Gasol brothers matchup one of mutual admiration

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By Sam Smith | 12.19.2014 | 11:07 a.m. CT

They had their dreams and their hopes like any kids, Pau Gasol, the lanky one who saw himself as the next Toni Kukoc, running the break, a little Magic Johnson look here and pass there, pull up for the big Toni three.

“I followed the Bulls when I was 11, 12, 13 because they were so successful and Michael and Scottie and the rest of the guys were dominant during that period of time,” recalled Pau Gasol, now following in that Bulls tradition. “And so the NBA was attractive at the time. I wasn’t paying much attention to what was going on in European basketball. Toni was the guy I followed because he was a tall three, small forward who could handle, who could shoot. I played small forward until I was 18, 19 years old because I wasn’t big enough; I wasn’t strong enough. I was a three. I was probably 6-8, probably 190 pounds. So that’s who I looked up to, Toni. His game resembled what I could accomplish.”

Not so for Marc Gasol, who always was the big one, the center, though too big when he was small. He liked playing basketball, but didn’t think the NBA was for him, not as a low second round draft pick, an overweight kid in high school who didn’t even go to the NBA draft workouts because that individual NBA style was not for him.

“Basketball has always been really natural for me,” said Marc. “I knew I could play. I just didn’t know what time everything was going to click and if I was going to make a true commitment to the game of basketball and do what it takes to be the basketball player that I could become. Pre draft work outs; I remember seeing bigs running up and down the floor and two on two full court and one on one and stuff like that. To me that was not team basketball. (I thought) if I go there I’m going to look even worse because that’s not the way you’re supposed to play basketball. We started watching the draft that same night and honestly after the 20th pick they told me that I had a chance to go 28th to the Spurs. They were picking between me and Tiago Splitter. I just decided when the second round started I went to sleep. I decided the NBA wasn’t for me. So I said, ‘You’re back where you want to be, Pau. Good for you, you’re playing for a championship team and go get it!’ I was just happy for him honestly (and to play out my own career in Europe).”

But that was then, and now the Gasols, preparing to face one another Friday when the Bulls are in Memphis, are arguably the most successful brother combination in NBA history. Both seem almost certain to be All-Stars this season, which would be only the second time in NBA history brothers play in an All-Star game. The Van Ardsdales did it in 1970 and 1971.

But no brother combination can claim accomplishment to the levels of the Gasols. Pau, of course, won two championships with the Lakers and is a four-time All-Star. Marc was an All-Star in 2012 and is a former Defensive Player of the Year who this season with the Grizzlies fast start is being mentioned as a top league MVP candidate. Marc will be the No. 1 free agent this summer when his contract expires. Pau averaging 18.7 points and 11.7 rebounds has been a most valuable Bull along with Jimmy Butler. Pau’s an almost certain Hall of Famer and Marc has the ability to get there the way his career is progressing.

“It’s always fun to go to Memphis for me,” said Pau, who was an All-Star in 2006 with the Grizzlies, where he also was 2002 Rookie of the Year. “I experienced so much there. We look forward to the challenge. It’s a little weird (playing against Marc in the NBA), but it’s fun. It’s special to have the opportunity to play against your brother at the highest level of basketball. We’re both doing pretty well, so it’s meaningful. It’s a lot of pride involved. But it is a little weird.

“I think that we understand we are doing well and so far we’ve had a fair amount of success in our careers and I think all those judgments or statements (about best ever) you could make maybe after you’re done playing, after everything is said and done. Then you can compare,” said Pau.

“I am very proud, always been very proud of my brother, what he’s been able to do as a person let alone as a pro basketball player,” said Pau. “How far he’s come, what he’s able to deal with. Who he is today, what he’s become as a man and as a basketball player. I enjoy watching him play and I always have.”

Marc’s been the one who’s had to work so much harder; the game came more naturally to Pau. Plus, Marc had to subjugate his career when Pau was drafted. The entire family moved to Memphis, living frugally. Marc ballooned up in high school in Memphis, out of shape and looking as little like an NBA player as possible. He was recruited by John Calipari at Memphis, but he wasn’t even ready for that. He’d return to Spain to play and consider his future. Eventually, he’d be the throw-in on the then much maligned trade of Pau to the Lakers. It was viewed around the NBA as giving the Lakers titles, and they would win two. Though Grizzlies management talked of wanting Marc, they didn’t even know whether he could or would play in the NBA. Pau said for years when he was in Memphis he asked the Grizzlies to sign Marc and they were not interested. Now, the Grizzlies’ future rests on resigning Marc after the season.

“We realize how lucky we are to have the chance to accomplish those things,” says Marc. “We have talked about that (both playing at a high level in the NBA) before and how unique it is to be able to compete and at the same time, the main thing we represent as players and as persons, ourselves. So we know how fortunate we are to be in the position we are right now. We understand that and we enjoy it. Every time we get to play against one another, even though we are extra competitive and we both want to win, we are super respectful to one another. At the same time we understand how lucky we are and the position we are in. it doesn’t happen very often.”

