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Thursday, October 11, 2007
With Navarro and Gasol on court, Spain treats Grizzlies like one of its own

By Ian Whittell
Special to

MADRID, Spain -- They may not be the most popular sports team in Memphis but as the Grizzlies concluded their week-long Iberian love fest Thursday night, one thing was abundantly clear.

Whatever problems they may have in the States, Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro and the Grizz are a firm "numero uno" in their native Spain.

Pau Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro
Gasol and Navarro are now free to discuss ways to lift Memphis in the competitive West.

Memphis rebounded from the shock of losing to European power Unicaja Malaga in midweek by defeating MMT Estudiantes 98-73 at the Palacio de los Deportes in Madrid Thursday evening, a win that featured four players in double digits, led by another Euro, Darko Milicic's 13 points.

It was not a result that indicated much, given that Estudiantes are a middle of the pack Spanish ACB team which will not be competing in the elite level Euroleague this season and which did not even enjoy homecourt advantage -- the Palacio being home to mighty Real Madrid which played the Toronto Raptors in the second game of a doubleheader that concluded the NBA's Europe Live tour for 2007.

But one thing that the game did prove -- if, indeed, it needed proving -- is that in Spain, Gasol, Navarro and, therefore, the Grizzlies, are treated like soccer stars. And, in this part of the world, there is no bigger compliment than that.

"They deserved it," said teammate Mike Miller of the attention that the pair have attracted in Spain this week. "They won the World Championship with Spain last year and there is no wonder there are more Spanish players in the league now. It has been fun watching them over here."

Gasol was given a predictable hero's pregame welcome but, if anything, Navarro even more so, a surprising response from the Madrid crowd given that the guard played his club ball here with bitter rivals FC Barcelona. The Spanish, however, appreciate two things -- people who perform well for the national team and the little guy (remember how Allen Iverson sent Spanish fans into delirium in this event a year ago).

When Gasol (who scored 12 points in 20 minutes) or Navarro (6 points and 4 assists in 23 minutes) sat on the bench for any length of time, the crowd soon began to chant their names, encouraging new Grizzlies coach Marc Iavaroni to return them to the action.

Darko Milicic
After cleaing the air with Gasol, Milicic seems to be fitting in.

But perhaps the most interesting crowd reaction was reserved for another new Memphis player, Milicic, who was jeered and whistled -- in a way only European hoops fans can -- every time he touched the ball.

The reason for the hostility lay in comments made by Milicic over the summer when he was quoted in a newspaper in his homeland of Serbia, calling Gasol and the Spanish team "soft" before last month's Eurobasket tournament (some European experts, of course, would say that Milicic had a point, especially after the manner in which the host Spaniards lost the Final to Russia.)

So, the proverbial flies on the wall of the Grizzlies' locker room must have had a treat when Darko and Pau met for the first time this summer? "We talked about it and he didn't believe that I had said those things," said Milicic.

"It happened because we had to play Spain and I was talking to the guys in our [Serbia] locker room. I didn't say that they were bad players, we all know they are world champions, a great group. But I was just saying that we were more physical than them, it was my idea of how to win the game, to play physical and stronger than them. We didn't have the talent they had.

"So I did say they were softer than us but only because I was saying we were physically stronger and that we had to play like the old Yugo[slavia] and Serbia teams used to play for a long time, physically with strong fouls and no easy layups. Maybe that's where they took the quotes from but I never said Pau was soft. I do some stuff, talk about referees, stuff like that happens to me because I'm p----d off but I never talk about players being soft."

Of course, a lot of worse slurs have been hurled in Milicic's direction during his unremarkable two-team, four-year NBA career to date, but early indications are that the improvements shown during his time with the Orlando Magic, following the debacle of his spell with the Detroit Pistons, will continue.

