Pau Gasol reflects on an All-Star career and life

The story in some respects Sunday at the first NBA All-Star game played outside the United States is the story of the international sports icon, NBA champion and perennial All-Star who probably is playing in his last NBA All-Star game.

Yes, Kobe Bryant, also.

”Just proud, proud and humbled by everything I’ve been able to accomplish,” Bulls center Pau Gasol said as he prepared for his sixth All-Star game. “I’m still playing at a very, very high level and recognized for it. I could never have dreamed of a career like this. But the fact is it’s been an incredible journey and I intend to prolong it for a few more years and I am definitely proud.

“No way you can imagine (this kind of career),” acknowledged Gasol, the native of Barcelona. “There was one Spanish player who played in the NBA before me, and he played briefly, Fernando Martin (24 games in 1986-87 for Portland). So it was something very hard to picture. I think it was unreachable, pretty much, at the time. But I had the opportunity; some of the scouts trusted my ability. I was drafted number three (in 2001), which rushed my decision to come. I was going to wait another year, but here we are.

“I was rookie of the year and incredible changes,” noted Gasol of his start in Memphis. “It was a hard year because I had to get used to losing a lot in Memphis the first couple of years. But we had some good times, a lot of growing up I did those years and it made me appreciate how hard things are in this league. You’ve got to come to work, give everything you have. So I have really great memories of my time there.

“You do especially when you get to this stage of your life,” Gasol said about perhaps his last All-Star game as he approaches 36 and free agency this summer. “It should be that way at any point of your life, in your career, where you embrace the moment and enjoy it like it is your last day there, your last event, time with whoever. We don’t really approach it that way all the time, but I really try to enjoy and share every single moment, every single championship, every single game. I try to enjoy like it’s my last one so I can give everything I have and feel good about it afterwards.”

Bryant’s Toronto farewell appearance, his 18th All-Star game, has been the theme of the weekend.

He actually got an ovation from reporters when he arrived for his media interview session Friday. Several reporters from around the world instead of asking questions presented Bryan with gifts, a bottle of soft drink from Italy, where Bryant was raised when his father played basketball there, a samurai sword from Japan, where Bryant is the most famous NBA player, a picture of Bryant wearing his different Nike sneakers from his career. Later Bryant received a Jordan Brand sneaker collection from the famous label. Bryant was the leading vote getter in fan voting to start the All-Star game.

“This is pretty cool,” said Bryant. “I’m looking around the room and seeing guys tearing up the league that were like four during my first All-Star Game. How many players can say they’ve played 20 years and actually have seen the game go through three, four generations? It’s not sad. I’m really happy and honored to be here.”

Other All-Stars said they looked for Bryant to win his record fifth All-Star MVP award, though Bryant said he was done with that sort of competitiveness.
“I’m just really enjoying this whole thing and enjoying these players and talking to them one more time,” said Bryant. “Going out and practicing and enjoying that moment. So the competitiveness in terms of me trying to establish something and prove something, that’s gone.”

I remember Bryant in 1998 at his first All-Star game in what we thought then was Michael Jordan’s last All-Star game, that one in Madison Square Garden. Classic setting.

Jordan, of course, came back for two more with Washington and was going for the MVP in his last one in 2003. And he probably would have gotten it—he had my vote on that panel—but then the game went into overtime and Kevin Garnett had a huge role for the West team and flashed by Jordan at the close.

There were plenty of nexts to come regarding Jordan, and there still are. But no one introduced himself like Bryant, which was probably why he drew more Jordan-like comparisons. Bryant will fall short of the sixth NBA title he so desperately has chased to catch Jordan, though he seems resigned now.

Bryant was anything but even at 19 in his first All-Star game.

I remember in the opening plays, Bryant waving Karl Malone out of the post so he could go at Jordan.

Malone coming off the Finals was stunned; there was an all around, ‘Who does this guy think he is?” reaction.

He was Kobe!

Who does that at 19? Without fear of failure or respect for his elders. It’s also what made Bryant such a polarizing figure. Jordan did try to be the respectful rookie in his first game in 1985, but veterans like Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and George Gervin went at him perhaps more than the supposed freezing him out.

Bryant was going at the game’s legend.

Jordan would go on to be named MVP in that 1998 All-Star game in the Eastern Conference victory, but not before Bryant showed off with a 360-degree dunk on a fast break, a lob dunk from Garnett and passing to himself behind the back on a break. Jordan then less athletic took Bryant inside with several baseline fadeaways for 23 points and eight assists. Bryant had 18 points.

So we’ll see Sunday night what Bryant has planned for his departure and how much it matches his debut.

It’s less technically Gasol’s last All-Star appearance, but probably in all likelihood given his age.

Gasol was added to the team late when Bulls teammate Jimmy Butler, who is not playing Sunday, had to withdraw with a knee injury. Commissioner Adam Silver selected Gasol as Butler’s replacement. But Butler doesn’t lose any status as an All-Star.

