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Marc Gasol wants to avoid attention while helping others

Big man sees impending free agency as more than just basketball

POSTED: Dec 27, 2014 1:51 PM ET

By Ian Thomsen

BY Ian Thomsen

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Pau and Marc Gasol, who created the Gasol Foundation last year to help others, spend time with patients at St. Jude.

— "We had a camp that we would go to," he says. "It was down south."

It is easy for Marc Gasol to remember how he felt when he was their age.

"We would play every sport," he says of those summers in Spain with his older brother Pau Gasol. "From bocce ball to ping pong to soccer to basketball -- we would sign up for everything. We would literally spend the whole day just competing with everybody. I would go watch him play and he would watch me play, and that's how we grew up. Then at the end of the summer you would see how many little trophies you got. We always kept all the trophies in my grandmother's place, we put them up there. I remember that."

All of this is part of the larger story. He wants them to understand that he grew up neither rich nor expecting to be famous.

"We never had anything extraordinary, but we never missed anything," Gasol says. "My mom, she worked at the factory as a doctor, and as a family doctor too. My dad was a nurse administrator. My parents always made sure we had the best education, and food on the table. Our clothes wasn't fancy. I had patches everywhere. My mom on Wednesday was going to the flea market. For vacation we would take our little RV -- it was a little trailer, you open it in half, and you have my parents sleeping on the one side and me and Pau on the other. And we had the best time. We just drive everywhere. We ride on our bikes and we play basketball every day."

Pau, 34, is four and a half years older than Marc. (They have a much younger brother, 21-year-old Adria, who spent last season as a 6-foot-11 walk-on at UCLA.) When Pau was drafted No. 3 by the Grizzlies on his way to becoming the NBA Rookie of the Year in 2001-02, the Gasol family moved with him to Memphis. During his years of high school in Tennessee, Marc recognized that he was adrift. His response was life-changing. He decided to set off on his own.

"To this day my mom is still mad about it," Marc Gasol says.

At 7-foot-1 and 265 pounds, Gasol has emerged as an MVP candidate who has helped lead his Grizzlies into championship contention. Yet he makes no assumption that his success was meant to be. To say that he was destined to follow his brother to the top of the basketball world is to miss the point entirely.

GameTime: Gasol Brothers Feature

Watch this feature on the Gasol brothers, Marc and Pau, and their journey from Spain to dominating in the NBA.

"I wasn't anybody," he argues. "I wasn't outstanding. Nobody talked about me. Nobody was knocking on the door to come scout me."

He is a former defensive player of the year (in 2012-13) who is currently scoring a career-best 19.7 points to go with his 8.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists. He and Pau are already the best pair of brothers to ever play in the NBA; within two months, they will probably be opposing each other for the first time as All-Stars.

I'm pretty happy with who I am.

– Marc Gasol

All of this is coming together in the final year of Gasol's contract. Next summer he will emerge as the most valuable free agent on the market. He does not sound as if he is looking forward to it.

"I've been already through one," he says of the summer of 2011, when as a restricted free agent he re-signed with the Grizzlies for $58 million over four years, "and I did not especially enjoy it. I don't know how I'm going to feel in July. I really don't. This is the next five years of my life and I'm going to go all in. Whatever team you play for, you've always got to feel like you represent that team, that you've got to play for it. Because that's the way we grew up in Spain. You play for the city. You play for a way of doing things. It's not about you. I do this for them. I play for the city, for the franchise or whatever. You've got to have that pride that comes with it."

Do not misunderstand. Gasol is not complaining about the money and attention that is going to be thrown at him. "I'm pretty thankful for everything that happened," he says. What he is talking about has nothing to do with wealth or fame. This is about him seizing control of his life story. His goal is to sell it to a certain demographic.

The story that others want to tell, with regard to his impending free agency, is not what matters most to him. The reason he is not necessarily looking forward to being courted by the Spurs, Lakers, Knicks and other teams -- including the Grizzlies, who badly want to keep him -- is because those offers will come with enormous responsibility. This decision of how to invest the next four to five years of his life is going to be larger than basketball. It is that larger meaning that makes the game so important.

Coaches tend to complain about distractions. It is a big topic in college football especially, this idea that players must ignore the larger world in order to focus on the game.

"To me it's the opposite way," Gasol says. "Everything that I have outside the game, I play for them. I play for the kids -- for Adam and Annie, for Adam and Nick."