They were comfortable suburban Barcelona kids, the sons of a doctor, their mom, and their dad a nursing administrator. Both parents played in basketball leagues and pursued the world of academics. Pau became an accomplished pianist and headed to medical school. Marc got dragged along to Memphis, where basketball didn’t go all that well despite good statistics at his private high school. Being known as “the big burrito” was not a compliment.

I didn’t quite enjoy watching him play in high school because it was ridiculous,” said Pau. “He (actually) was at a higher level when he was younger than I was. Growing up, he played from 13 years old at FC Barcelona. I didn’t get to FC Barcelona until I was 16. I was a late bloomer. When he made the transition to Memphis, to high school, playing at that level in private school was not very challenging and he gained a lot of weight those two years. To the point where he had to make a decision: ‘I have to go back. I have to get out of here.’

“I think he saw that he was not happy where he was heading,” said Pau. “He made that decision, which wasn’t easy because he was leaving the family in Memphis, being on his own in Barcelona. He started working exceptionally hard to prove that he could become a great basketball player. It’s been a long road and right now I think he’s at his peak professionally and personally as well. It’s kind of all merging together for him. It’s been wonderful to watch. The team is doing really well so that helps. We wouldn’t talk about certain things if the team was not as complete and solid as they are right now.”

The Grizzlies, especially with their terrific wins this week ending the Warriors winning streak and defeating the Spurs in triple overtime in San Antonio, are considered a legitimate title contender for the first time in franchise history. Much because of Marc, who since his return from injury last January has led the Grizzlies to be among the best teams in the NBA. A long way from the overweight Memphis teenager who changed his body like few in sports.

“I was 6 years old when I started (playing basketball) and I think we both started because my dad and mom used to play basketball and we both would go watch our dad’s game,” recalled Marc. “We didn’t get to see my mom play much because once she had us, of course, she stopped playing. But my dad was still playing and we’d go see his team and that was my first memory in basketball.

“We never traveled as a family, so (then) we managed to move to a different country and move to a city like Memphis. It was a cultural shock at first,” said Marc. “The family nucleus stayed together; we lived in this little apartment our first year. I had to share a room with my dad because my little brother wanted to live with my mom. I shared a room with my dad for a whole year. It was OK, it was good. I got to learn a different culture. We saw things that we would only see in the movies. For us, it was a different view and actually makes you a better person when you get out of your comfort zone and you have to make it in not so comfortable of a situation. So you come out of your cocoon and you learn more things about yourself and eventually I think you become a better person.

“To me (while living in Memphis), the NBA was just light years from where I was at,” said Marc. “So I had to go back to Spain. I had a chance to go back to college and have a chance to play at Memphis for coach Calipari but I decided that I had to go back to Spain with my old team in Barcelona. They won the previous European Championship before I got there. They won two Spanish leagues in a row when I got there, so I had a chance to work with the best players and the best coach.

“I had gained a lot of weight those two years in high school and I felt like I had to go back to Spain and start the drawing board again if I wanted to give it a real shot,” said Marc. “I had to move away from that close family I had in Memphis. I had to move away from my parents and my older brother and younger brother. And I had to, you know, kind of create my own path and I did that.”

Which isn’t that easy when you have a brother so accomplished and successful at the highest level of pro basketball. But as they prepare to face one another they find it difficult to suppress their joy at one another’s success.

“I didn’t quite see he was going to become as good of a player as he is today,” says Pau. “I thought he had a chance, but it was a long way for him because of the physical effort and work he would have to put in. He was big, wider, thicker, a bigger frame. He was always bigger and he was very skilled, always had a great touch, great shooting skills. Great feel for the game, but he had to work on his body to be able to be one of the best players on a professional level, on the highest level. And he’s done that. He’s played at a very, very high level the last four, five years in the NBA. I’m just proud of him.

“I wanted Memphis to pick him (in the 2007 draft), Pau said. “I insisted they would try to pick him and get his rights after the Lakers picked him. Neither Marc nor I thought he was going to fall that far down. He was thinking maybe late first, early second round. So he had a couple teams in mind that he approached his agent at the time; but when that didn’t happen he fell to 48 and I contacted Memphis to try to get his rights right away from the Lakers. But they (Grizzlies) didn’t want to do it at the time. While I was still in Memphis, (I kept saying), ‘Look how well Marc is playing. He was MVP of the league in Spain, dominated the league that year.’ I kept saying, ‘I told you, I told you, I told you.’ Now the Lakers don’t want to trade his rights and he was involved in my trade.

“Memphis didn’t know at the time how good Marc was going to be,” said Pau. “I think it was a good move for both franchises because Memphis was still rebuilding. I was tired of being in a rebuilding situation. And they got cap space by trading me and they got a great player in Marc. But nobody really knew that. So they had the cap space to sign Zach (Randolph), which they did the next year and they weren’t going anywhere that season, anyways. And they gave me the opportunity to go to the Lakers, which I’ll always be thankful for that because I could have gone anywhere. We don’t talk about it, the past. Maybe we’ll do that at some other point in our lives. Right now we’re just focusing on enjoying the ride.”