With the end of the Grizzlies’ 2005-06 season came the end of Pau Gasol’s fifth NBA season. During his highly successful career to date, he has been named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year, made the All-Star team this past season and led the Grizzlies to three straight playoff appearances. In part one of a two-part interview series, Gasol reflects on his first five seasons in the NBA, and what lies ahead for him and the franchise.
Do you feel the growth of the franchise mirrors your growth as a player?
Pau Gasol: “I think that you could probably say that. When I came over here it was tough as a team, as a group, to go out there and get some wins. We used to lose a lot and it was tough to keep the motivation to keep playing games knowing that you didn’t get any respect. I am very happy that the franchise has grown so much. We have got some great players here who have helped this team go in the right direction. We have had great coaches also with Hubie (Brown) and Mike (Fratello). We think we have been a very fortunate franchise to be at this point right now.”
How did you feel about coming to Memphis after being selected third in the 2001 Draft?
PG: “Back then it really didn’t matter what team or city I was going to because I didn’t know anything about the States. It was just a great thing for me to make it and get to play here, which was the first thing on my mind. The second thing was that it was awkward for a while. I didn’t know anybody, communication was hard for me, I wasn’t comfortable yet and I was a rookie. It was really hard to adjust at first, but it was just the passion that I had for playing basketball that just kept me going. I had Shane (Battier) next to me, that made it easier and I got through it well. (I also had) the motivation to win Rookie of the Year, I fought for that hard. It was hard but I was happy at the end of the year that I accomplished what I did and was ready for the next year.”
How would you describe your rookie year?
PG: “It was a learning experience for me. I was just trying to do my best for every game, I was just trying to adjust to the games here and it was hard. I wasn’t used to losing, because the year before in Barcelona I only lost four games. I come over here and we lose the first eight games and that was very shocking…All of a sudden I get my first starting job in the fourth game in Phoenix and I have a big game. After that I kept starting and it was good. I learned a lot from the veterans, I would get down on myself when I had a tough game, but they kept telling me that we had 70 more and you just can’t keep getting down on yourself because we are going to need you to be 100% for the next game. It was a learning experience for me overall and the year seemed to go by really slow. I was homesick and missing everything from my country. I had the motivation to play hard and playing in the NBA and won a few Rookie of the Month (awards) and it was very rewarding.”
How would you describe that Pau Gasol?
PG: “Very skinny with no respect whatsoever. I was weak, but at the same time I was fast. I could take guys off the dribble; I was really attacking the lane. I guess just really skinny and weaker than now, inexperienced, a guy that was just trying to figure things out.”
Was there any hesitation in your mind about your game translating to the NBA?
PG: “No. I don’t think I had any doubts in my game. I love challenges and there was a lot of doubt back in my country. Back home they thought that I wouldn’t make it. They thought that I was too young, left too early and thought that I was not going to make it. They thought that the league was too strong for me, they thought that I needed to play one or two more years back in Europe. All those doubts that were talked about me made me push through a lot and wanted to prove everybody wrong. So I didn’t have any doubts in my game, I knew that I was very talented and was very capable of playing anywhere and against anybody.”
Was there a single defining moment for you your rookie year when you knew you were going to make it?
PG: “I think that fourth game against Phoenix. I had really tough games, the first three games, at home against Detroit and Dallas. I remember going back to the locker room after the third game against Dallas and I was crying. I went to the weight room back in the Pyramid and it was tough because I was so frustrated. I knew I was much better than that and I didn’t know how to do it, I didn’t know how to let my game come out and play the way I knew how to play. Lorenzen (Wright) at that time came into the weight room and said, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s a long season and you are going to be ok’. I think in that game he had 33 points and 26 rebounds, both career-highs. It was comforting to hear that from a teammate. When Stromile (Swift) got hurt in shootaround in Phoenix I got the start at power forward and I had 27 points. My confidence was getting better and I had a few games with 20 (points) and 10 (rebounds). That is when I believed that I could play and that I would never let myself down again.”
What were the hardest adjustments for you coming here on and off the court?
PG: “Adjustments on the court would just be playing more physical because there are so many big bodies here. A lot of players are very strong and they have been playing in the league for a long time and they get all the respect from the referees and I didn’t have that. I had to fight through a lot as far as being physical. Back in Europe I played one year of power forward and what I used to do is takes guys off the dribble and take them outside and attack them from there. My low post game wasn’t developed as much as I would have liked it to be. So it was hard for me because the Grizzlies needed me to be an inside presence. It was hard for me to adjust to that and over the years I think I have gotten better. Off the court, just living in a different country was an adjustment for me. The food was hard at first because my parents came over, but they came over a month and a half after I did, they had some problems with their visas and customs. It was hard for me to stay at the Marriott for a month just eating chicken fingers and ceasar salads because that was all I knew. The other stuff I didn’t know what it was and I wasn’t very good at food and names, so I stuck with what I knew. Later on I got to know more about the language and the culture and I got through it and now I am very happy.”