Nicholas London and Adam Cruthirds are two basketball players of high school age who are being treated for leukemia at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. Gasol, an ambassador to the hospital, met recently with them and Annie Parker, who is Adam's girlfriend.

"I play for the guys that watch me, and I know that they support me," Gasol says. The strength they draw from their relationship with him becomes, in turn, inspiring to him. "They always give me an extra push," he says. "It's the pride factor, I guess." He does not want to let them down.

There is nothing insincere or commercial about it. These relationships are important to him always. During the visit to St. Jude, Annie had mentioned that she was friends with a fan of the Grizzlies known as the "Bongo Lady." A few days later now, as Gasol stands on the edge of the team huddle during a timeout, the Bongo Lady makes her appearance. She is shown on the FedEx Forum scoreboard hammering spastically at a pair of virtual bongos while her teenaged son, sitting in the stands next to her, reacts with typical shame. Throughout her performance, Gasol is staring at her in the crowd and giggling.

"Because Adam's girlfriend was talking about her," Gasol explains after the game. "You saw her son next to her?"

His memories of these encounters do not drift away. He does not forget. Quite the opposite, he embraces them. They are what he needs.

"I was an overweight teenager -- I was," Gasol says. "I was really overweight, to the point that I could have problems if I didn't address it. So I can relate to them."

He is talking about the Gasol Foundation that he and Pau launched last year. Among their main targets is the epidemic of childhood obesity.

"I can relate to them, and I can tell them I know how you guys feel," Gasol says of the children he and his brother are hoping to reach. "And sometimes it's not even obvious that the kids have a problem. The kid may be just a little overweight, and people say he'll be fine, he'll go through a growth spurt and be skinny. But we don't know. You've got to see into each situation and try to break through a lot of layers of things to get to the real problem, and maybe after that the kid changes. He builds up."

Gasol weighed more than 300 pounds while he was at high school in Memphis. He had been much healthier as a boy in Barcelona, where his youth team was more demanding and regimented in the daily schedule it created for him.

"Having a lot of freedom. Being young and dumb, honestly, too. And not knowing, and not finding the real purpose for myself," he says, listing the reasons why he lost his way at Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis. "I'm new to the school, I'm learning a language and playing some kind of Division II basketball -- I loved my teammates, I loved the school, but that was not the highest level of basketball. And you only played for a short time, for four and a half months of the year; overseas you play pretty much all of the year. So it was different.

"I learn from this -- that was the best part. What happened to me, I used it. Then I became myself."

He became this star for whom the game appears to be so natural and easy.

"I educate myself," he goes on. "And right now I'm happy. I'm happy that I had it. I'm actually happy because that made me the person I am today. I'm pretty happy with who I am."

He dwells on his happiness, now; he is not going to take for granted something that he worked so hard to earn. He has met with enough kids to know that his own future happiness was not assured.

"And I can tell the kids, I have some pictures I'm not going to show everybody," he says. "I have some pictures that nobody has seen."

This is not easy for him to admit. But it is necessary.

"I mean, if we get to that point, I will show them the pictures," Gasol says. "This is who I was. If a kid is not feeling comfortable and not confident in themselves, he's saying, `Why would I change? Nobody cares.' It's a vicious cycle for kids. So you try to teach them that there's a way that you can fix this. If you believe long enough, it's going to be OK, I promise you. And then they see little results. Maybe they have a week of little goals, and we keep building."

"I think probably Pau has a little bit more variety to his game," says Spurs coach Gregg Popovich of the two Gasols. "Pau can come out and do the rocker step on you and play like a mobile four. And then he can go down to the block, and he's got moves in the block like his brother. I think his brother is a bit more of a rock-em-sock-em type player, but he has more finesse than most rock-em-sock-em guys."

"There is no difference between the way we see basketball; the way we execute is a little bit different," says Marc of comparisons with his brother. "The way he uses his right shoulder, drop-step to his left hand, is a thing of beauty. There is no doubt in my mind that Pau will be a Hall of Famer because of what he brought to the game, and there's no such players like him anymore."

For what Pau's younger brother lacks in finesse, he compensates with empathy. It is an ironic combination. He recognizes the needs of others, and then he applies his strength with direct impact. The force of his game is applied thoughtfully. There is no NBA center who is a better passer than Marc Gasol.

"It's necessary for us," says Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger of Gasol's passing from the high post. "It really is, because otherwise we're going to end up with a post on each side all of the time, and there's no place to go."