For his part, Gasol said he’s thrilled to return as an All-Star not only for himself and his team but to witness Bryant’s final All-Star game up close. It was with Bryant in Los Angeles in 2008 that Gasol resurrected his career and went on to win two NBA championships.

“It’s special,” Gasol said of playing in Sunday’s game. “One of the reasons I was excited to make it in the first place. I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to be present and witness that moment because Kobe is a special guy and special player and had a tremendous career and we have a unique friendship and relationship.

“It’s really nice to be here and be part of the All-Star game with Kobe and the relationship we’ve developed over the years,” Gasol added. “One of my biggest disappointments of not being selected by the coaches directly was I wasn’t going to be here for that, and now that I am, I am happy to be part of this moment.”

But it’s also a special moment of recognition for a less likely star who seems destined as one of the great international players in basketball history to eventually end up in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Gasol’s career of European and NBA championships, Olympic medals and 15 years in the NBA averaging 18.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.7 blocks as one of the most versatile and sweet shooting big men in NBA history is a fantasy-to-reality story.

A cultured kid of physicians from Barcelona who aspired to medicine becomes an NBA star succeeding against the best and a worldwide humanitarian with his foundation and charity work.

“I wanted to be a doctor,” Gasol told reporters in Toronto. “My family comes from a medical background. I did go to my first year of med school; but then I had to make a decision because there was a conflict with basketball. At the time I wanted (to choose basketball). It was my dream. The medicine didn’t work out, but nowadays I’m still doing a lot of work with hospitals and health care. Basketball has given me a chance to have a tremendous life and I am happy with it.”

Gasol went from a skinny, doubted third draft pick after Kwame Brown and Tyson Chandler and before Eddy Curry to Rookie of the Year. The Memphis selection was ridiculed as they acquired it in trade from Atlanta for star Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

The Grizzlies won fewer than 30 games Gasol’s first two seasons, but then with general manager Jerry West and coach Hubie Brown, the Grizzlies averaged almost 50 wins for there straight seasons. But they lost 12 straight playoff games. They fell to 22 wins in 2006-07 when Gasol was hurt before the season in the World Championships, and during the following season Gasol was traded to the Lakers. Though condemned at the time as a gift to the Lakers, who were struggling since losing Shaquille O’Neal with Bryant even demanding to be traded to the Bulls, the trade worked for the Grizzlies as well in acquiring the rights to Pau’s brother, Marc.

The Lakers made three consecutive Finals and won two championships led by Bryant and Gasol to reestablish their place among the NBA elite.

Though often over scrutinized for his skilled style, Gasol joined the top echelon of NBA players. But with coaching changes and injuries in Los Angeles, Gasol’s playing time and production declined. In July, 2014 as a free agent he signed with the Bulls. Gasol went on to be voted a starter for the East All-Stars last year and lead the NBA in double/doubles in one of his best statistical seasons even at 34. And this season he remains among the league leaders in double/doubles, blocks, rebounds and assists for centers.

It’s an amazing resume, and Gasol will be taking it all in, somewhat more quietly and less noticed than Bryant Sunday, but with as much pride and accomplishment.

“The last couple of years in Memphis were hard,” Gasol admitted when asked about a low point. “I lost a little bit of my passion for the game. The year ‘07 with the national team we lost the final (by one point to Russia) in Spain in the European championship; that was a hard one for me that really fueled me to go out and compete and win the next European championships in ‘09 and ’11. That stretch in Memphis the last time before I had the opportunity to play with the Lakers, committing myself to anything I had to do to help that team win titles.

“My competition overseas with the national team is something I treasure very special to me; the two championships with the Lakers were one of the best times of my life, one of the best accomplishments here for sure,” said Gasol. “To me what’s gotten me to win championships and play at a high level is also the times I’ve struggled, where I went through an injury or tough stretch with the team because you really try to work hard and get over the top and put yourself in a better situation. And that’s what I tried to do in my career. So that’s why those times are also very important to me because they helped me push myself to get to a better place and play well.

“And now this moment (with the Bulls) was fueled by the difficult time I had in L.A. the last couple of years, injuries, coaching issues, and trade rumors,” said Gasol who also was supposedly part of the overturned Chris Paul trade. “All that was unpleasant; it really fueled me to be where I am at today.

“It has been (an amazing) career,” reflected the seven-foot, 250 pound center. “When I think about it I am moved by it; everything I have been able to accomplish, the experience to share with people at the same time. That’s something I always take to heart and it’s humbling.

“I worked hard and put everything into it,” said Gasol. “Sometimes things don’t work out and things out of your control happen. But I’ve also been fortunate nothing has been able to keep me away from the game a long period of time, and hopefully it will stay that way; the passion and love for the game is what allows me to do the things off the court as well.

“Going back, I didn’t know what was going to be, what was going to happen; but I know I was going to try,” said Gasol. “I loved the challenge. My ambition and my confidence in my abilities has taken me far. I’m also very thankful to my family for the way they have supported me throughout and in the critical moments of my life and being a part of my success. I love the unknown, I love the challenge. I’m driven by challenge and I hope I will continue to be that way for the rest of my life.”