How would you describe the evolution of your game and the evolution from your first year to the player you are now?
PG: “I guess it would be hard to describe in words. People who have been watching me over the years could see that it is hard to look in the mirror and really see yourself in how everything has changed and how your body and game has changed. The most important thing is that the direction of the franchise has changed so much and that was really what I was looking for. I would describe myself as a winner and I do what it takes to win. I wanted to be on a franchise that was about that and the first two years we were not about winning, we were about just riding along the year. Fortunately for us we’ve got the right pieces now, with a great team and great chemistry and it is just great to be a part of. The city has responded really well, we have a beautiful building. I think the evolution has been very good and very positive and hopefully we will keep moving forward and we will become a better team.”
How seriously do you take being the Grizzlies’ cornerstone player?
PG: “I take it really seriously, it is something that I don’t take lightly at all. I always want to be the leader of my team and I want to work for it. I don’t try to get people to give me the title just because of a contract that I have. I want to do well on the court every night and that is the hard thing to do. It is a lot of responsibility, but I like it and I enjoy being in that spot. When things are going bad I will take the blame and I will do what I have to do to make a change. Like I said, fortunately for me and the team we have a lot of good pieces…Everything is a good mix and I don’t take this job that I have with this team lightly at all. I know how important it is for me to be 100% focused every night.”
What was the catalyst to you raising game this year?
PG: “Just growing as a player, that helped. Just wanting to be better. I don’t want to get stuck being satisfied with what I have been doing. I know that I am a good player and I can create a lot and I can make a difference. Taking the summer off was painful, watching my team play and not be a part of it, but at the same time I knew that it was going to help me during the year here. I was receiving a lot of criticism back at home but I knew once I got here I would be hungry from day one.”
How did the veteran leadership help this team?
PG: “They came into training camp with a great attitude and that is what we needed. We needed guys to come in here and work hard and do what it took to win and they (did) that. They helped with our chemistry, they helped us to win games, and they did an excellent job. Damon (Stoudamire), Bobby (Jackson) and Eddie (Jones) were really supportive to everybody, from the rookies to me. They are great guys and they know what it takes to win. They have been on winning teams and that is exactly the type of players that you need on your team.”
What are your goals both with the Grizzlies and with your national team?
PG: “I would like to move forward in the playoffs. I would like to have a real chance to move forward and win a series, I would love to do that here. I know how hard it is, we have been there a couple of years and we have played a couple of tough teams, San Antonio and Phoenix the (previous) two years and it was hard to get a single win in the playoffs. I want to see how it feels to win four games in a series. That would be my goal as far as here. As for my country I would love to keep winning medals, become a world champion and an Olympic champion. I don’t want to settle for the silver or the bronze medal, I want to be a champion. That is what I think we can do and my team can do.”
How important is it to win a playoff series here in Memphis?
PG: “I think that would be the next step in the evolution that we were talking about. I think that should be the next goal that we should aim at, getting to the playoffs and winning a series. I think that would be the next page of our book here, being able to move forward. It’s hard to make the playoffs in the Western Conference, no doubt about it. At the same time we want to get better, we are not happy just getting there and saying that we made it. We want to make it and succeed and not just be a good regular season team and then struggle in the postseason. If we want to be one of the top teams in the league we have to win in the playoffs too.”
What did that dunk against Kevin Garnett in your rookie year mean to you?
PG: “It was an emotional play because he was kind of picking on me my first year. I’ve mentioned (before) that he was one of my favorite players and he was someone that I looked up to. I don’t know why but the first couple of games that we played against each other there was some tension there, there was a confrontation. So that dunk was like a big relief for me of anger and emotion. Even though we were down 20 in that game I think I kind of earned some respect with that play in my first year. More than anything people got real excited about it and people at home were really impressed, because there were three guys around and it was a really strong move to the goal and people like to see that kind of stuff. It was one play from one game but it had a nice meaning to it.”
Who are the guys that have always in your corner here?
PG: “I think most of my teammates here have been very supportive of me. Some days they express their feelings more than others, but you know who has got your back. From the strength coach to the owner, they have always been supportive of me. They have always told me that they have their trust in me and they are in my corner, so I have received a lot of support and that is something that I need. Obviously my teammates are closer to me than anybody else because I work with them. Shane and Lorenzen have been with me since the beginning and they have been very supportive, they helped me when I needed that pat on the back. If you are a good teammate then you want your team to have a chance in the next game and you can’t let him be by himself. I have been very fortunate to have the teammates that I have had.”