The Grizzlies have been able to pair him with 6-foot-9 low-post scorer Zach Randolph because of Gasol's playmaking. Pau Gasol's not-so-little brother looks out for the needs of others, and yet he is not going to be pushed around. It's as if the way he plays is a metaphor for the way he lives.

"She always says, 'You should have gone to college,"' Gasol says of his mother. "She's still mad at my decision, and she still reminds me. I say, 'I'm not going to get into a fight with you.' It's pointless."

After graduating from high school in Memphis, he moved back to Spain and played for Pau's former club at Barcelona. He had been living as Pau's younger brother for long enough.

"I was driven," Marc Gasol says. "I was never insecure. A lot of people ask me that -- especially, did you feel pressure being Pau's brother? No, because I saw success through him. And I felt it. Because we're so close of a family, when he got recognition, I felt happy for him. I felt genuinely happy for him."

When Marc Gasol returned to Spain in 2004, he spent most of his first three seasons with Barcelona on the bench. Later, when he began to experience success, he was careful to avoid backsliding.

"When the fighters came back to Rome, and the whole city is roaring and cheering for them," Marc Gasol was saying, "the Empire would hire people to tell them: 'You are human. You are just human."'

This story was told to him by his coach overseas. It came up after Gasol had been named the player of the week for the first time in Spain. The coach wanted him to understand the larger meaning of success: That the generals of ancient Rome were expected to behave as humbly as servants, even when they were being celebrated for their victories on the battlefield.

You can't have a foundation and not be informed.

– Marc Gasol

"They wanted them to understand that they are just humans," Gasol says. "They're doing their job, but at the end of the day they're just humans." With a laugh he adds, "Those people are not around anymore."

He is talking about the kinds of people that he keeps out of his life. "They're just going to tell you what you want to hear," he says. "You should be playing 30 minutes, you should have the ball more, you should do this, you should do that. Those people don't understand what it takes. They don't know about basketball."

marc gasol at st jude hospital
Marc Gasol spending time at St. Jude.

Gasol was 23 when he was named MVP of the Spanish ACB for the 2007-08 season. The Grizzlies were recruiting him hard to come back to Memphis. "I had nightmares at times that we weren't going to be able to sign him," says GM Chris Wallace. Even then, when he was on the verge of entering the NBA on his own merits, the bigger story at the time was that the Grizzlies had been fleeced by the Lakers in trading Pau Gasol for his younger brother.

One of his most inspiring qualities is the absence of complaint or cliché in his life. There is no chip on Gasol's shoulder when he plays, no prevailing desire to prove anyone wrong, no campaigning for respect. Those causes don't appear to matter to him.

"The best advice he ever gave me is control the things that you can control," Marc Gasol says of a conversation he had with his brother while trying to make his own way in Spain. "He told me: 'Control the things you can control, and the other things, they will come.' And that drove me for probably two years. He probably wouldn't even remember it, because he said it when we were having a good conversation. But that one just clicked, and to this day I hold onto that.

"A lot of the information -- when you're young, especially -- I kept it, and I didn't understand why. You felt like you are having a toolbox and they were giving you those tools. I just kept them in the toolbox. Later on a lot of things that were said to me made sense."

When Gasol returned to Memphis for the current season, he was noticeably slimmer. The last of the weight he had taken on a dozen or more years earlier in high school had come off. He had improved his diet. He had focused his workouts. He had learned to use the tools in the toolbox.

"It was like the perfect storm," Gasol says. "It was a perfect time for me and the work we were doing. You can't have a foundation and not be informed."

He and Pau had spent years speaking with experts of all kinds, trying to understand why kids were vulnerable and the difference their foundation could make to help them. For Marc it was as if he was out there listening to the advice he was sharing with young people -- as if he was in the audience himself, wanting deep down to become the man he has become today. The work had been developing for a long time. The investments he had made in himself had been building steadily. And now, just in time, here he is. Peaking.

In his backyards, in Tennessee and in Spain, he tends to gardens of vegetables and fruit. Fast food is no longer in his rotation. He prefers to eat the food that he grows.

"The red peppers and green peppers, the tomatoes of course," he says. "I grow strawberries, watermelon, onions, you name it. In Spain I have like 18 trees -- I grow cherries, prunes, oranges. A homegrown tomato, you're never going to taste anything like it. There is nothing close to it, the sweetness. And strawberries: The ones you get in the store are so hard; but you get a homegrown strawberry, it just melts, I'm telling you."

And so Gasol's basics are covered. He isolates from those who would feed his ego with junk, and he focuses on those who need his help. It hasn't been easy. But the man has never looked better.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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