If you're going to carry a team, a city and an entire country on your shoulders, you'll have to do a few lat pulls. Which is why, three weeks after he was handed the NBA's Rookie of the Year trophy, we find Pau Gasol kicking back in the lobby outside the fitness center of his hometown's swankiest hotel, the Juan Carlos I. He's not actually working out this afternoon, he's just sorta used to being here. Barcelona is the kind of place where people meet for tapas around 10 p.m. to discuss where they might want to go for a predinner drink, and it's here that Pau finds his sanctuary from the Gasolmania that has swept his home country of Spain. His homecoming press conference was a circus that drew more than 100 screaming reporters and was carried live on Spanish TV, and the sports talk stations that dominate the airwaves here blare his name out of passing taxi windows like the sound effects from a '30s detective serial: Pow! Pow! Pow!
Wait a second, Copa del Rey? Isn't that the Shakira song with all the maracas in it? (For those not up on Euro hoops, it's an NCAA-style tournament among the top Spanish leagues.) Since when do they grow basketball players in Spain?
Raise your right hand and say "Steve Francis" if you cringed when the Grizzlies sent budding star forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim to the Hawks for Brevin Knight, Lorenzen Wright and the third pick in the 2001 draft. Or winced when they used that pick on a player from Spain, a country where poor boys still dream of growing up to be bullfighters and whose previous NBA output had consisted of one Fernando Martin (24 games with Portland in 1986-87). Gasol was a guy who started the 2000-01 European season subbing for Rony Seikaly, whom even Bryant Reeves could probably still post up.
Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, a region of Spain akin to French Quebec in Canada. Not only do the Cataláns speak a different language than other Spaniards, they figure they'd be a whole lot better off if they could just secede from the non-Catalán slackers in Madrid and Seville. Cataláns are famous throughout southern Europe for being hard workers and blunt speakers. "I had a lot of confidence in myself," Gasol says, with the conviction and emotion of a man who's been injected with truth serum. "Physically, I've been always very skilled. I push myself hard. I'm a very talented guy. I know how to play. I'm pretty smart."
When NBA scouts started dropping serious hints, Gasol paid $2.2 million to buy out his own contract with F.C. Barcelona. But not everyone back home shared Gasol's faith in himself. Certainly no one foresaw 17.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.06 blocks a game in the NBA. "Before the season, no one in Spain expected [his success]," says Paco Torres, editor of Gigantes del basket, a weekly Spanish hoops magazine. "Remember, our only experience was with Fernando Martin. We hoped for Pau to be one of the first off the bench."
Before Pau's NBA splash, the Gasols were a fairly typical -- if somewhat tall -- Catalán family living in Sant Boi del Llobregat, an upper-middle-class suburb southwest of Barcelona. María -- Dr. Mom -- was a 6'1" general practitioner. Dad Agusti was a 6'4" nursing administrator. Pau and 16-year-old Marc were already seven feet and turned on to hoops. Eight-year-old Adria prefers turning laps in the pool to jumpers on the basketball court.
Gasol started playing baloncesto at age 7, but he wasn't some LeBron James lighting up the asphalt and counting the hours until his first paycheck. "Physically, he was very skinny, very lazy, not very strong," says the equally straight-talking Agusti Gasol. Pau was content to see his parents play league ball and to shoot around at the hoop outside his grandma's house. The work ethic kicked in right before he hit his teens. "He started to play seriously at age 12," says his father. That's when Pau joined the F.C. Barcelona juniors squad, the same year the original Dream Team descended on Barcelona for the Olympics.
Gasol, who played guard before a late growth spurt, was on the '99 Spanish juniors team that upset the U.S. in the World Championships, but he didn't overwhelm anybody. Still, fancy ballhandlers with 7'5" wingspans can't hide forever, not even in northern Spain. Memphis GM Dick Versace says director of player personnel Tony Barone was tracking Gasol long before either of them even worked for the Grizzlies. After one trip to Spain in 2001, Barone cleared customs with an armful of Gasol action tapes. Versace retired to his office and emerged six hours later, dumbfounded, saying, "I cannot believe this guy can do this stuff."
There were a few doubts, though. Gasol had averaged just 4.2 points per game in Barcelona's 1999-2000 season -- a passable stat in the socialist-style European system, in which everybody on the bench gets minutes, but hardly an eight-digit contract number. But then Gasol took control of the finals in the 2001 Copa del Rey and snagged the MVP award as he led F.C. Barcelona to the title over rival Real Madrid. "He started saying, 'I want the ball,' " says Torres. "That's when people started saying he could play in the NBA."
