Hall of Fame: Class of 2023

Pau Gasol forges new NBA path for international prospects on his way to Hall of Fame

Following the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon and joining fellow inductee Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol gave international players a type of road to follow for success in the NBA.

Pau Gasol played a leading role in the secondary wave of talented foreign prospects who changed the NBA forever.

Basketball no longer has U.S. boundaries. Not only are legions of kids from Sydney to Senegal dribbling balls now instead of kicking them, there are professional players coming from these and many other parts worldwide, including world champions, Olympians, NBA All-Stars — MVPs even!

This welcomed hoops trend was decades in the making, jump-started originally by the fall of the Eastern Bloc, then the mining of Africa for untapped talent, and of course by the barnstorming Dream Team that ruled the 1992 Summer Games and influenced millions from the charming Spanish host city of Barcelona.

Just by coincidence, as Michael Jordan and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson teamed up and put on an Olympic show in Spain, they were watched closely by a local kid, not yet a teenager, who would soon come to reflect the global game as we know today.

Pau Gasol made his big-time basketball splash years later. His game and impact weren’t confined to Spain, the United States, his national team or any other squad he played for in the NBA. In that sense, he had no basketball boundaries. He became a crucial figure in the second wave of internationals who hooked just as many fans in the U.S. as they did in their homeland.

Unlike many internationals who needed time to adjust to the NBA game, Gasol was an immediate hit as the 2001-02 Rookie of the Year. Then after six-plus seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies, he was traded to Los Angeles to play alongside the great Kobe Bryant, winning two championships and helping to add to the Lakers’ legacy while cementing his own.

A six-time All-Star, four-time All-NBA selection and two-time NBA champion doesn’t tell his complete story. Not in this global era. There’s also a pair of Olympic silver medals, a gold medal and MVP from the FIBA World Championship and three EuroBasket crowns. And now, a place in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall Of Fame as one of the game’s best and classiest ambassadors.

“It’s an honor,” Gasol said, “to be a part of someplace special, to be with so many great players and people who impacted the game.”

Look back at the Top 10 Plays from Pau Gasol's career.

Gasol graced the sport with skills uncommon for a 7-foot center. He could play inside with tricky up-and-under moves and pump fakes in the post. His shooting was solid enough to make him effective in the mid-range and he was unselfish, able to spot a cutting teammate or find the open man on the perimeter. That made him a tough matchup for other big men, who lacked his mobility, couldn’t match his length and were out of their element when they had to stray from the paint to guard him away from the rim. Gasol could play center or power forward, allowing his teams to throw different lineups on the floor.

He came to define the Grizzlies when they moved from Vancouver to Memphis and was easily the most important player in their new city. Then a major trade sent him to L.A., where he salvaged the second half of Kobe’s career, which until Gasol showed up was being wasted.

At his peak, Gasol was a double-double machine and finished with career averages of 17 points and 9.2 rebounds per game over 18 seasons. Only he, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett have recorded more than 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 3,500 assists and 1,500 blocks in their NBA careers — a testament to Gasol’s all-around game, consistency and longevity.

“Once you put in the work, good things can happen,” he said. “But I also had a good support system, good teammates around me to make this possible. And I took care of my body.”

Gasol was one of the best prospects produced by Spain, where basketball’s popularity mushroomed in the 1990s. Until then, most international players either stayed and played professionally in Europe or were role players in the NBA. Few were defined as stars. So from an import standpoint, there was much riding on Gasol when he was drafted with the third pick in 2001 on the strength of his European play.

Because of his time with the Lakers and Bryant, you almost forget Gasol was with another team beforehand, and arguably just as good. His Memphis years were solid. He was the centerpiece of the team, and took the Grizzlies to the playoffs, where he elevated his game from the regular season, for three straight years.

On Feb. 1, 2008 the Memphis Grizzlies traded Pau Gasol to the Los Angeles Lakers for a handful of players including his brother Marc Gasol.

They never won a playoff game, however, and in 2008 the Grizzlies, feeling the need for a shakeup, traded him to the Lakers (in a package that included his younger brother, Marc, among others) that annoyed other contenders. They knew Gasol was exactly what Bryant and the Lakers needed, and that the franchise would become a strong title favorite.

Bryant won three straight championships with Shaquille O’Neal, but the two repeatedly clashed. Bryant wanted a better relationship with his next co-star, and in Gasol, he found a humble and worldly partner. Initially, Gasol had to deal with being challenged by Bryant, who expected lots from his new teammate and never settled for less. Once that was accomplished and they were on the same page, the two meshed beautifully, their friendship blossomed and the results followed.

For Gasol, being in such a situation was something he dreamed about as a kid in Barcelona. His profile was magnified in L.A., where the basketball and lifestyle agreed with him. When it was time to produce, Gasol was prepared: In his first playoff game as a Laker, he scored 36 points with 16 rebounds, eight assists and three blocks against the Denver Nuggets. His 12 points, 19 rebounds and four blocks in the clinching Western Conference Finals game against the Spurs put the Lakers in the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Boston Celtics in six games.

But Gasol’s first title came the very next season, against the Orlando Magic, followed by a second the following season with a Game 7 win against Boston. While Bryant struggled with his shooting in Game 7, Gasol had 19 points, 18 rebounds, four assists and two blocks.

Relive the Lakers' incredible run to back-to-back championships, culminating in a seven-game Finals classic against Boston.

While appearing at the Academy Awards in 2018 for his short story “Dear Basketball,” Bryant spoke up about Gasol’s importance to him and those Laker teams:

“The reality is, I don’t win those championships without Pau. The city of L.A. doesn’t have those two championships without Pau,” he said. “We know that. Everybody knows that.”

Along the way, Gasol shattered any lingering stereotypes of being a soft European player, an image that was reinforced in part by his professional and polite nature off the court.

“The perception of this tall, lanky guy, and how he plays the game, it may appear that way,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said not long after the first title. “But he has a knack of getting those 20 points and 10 rebounds, night in and night out. He’s a pretty amazing athlete. The tenacity is there. He wants to win and it’s evident since he came on this team.”

His basketball triumphs, again, weren’t limited by boundaries. Gasol was a passionate member of Team Spain and never hesitated to suit up for his country in international play. After winning a pair of junior world titles, he helped Spain win the 2006 Worlds (where he was MVP) and later a pair of Olympic silver medals (finishing second to the richly talented American teams featuring Bryant). Then, at 35 and with Spain missing some of its best players, Gasol helped the country win its third European title in four tournaments, scoring exactly half his team’s points with 40 in the semis.

Along with Tony Parker (France), Manu Ginobili (Argentina) and Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), Gasol was among the influential second wave of internationals, following initial trailblazers like Hakeem Olajuwon and Vlade Divac, to leave footprints in the NBA. And with his combined NBA, FIBA and Olympic accomplishments, how many players can match his worldly resume?

When he had his Lakers jersey retired earlier this year, Gasol took a moment to reflect on his basketball whirlwind.

“Life goes by pretty fast, right? In the blink of an eye, you can be a kid playing basketball in your school with your buddies, then all of a sudden, you’re realizing your dream,” he said.

It’s fitting, then, that Gasol’s final significant basketball trip will be to Springfield, Mass., where he’ll once again be immortalized next to Bryant.

“There will always be a link between the two of us,” Gasol said.

And speaking of that, here’s what the late Bryant wrote in the forward to Gasol’s book, “Live / Vida,” in case there was any confusion about their deep relationship:

“If I could choose my brother, it would be Pau.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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