"I want to prove something," said Milicic of his new club and the new season. "But I also want to be a team player and part of a Memphis team that's going to become a great team. I know Pau Gasol is in front of me and he's one of the best big guys in the world, he's the guy who most of the play is going to go through. So I need to prove myself but I've also got to do some other things to make Memphis a playoff team because I'm positive we can be a playoff team."

Could it possibly be, therefore, that after struggling with the burden of being the second name called by the Pistons in the 2003 draft, Milicic, 22, is about to fulfill some of those early expectations?

"It was bad in Detroit," said Milicic. "It surprised me and disappointed me that I never got a chance there. Orlando gave me a chance to play and I appreciate what they gave me but I really want more and that is why, right now, I have chosen the best team for me, a great group of young guys that really wants to win."

Iavaroni has quickly been won over by Milicic in camp and two preseason games. "Right now he needs to be a little more selfish and shoot the ball because he is a very good shooter," said the Grizzlies' first-year coach. "But he is working hard and overall we have been very impressed with his effort, especially defensively. He has done everything we have asked of him and his teammates kind of like him."

Of course -- and we have uttered this warning at every camp this week -- this is the time of year when everybody likes everybody, when everyone plays the public-relations game and pretends they are delighted to be where they are ... well, everybody apart from the Minnesota Timberwolves, perhaps.

Pau Gasol
Gasol points the way for a revamped Memphis team.

But one piece of business carried out by the Grizzlies this close season will undoubtedly prove a PR coup. Linking Navarro, in exchange for a future first-round draft pick going to the Washington Wizards, with Gasol not only landed Memphis one of the best guards to emerge from Europe over the past decade but also ensured that the days of Pau agitating to get out of a Grizzlies uniform are a thing of the past.

"Pau is in a terrific state of mind, very upbeat and excited about the prospect of the team," said new Memphis GM Chris Wallace. "We established an open line of communication in the offseason and he was appraised of everything we did, free-agent wise, what the reasons behind the moves were. He was obviously thrilled when we were able to come up with Juan Carlos, his close friend and teammate.

"So he wants to hire an outside person to help him get more involved in the Greater Memphis community which was music to my ears when I heard those sentiments and we're going to work on that once we get back home. Pau has obviously been our focal point and face of this franchise for quite some time and we're committed to making this merger work between our new regime and him. We want to build around him and put him in a position to win."

Which begs the question, how much was Navarro signed for his basketball abilities and how much to act as the leader of Pau's entourage, a signing designed simply to prevent Gasol from trying to resurrect those trade talks with the Chicago Bulls or other potential suitors?

"He is a stand-alone player, a legitimate NBA player," said Wallace. "He has been one of the elite guards in Europe throughout his career at FC Barcelona and his abilities and résumé were the reason behind bringing him over. But his relationship with Pau was very appealing to us as well."

Navarro certainly looked NBA caliber against Estudiantes, although the quality of the opposition must again be taken into account. Starting point guard Damon Stoudamire, currently holding pole position in the contest to hold that position come the regular season, even looked a force, especially in the first quarter when the Grizzlies raced into a 32-11 lead that killed off any sense of competition for the crowd of 15,000.

Having been overwhelmed in the rebounding department against Malaga, Memphis were much improved in that area against Estudiantes (a 51-40 edge) and showed signs of the defensive improvements Iavaroni has stressed from the first day of camp.

Perhaps, after the disasters of last season involving the injury to Gasol, the Spaniard's efforts to leave the club, a coaching change and owner Michael Heisley's failed attempts to sell the team, life is finally looking up for Grizzlies fans -- whether in Memphis or Spain.

"It was no secret [Michael] Heisley attempted to sell the team last year," said Wallace. "That did not come to fruition and he has committed himself to building a winner in Memphis. He has paid his money out and spent strongly. This year, we have spent everything we could under the cap. He has given Marc Iavaroni and I the green light to do whatever we feel necessary to improve the team and has been very supportive of our efforts. He is committed to getting us back on a winning track and constructing a team that can go further than the first round in the playoffs."

Ian Whittell covers the NBA for the London Times.