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Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Nice Guy Pau Gasol

By Justin Verrier

Pau Gasol
Pau Gasol's tenure in L.A. appears all but over. Will we remember much beyond the cheery tweets?
Nobody lives in a perfect world, but Pau Gasol’s Twitter account sure tries to. The “social” sector of the Interwebs can be twisted fairy tale, a day-to-day life inhabited by trolls and court jesters. But virtually every day Gasol gallantly blasts out 140 characters of sunshine, both in Spanish and in English, with the preciousness of texts from mom:

• "Tonight against the Orlando Magic. We're ready to compete at our best effort and rack up a victory on our home floor! #GoLakers"

• "Today is #WorldWaterDay. Let's all take care of this vital natural resource for all of us."

• "The new trailer of the 4th season of @GameOfThrones is already out! Not long now for the season’s release! http://on.fb.me/1fFXrHK "

And that’s just a sampling from one week in March.

Gasol is one of the nice guys. All of his on-court kvetching amounts to nothing more than a rubbed head or two. He credits Magic Johnson's HIV diagnosis for inspiring him to become a doctor. In his “Lakers profile” -- one of the midgame entertainment reels broadcast on the Staples Center big board, in which guys like Nick Young talk about things like “spaghetti cake” -- Gasol describes himself in one word as “multifaceted.” Most superstar athletes become conditioned to look right through people; Kobe Bryant, for example, strides with purpose as if Aloe Blacc is his internal monologue. Gasol remains observant. On a recent trip to Staples Center my eyes happened to cross paths with Gasol’s, and to my surprise, he smiled back at me, a total stranger sort of creepily gawking at him. Dude is nice.

We yearn for any morsel of information on these guys’ personal lives, especially when the subject is something of an enigma uninterested in opening up. When some odd detail does trickle out, it tends to serve mostly as fodder to further the myth we’ve pieced together in our heads. Rajon Rondo is this great checkers player? He's a mad genius!

There’s no mystery to Gasol. He’s the oversharing Facebook friend you can’t bring yourself to cut out, posting pictures of that darling landscape and recommending a new goodread whether you like it or not. Gasol is willing to give up more of himself than virtually any other NBA player of his caliber, and that accessibility tramples all over the whole superstar-worshipping dynamic. It’s hard to create a legend around someone so human. And that’s a large part of what’s making it so hard to muster up anything beyond indifference as Gasol approaches what figures to be the end of his six-plus years with the Lakers.

Gasol is back to playing above-average ball amid the Lakers’ telenovela season. Though limited to 65 games or fewer for the fourth time in five seasons, he has capitalized on often being the lone adult watching over the Lakers’ day care, bouncing back from the worst season of his career with a mild yet respectable player efficiency rating of 19.5. Maybe it’s not the horn-grabbing, prove-the-doubters-wrong, Ewing Theory-ish performance some might have hoped for with Bryant sidelined -- he’s shooting under 50 percent from the field for just the third time in his 13-year career -- but it does suggest that Gasol can still be pretty damn good, even after 32,000 NBA minutes and thousands more in international competition.

But what should we make of pretty good? It’s the question it feels like we’ve been asking about Gasol, indirectly or otherwise, since he became prominent enough to ask it. He’s among the most skilled 7-footers ever, and the stretchy, finesse game he and others imported helped usher in pretty significant changes in the way NBA teams utilize their big men. But he’s no offensive juggernaut like Dirk Nowitzki. He’s the older, more popular, more successful Gasol brother, but he’s no defensive monster like Marc. He’s got those two titles, but, I mean, Kobe. Stuck in a sports world defined by greatness, and paired with a certain teammate more obsessed with it than anyone, “pretty good” basically reads as “also-ran.” And so we latch onto the only thing we have that makes him extraordinary among the ultra-competitive, ultra-athletic, ultra-stylish superhumans that dominate the game’s storyline: He’s super nice. But Future Hall of Famer Pau Gasol just isn’t as interesting as Nice Guy Pau Gasol.

This isn’t new, either. More of an update. The bulk of Gasol’s career has been defined by the idea that -- or at least the debate over whether -- his game is “soft.” When Gasol rose to prominence, NBA fans, and Lakers fans in particular, had grown accustomed to the big man as just that, both in physical stature and personality. But Gasol is more likely to baby hook or be in the right place for an offensive rebound than bash skulls and break out into rap. His deft touch from 10 feet out was misinterpreted as some phobia of MIXIN’ IT UP, his guard-like vision underappreciated in a world of Godzillas and Gameras. He was one of the five most efficient big men in the NBA in each of his first three full seasons with the Lakers, but it’s harder to appreciate those masterful drop steps to easy dunks when they don’t leave the basket stanchion shaking.

Since that fortuitous midseason deal that sent him to Los Angeles, Gasol has existed in a fishbowl where everything is filtered through the lens of Bryant -- his standards, his behavior -- and not showing the same public ferocity, outside of arguing calls, has always colored Gasol as lesser than. But those differences are ultimately what's made Gasol and Bryant such a good fit. Shaq’s dominance helped Kobe to that extra ring, and that matters, but Gasol's deference, both in personality and style of play, fit Bryant better than O’Neal ever did. Said Bryant about O’Neal in a recent profile in The New Yorker: “It used to drive me crazy that he was so lazy. You got to have the responsibility of working every single day. You can’t skate through s---.” If O’Neal was an attention-seeking “clown,” as described in that profile, then Gasol was the efficient assistant Bryant's one-man act always needed. The relationship has incurred its bumps -- which involving Bryant hasn’t? -- but we’re now at the point where Bryant says things like, “If I could choose my brother,” it would be Gasol.

Pau Gasol
Pau Gasol won two titles in L.A., but his Lakers run could end amid one of the franchise's worst seasons.
It’s that acceptance from Bryant that ultimately seems to have quelled concerns that often obscure Gasol's brilliance. Guys like Chris Bosh and Kevin Love stepping out to the 3-point line helped, and winning a title or two seems to have given him some Skull and Bones-type privileges in L.A., but Gasol now operates with the official Bryant seal of approval, which effectively works as a giant force field against derision from a certain swath of the public. Being likened to a swan isn't cool unless it’s Bryant making the comparison.

And so we’re left with ... what, exactly? Now that the context in which we've viewed him for so long doesn't really exist, we can see Gasol for what he really is. But at 33 and on the wrong side of his peak, what’s there to see isn’t much, relative to what was. Pretty good can’t carry a team of mercenaries and borderline pros into contention, clearly, or make all of those national TV games compelling, and so those 29, 12 and four nights just sink to the bottom of the news stack, his dust-ups with Mike D’Antoni become clouds of smoke in the most forgettable Lakers season in about a decade. The Celtics holding on to Rondo at the February trade deadline opened up a whole mess of new questions about his and the franchise’s future. The Lakers’ inability to move Gasol seemed to signal an end for which all parties had long since been prepared.

Now, after this recent spate of vertigo, it appears likely that his finale has, appropriately, already come and gone. Maybe Gasol will receive some sort of curtain call from his bench seat at one of the remaining four home games as the Lakers, with their loss total creeping closer and closer to 60, play out the string. Otherwise, all that appears to be left is that inevitable last thank-you tweet to fans, and maybe one more this summer to say goodbye.

What a nice guy, we’ll say. And that’ll be that.