Pau Gasol
Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

The consummate professional

Pau Gasol voted as recipient of the 2015 Magic Johnson Award, which honors the NBA player who best combines excellence on the court with cooperation and dignity in dealing with media and fans.

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By Sam Smith | 4.22.2015 | 9:10 p.m. CT

Paraser profesional tieneque actuar como tal.

To be professional you have to act like one.

There’s a ritual to Bulls practices. Immediate access and viewing is denied. So media members wait outside in a lounge area or designated press room. In the last few minutes of practice, the media is allowed in so photographers can view players shooting or playing one–on-one games. A backdrop with a Bulls logo is set up in the corner and while a few players are shooting or exercising, there is a procession to speak with reporters, first coach Tom Thibodeau and then, separately, for about five to 10 minutes each, usually two or three players surrounded by reporters and cameras. It’s an exceptionally decent group of players, mostly cooperative if not that expansive. And then there is Pau Gasol.

“Good afternoon,” Gasol opened brightly with a smile when he began Wednesday on the eve of Game 3 of the Bulls playoff series with the Bucks.

It’s hardly an unusual greeting in polite, or otherwise, society, though it can be in sports where there is often an uneasy wariness between players and media. The NBA on the whole is better than baseball and football among players who are accommodating. There are some angry, unpleasant individuals, though not many. Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, Kendrick Perkins, Blake Griffin and Deron Williams come to mind among a very few whom you’d prefer to avoid and ignore if you could given regular episodes of simply being uncivil.

It’s understandable. Feelings get hurt; some are more sensitive to criticism than others. No one’s jobs are scrutinized like those of professional athletes. As I’ll note to colleagues, imagine how it feels to have 20,000 people peering over your shoulder screaming, “Verb, you idiot, verb!” Then writing about misuse. And in this era of self-proclaimed journalists, being mean spirited, if not being more common, is more accessible.

And then there is Gasol, who Wednesday was voted the recipient of the 2015 Magic Johnson award, selected by the Professional Basketball Writers Association. The award is named for the player in NBA history who most understood and appreciated the media’s job as messenger to the public and spread bonhomie with his very presence.

The relationship between media and athletes has grown more tenuous in the last two decades. So the basketball writers decided to sponsor an award for players who combine excellence on the court with decency and professionalism off the court in their relations with the media and public.

Ray Allen was the first winner, and there have been excellent choices in the likes of Elton Brand, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Bosh, Grant Hill and Antawn Jamison. This is not an award for Kobe or LeBron, the greatest in the game who are cooperative because they have to be as media duties are required in the standard NBA contract. Magic went far beyond in essentially being a primer in human behavior and understanding, that the path to peace and happiness is often best achieved in your attitude toward your fellow man. It’s a secular bible statement.

Gasol is a living, walking, communicating example. If you are preparing an athlete for life you should have him or her read the Book of Pau.

I often remember the example of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was the greatest player just about every season he played. But he was painful to deal with, almost always condescending and dismissive. I’ve long believed it’s why Abdul-Jabbar, despite being one of the brightest basketball men of his time, has had so much trouble getting jobs in basketball. He always made it so difficult to be around him.

El mal escribano le echa la culpa a la pluma.

The poor clerk blames the pen.

There are people who you know are insincere, saying what they believe will enhance themselves. And not just in state and federal legislatures and congress.

Gasol is a truly remarkable man. Every game this season, win or lose, good game or bad, Gasol has been there to speak with reporters. He can be political at times, though always earnest and thoughtful. He’ll be critical, but never personal. Which the great majority of reporters respect. The reporter seeking to undermine the player or team is the aberration, though they are present at times. Most are satisfied to be the intermediaries for the public, basically doing their jobs. Gasol understands, and it’s not disingenuous when he basically always thanks reporters after interviews for their questions.

"I just try to be helpful,” Gasol was saying Wednesday when asked about his attitude and to comment on the honor. “I try to help other people do their jobs well. I understand my position and that this is a part of our jobs. So I always try to be kind and polite, even when I'm not feeling great or I might be upset because of the loss. But I understand that it's still part of my job to try to be one of the team's leaders and role model to stand up and share my thoughts when I need to.

"It's easy to be friendly,” Gasol added. “I think it's easy to be kind. It rubs off on people. So you try to balance all the negative out there with some positives. That's what I try to do."

Al mal tiempo, buena cara.

Every cloud has a silver lining.

For Gasol, there is something positive to be found in every situation or person. He is a student of life as well as the game, so he understands there is no perfection. Including for himself.

"I try to understand that it's nothing personal," Gasol said about being criticized in the media, which has happened to him many times over the years on occasions of team and personal disappointments. "I don't like people getting me to react in a negative way. So when there's criticism, when things are not going well, you accept it, you understand it and then you spend some time with yourself and kind of release and understand why things happened and move on."

Paraser profesionaltieneque actuar como tal.

To be professional you have to act like one.

Though the athlete as role model is a concept oft-debated and often dismissed, Gasol also understands less that it is about the athlete than about being on the public stage. If you are, as pro athletes will be, then you have a responsibility not just to yourself, but to the organization and league you represent and the people who come to see you perform.

“Family, a lot of thoughts and values that were transferred from our parents and then self growth, teaching yourself and reading a lot of books. That also helped,” Gasol said about developing his views on behavior and responsibility.

“I try (to speak with other guys about the media) when guys decide they don’t want to talk, they don’t deal with it,” said Gasol. "We're all human; we're not all the same. But you have to understand that you guys are a big part of our position as well and our success and that's why all the news gets to people and people follow us and the sport is as big as it is. So the more coverage, the more attention, the better it is for the sport. Some guys don't see that perspective because feelings and emotions get in the way and that's human, as well. I just try to do my best as always."

Veo al final de mi rudo camino, que yo fui el arquitecto de mi propio destino.

I seethe end of my rough road,I was the architect of my own destiny.

Gasol even has special responsibilities beyond that of most players since he conducts interviews in two languages, English and Spanish, after games, generally answering the same questions.

“I do a little double duty,” Gasol conceded with a smile. “It’s part of being bilingual; both languages are most spoken in the country. I just like to be accommodating, understand there is a big Spanish community as well and I like to reach those fans and appreciate them following the sport.”

Gasol won two championships with the Lakers. So he said he did appreciate an award named for perhaps the greatest Laker of all, Johnson.

“He’s one of the greatest and it’s a great recognition and great honor,” said Gasol. “I’m always thankful to receive anything people decide to give me. Whether it is an award, whether it is a gift, whether it is their time. So I’m appreciative. Thanks for everyone who picked me to win this award. It’s a good day.”

There’s a Spanish proverb: Asegúrese de que tienemuchos libros y muchos amigos - como siempre que sean buenos.

It means, “Make sure you have many books and many friends - as long as they are good ones.”

Gasol seems to have plenty of both, and the Bulls and Chicago are fortunate he chose to add them to his valued library.

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