the gold medal and that’s what we did. Being one of the leaders, or the leader of my team, that’s what I’m expected to do -- to perform at a high level, to perform well and deliver, and that’s what I tried to do.
McMenamin: By adding Howard and Steve Nash, the Lakers seemingly put to bed speculation that you would be traded. When you think about next season, what goes through your mind?
Gasol: Obviously, there’s excitement. I’m just really looking forward to get to work with our team again from Day 1. It’s obviously very promising. Very promising. I think we all have a great desire to be back on top and we understand how hard that is, but I think we have a very powerful team. A very powerful team with players that should come in with a great spirit, with a winning mentality of doing whatever it takes for the team to win at the end of the season, and that’s what I’m excited about. Just having that opportunity again, being a part of the team obviously and giving my best again.
McMenamin: When assistant coach Eddie Jordan was with Washington, he ran the Princeton offense, which means a lot of plays for the 4. Are you excited about that? Last season your role got a little muddled, I guess you could say, on offense. Is the prospect of learning a new offense encouraging?
Gasol: Obviously last year was a lot of things that we had to adjust to and there was a lot going on throughout the season, but I think we all learned from it. Obviously speaking for myself, I know I did. It made me a little tougher person to have to deal with a few things.
This year is a new year obviously, and with a couple of great additions, we’ll see how we all fit. We have to understand that there’s only one basketball to play with and we have a lot of players that can put the ball in the hole, and I’ll try to do my best to be assertive, to be active and be aggressive. I think I can create a lot of things for myself and my teammates, but we obviously have to see how we all fit in together and, as always, accept the role that we have as it’s determined. Just for the benefit of the team, always. At the end of the day, our goal is to win back the championship and do whatever it takes to get there. That will be the bottom line.
McMenamin: All right. So, last question: What’s left on your docket between now and Oct. 1?
Gasol: I’ll be back to Spain in a few days and then I’ll start working out again at the beginning of September. Obviously I have a few commitments with a couple of my sponsors and a couple things here and there, but then I’ll get back to L.A. probably the third week of September and get back adjusted to the time, the place and start getting ready for training camp. I think it will be important that we’re all working hard and on the same page with the right mindset from the very beginning.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.