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Steve Aschbruner

Pau Gasol is one of the NBA's spokespeople for World Aids Day on Dec. 1.
NBAE via Getty Images

Boyhood passion fuels Gasol's activism for World AIDS Day

Posted Nov 30 2010 9:55PM

Hospital appearances and PSAs -- public-service announcements, though almost everyone in pro sports refers to them in shorthand -- are part of the NBA's landscape, same as the other leagues. What goes on with them, typically, ranges from obligatory participation for public-relations purposes to genuine, heartfelt compassion.

That's not being cynical -- it's being realistic, and pretty much what you would get from a cross section of busy, in-demand civilians, too. Some would do it for the patients and the causes, some would do it for the photo op.

And then there's Pau Gasol, power forward -- actually, overworked fill-in center these days -- for the Los Angeles Lakers and a fellow for whom every sick kid, every worthy medical cause, represents a big "What if...?" challenge to the life's path he has chosen.

Before Gasol became one of the world's best basketball players, he wanted to become a doctor. One of the world's very best at that profession, too, had he successfully reached his goals at the time. They were, after all, rather large: Cure AIDS. Save Magic Johnson.

He was only 11 years old back in 1991, a grade school student back in Barcelona, Spain, when he and the rest of the world got the stunning news from Johnson himself that the Lakers' three-time NBA MVP had "attained" the deadly virus. "I thought, 'He's going to die,' " Gasol told this summer. "At that time, HIV ... AIDS equaled death. I was wandering around school, just thinking about it, just 'Wow.' "

The significance of Gasol's reaction to the news then, to the desire of a passionate young NBA fan to somehow make things right, was not lost on him last week in a dressing room in Minneapolis.

Johnson, arguably the greatest Laker ever, still is alive and well nearly 20 years after learning that he had been infected. Gasol is a part of Lakers lore now, too, having helped the team to back-to-back NBA championships in 2009 and 2010. And here is Gasol, a spokesperson for World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, one of several NBA players participating in a new PSA stressing awareness and prevention but probably the only one who imagined a career in medicine dedicated to it.

"Probably a lot," Gasol said of the lasting impact on him of Johnson's diagnosis. "That's part of the message, too. It signals that, together, with greater links, how much more powerful we can be. If you understand what's going on, what you can do to prevent it and treat and manage it, you're doing yourself a big favor."

Gasol's mother Marisa was a doctor and his father Agusti was a nurse administrator back in Spain. As HIV and AIDS mushroomed through both the world's population and the global media, they knew little more than the general public about the virus, its transmission and its repercussions. Gasol -- like a lot of us -- thought Johnson faced a fairly swift and grisly end. Then came the fears with his desire to stay active, first in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and later in a comeback to the Lakers. The NBA's "blood" rules were instituted and Karl Malone and others wondered about their exposure through physical contact.

"Once the sickness started and began to spread out, people didn't understand. Not at first, Gasol said. "At first, there was a big stigma and people didn't want to have anything to do with it. If somebody had it, they wanted to isolate him and get away as far as possible.

That's what a lack of information does to you. That's why I encourage awareness and be informed. Ask questions. Find out. Those are important things."

Others in the NBA and WNBA have been touched even more directly by the disease. Candace Wiggins of the Minnesota Lynx was "born into" the issue, just shy of her fourth birthday in 1991, when her father Alan, a former major league baseball player, died from complications of AIDS at age 32. Former NBA forward Jayson Williams' troubled on- and off-court existence -- he currently is serving a five-year sentence for the accidental shotgun slaying (and cover-up attempt) of a limo driver -- is inseparable from the deaths of two sisters from AIDS in the 1980s.

But Gasol's family background, his love of the NBA and his intellectual curiosity made AIDS and other medical issues an area of intense interest, both before and after his lone year as a med student at the University of Barcelona. Basketball -- Gasol was playing for the FC Barcelona junior team at the time -- soon crowded out his studies, but his choice was a good one because now he has a platform from which to do his charitable works.

"Obviously with my parents both involved in the medial field growing up, that had a lot to do with it," said Gasol, who was to appear in a PSA along with Atlanta's Al Horford and Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook. "Plus I also had a special interest about medicine."

No kidding: The Lakers' lanky forward has been an ambassador for Spain's UNICEF committee since 2003. He has traveled to Africa -- South Africa, Angola and, this summer, Ethiopia -- to push the fight against HIV and AIDS. Gasol has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the effort, along with his time in a shadow career to his better-known basketball profile.

It's one thing to sit through the NBA's sessions on sexuality and AIDS awareness, informational meetings to familiarize players with statistics, risks and methods of transmissions. It's quite another to embrace this battle and others. Or, for that matter, to witness scoliosis spinal surgery in an operating room with orthopedist David Skaggs of Children's Hospital in Hollywood, as Gasol did over the summer.

"I feel extremely privileged and fortunate that basketball has allowed me to do far greater things in life than I would have imagined," Gasol said last week. "I'm very thankful about it, and that's why I'm very pro-active in different matters."

Gasol's bottom line for World AIDS Day? "Just because it hasn't happened to you doesn't mean you should be less conscious about it," he said. "I think information is always powerful. What you can do if you have somebody around you or close to you who has it, how to behave and handle it, and contribute and help. ... It's important to understand that it's a serious sickness and that it can be prevented in many ways. We can face it."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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