Not counting Pau Gasol Bobblehead Doll Night at The Pyramid, there were three breakout moments for Gasol last season. The first came in the Grizzlies' fourth game of the season, against the Suns, when Gasol racked up 27 points and gained instant credibility with his teammates. Postgame analysis: "I was coming off the bench at the 4 spot. I just wanted to play some minutes." The second -- dunking over his former hero, Kevin Garnett, on Dec.6 -- made him known to the league. Postgame analysis: "Everyone talks about it, but it was just a dunk. I went hard to the basket and made it, and that was all." (Gasol was a little more honest with the Spanish paper El Mundo: "Garnett didn't respect me much before then.") The third, and by far most important achievement: stepping on the same court as Michael Jordan, on Dec.11. That's when Gasolmania kicked off in Spain.
From an American La-Z-Boy, it's hard to imagine "Grizzlies-Wizards: 8 p.m." as must-see TV for anyone without three bookies on speed dial. The two daily sports papers in Spain treated the game as if it were the pivotal contest of the season. The key matchup, of course, was Jordan vs. Gasol. That the Wizards beat the Grizzlies by 10 is unimportant, as is the fact that Gasol lost his Catalán cool for once and went momentarily gaga over playing against MJ. Until that day, there had been essentially two classes of sports in Spain that did not involve the ritual killing of livestock by men in tight, spangly outfits: soccer, and not soccer. The Wizards game changed all that.
"When a Spaniard does something outside of Spain and does it well," says Torres, "like Julio Iglesias, Antonio Banderas, Miguel Indurain ... you take on a new status -- like an idol."
Suddenly, a flood of Q&A's with Gasol was appearing in papers throughout Spain, bumping Penélope Cruz to second-most-obsessed-about Spaniard, and the Memphis airport was handling almost as many proud Catalán arrivals as FedEx packages. "All of the papers, the national magazines, the radio -- they used to talk only about soccer," says Torres. "Now, people on the street, ladies in the supermarket, everyone is talking about Gasol and about basketball."
Even average-size Spaniards tend to live with their parents until age 30 or older. So when Gasol brought his parents and brothers with him to Memphis and bought a nice, big house, no one in Spain thought it sounded like an Iberian Osbournes in the making. Mom cooked Catalán-style meals ("I try to eat at home as much as possible" is how Gasol describes his reaction to American cuisine); Dad kept on top of Gasol Inc. (and managed to find a handful of Catalán speakers in Memphis); and Marc averaged 26 points a game for Lausanne Collegiate School. (Displaying the Catalonian tendency toward confidence and bluntness, Marc told a Madrid newspaper, "I'm better at my age than Pau was" and that American kids threw house parties "just like in the movies on TV.") After accepting the ROY award in New York City, Gasol posed for a few photos, then rushed back to Barcelona, beating his family back by weeks.
The chaotic press conference merely confirmed that Gasol is the unofficial king of Spain. He met the real king of Spain, the guy whose face is on the stamps and money, on July 12, when he was presented with the award for best male Spanish athlete of 2001, ahead of soccer's Raul and golfer Sergio Garcia. Even if he had to deal with mobs of autograph hounds, Gasol was really, really happy to be back among his people, including best friend and former Barça teammate J.C. Navarro, who some think may be the next Spaniard to make the trip across the Atlantic. "It took me a while to adjust to Memphis," says Gasol. Another swig of truth serum. "It's so different from everywhere."
Barcelona is the cosmopolitan Mediterranean city where Picasso sketched out Guernica. Memphis is the humid Mississippi River town where Elvis shot out his TV. Seriously, Pau, do Memphis and Barcelona have anything in common?
"Me, I guess."
Five seconds of silence. "Nothing at all."
No wonder Gasol says he wouldn't mind playing in Miami. Right now, the gangly big man of Memphis and Barcelona just needs to get bigger, which is why he spent quality time in the weight room at the Juan Carlos I before heading to Indy with his Spanish team for the World Championships.
Gasol says he'd like to be the next Tim Duncan, who's got about 30 pounds on him, and it was hard not to notice the new definition in Gasol's triceps and biceps in Indy. It was also easy to see that he was often the best player on the court, leading Spain to a fifth-place finish -- its best ever -- with 19.1 points and 7.8 rebounds a game, including a 25-point, eight-rebound gem against eventual champion Yugoslavia.
Of course, if every seven-footer who could handle the ball and had a soft shooting touch were assured NBA success, there'd be a statue of Brad Sellers outside the United Center. Assuming Jerry West gets the Grizzlies into the playoffs before Gasol's rookie contract expires, will Gasol still be the man to get the ball when the game's on the line, just like in the Copa del Rey? "That's the decision of the coach," he says. "Or of Jason Williams."
There's a Catalán word, seny, that the people use to explain what makes them different from other Spaniards. It translates roughly as "common sense" or "don't refuse to leave the bench with 1.4 seconds left during the Eastern Conference semifinals." Gasol may never be the next Tim Duncan, but if Catalonia ever gets its independence, the crown prince of Spanish basketball might end up on stamps and coins, too. And with a little bit of seny, a few thousand lat pulls and some help in the middle, the most popular man in Spain might one day be something even better in his adopted country.
He could be Memphis' new King.
This article appears in the October 28 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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