The Tao Of Pau

By: Lorne Chan

The Tobin Center is San Antonio’s performing arts center, a state-of-the-art home for the symphony, opera and ballet with some of the nation’s best acoustics.

One of San Antonio’s newest residents is well aware.

“I got the brochure and looked through all of the programming,” said Pau Gasol. “I’m on top of it.”

Gasol, who is among the NBA’s most cultured players, has joined the Spurs at the age of 36. In addition to being a six-time All-Star and two-time NBA Champion, Gasol is a piano player, speaks five languages and has a 16-season streak as the only former medical school student in the league.

As often as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has said that there’s more to life than basketball, Gasol has lived it.

Last month, Gasol was in Lebanon to spend time with Syrian refugees as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. His role with UNICEF has also taken Gasol to Iraq, Ethiopia and Angola among other countries.

“At the end of the day, you know basketball is a profession that we love and are so privileged to dedicate ourselves to,” Gasol said, “but you also know there’s so much more. Basketball has given me so much, and it’s also been a platform to do bigger things, and has shown me a lot about values and principles in other aspects of life.”

When it comes to basketball, Gasol’s resume stands alongside the most accomplished players of his generation. The 7-foot-0 center spent his first seven seasons in Memphis, where he became the franchise’s all-time scoring leader. He was traded to Los Angeles, where he helped the Lakers win NBA Championships in 2009 and 2010. After spending the last two seasons in Chicago, Gasol was looking for a home where he could keep learning and keep challenging himself.

In San Antonio, he found a “great fit.”

“I just want to come here with an open mind, to learn and really follow the philosophy that coaches and players have implemented here so successfully,” Gasol said. “It’s my 16th year in the NBA, but you always have the ability to learn if you’re willing. No matter what you’ve experienced in the past, there’s always a chance to learn if you really pay attention.”

Gasol has always held curiosity in crafts that require maximum dedication and attention to detail. He took piano lessons for five years and then found another passion: medicine.

Born in Barcelona, Spain, Gasol was named after the hospital, Sant Pau, where he was born. Both of his parents worked at the hospital as well, as Gasol’s mother, Marisa, is a doctor and father, Agustí, a nurse administrator.

The story goes that on November 7, 1991, the day Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV-positive, an 11-year-old Gasol decided that he wanted to be a doctor and find a cure for AIDS.

Gasol enrolled in medical school at the University of Barcelona when he was 18.

He attended medical school for a year, but he was 7-foot-0 and splitting time between classes and FC Barcelona’s club basketball team. It became clear that he had a future on the court.

So the man who studied Tchaikovsky and Debakey turned his attention to a sport where Jazz are in Utah and The Doctor is Julius Erving.

Drafted third overall in 2001 by Memphis, Gasol quickly earned a reputation as a high-IQ player. His Barcelona upbringing and all the time spent playing midfielder on the soccer pitch may have contributed as well, as Gasol was lauded as one of the best passing big-men the game has ever seen.

He has averaged 18.2 points and 9.5 rebounds per game for his career, numbers that have remained consistent since he was the 2002 Rookie of the Year. Traded to Los Angeles for his brother, Pau helped the Lakers reach three NBA Finals and win two titles in six-plus seasons. It included a performance in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals where Gasol had 19 points and 18 rebounds to help clinch the championship.

Last season in Chicago, Gasol averaged 16.5 points and 11.0 rebounds. He was the only player in the NBA to average at least 15.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 2015-16.

While he gave up med school for basketball, Gasol has found that basketball gave him a chance to give back to hospitals. In 2012, he won the Walter J. Kennedy Citizenship award for his work with UNICEF and children’s hospitals. He and his brother, Marc, also started the Gasol Foundation with a mission of improving children’s health around the world.

“Pau is a very intelligent man,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He understands how to play. He’s played for a lot of good people, and that’s going to help us.”

Gasol has played for 12 head coaches in all with his three NBA teams. From afar, he said he always admired the consistency of the Spurs and felt his philosophies matched those of Popovich.

“Hopefully, Pop will be my last coach,” Gasol said. “I’d love to get some consistency in that, because when I’ve been with the same coach, that level of comfort, confidence and communication makes such a big difference. You instantly know what this place is about, and that’s a quality I appreciate and love.”

While he’s only been in a Spurs uniform for a week, he’s had run-ins with Spurs for decades.

His first major international tournament was the 1998 FIBA Europe Under-18 Championships in Bulgaria. He turned 18 during the trip and still remembers the tournament vividly. Flying into Romania because there weren’t any flights into Bulgaria, then taking the bus. How thrilled he was to play with his Spanish teammates, and how they went on to win the whole tournament.

Gasol also remembers being impressed by a 16-year-old on the French team. More than 18 years ago, Gasol met Tony Parker for the first time.

“It was so rare to see someone two years younger than everyone at a tournament like that, but Tony belonged,” Pau said. “That was the first of many occasions I faced him, and it’s been so much fun that our careers have been parallel.”

They’ve faced off many times since. Parker and Gasol are among the top three all-time scorers in European Championship (EuroBasket) history. There are also the 47 times Gasol faced the Spurs in the regular season in his career, or the three times his teams met the Spurs in the playoffs.

Gasol and Parker have known each other for years off the court, but aside from Western Conference All-Star teams, they’ve never been on the same side.

“I said the whole summer that we were lucky to sign him,” Parker said. I’m super happy because I’ve known Pau for so long. It’s been a long time playing against him. He’s a great passer, and he’s a proven winner, too. I’m happy that he chose to come here.”

To hear Gasol describe his admiration for Parker, Manu Ginobili and the Spurs, it seemed he also hoped to wind up in Silver & Black, but the timing never worked until now.

“I thought it was always going to be a great fit,” Gasol said. “I always expressed my admiration for the way they play, their unselfishness and ability to move the ball.

Timing is everything in life, so here we are and I’m happy to be here.”

Maybe the timing worked out in more ways for Pau Gasol and San Antonio, as the Tobin Center opened in September of 2014.

Gasol hasn’t made it out to the Tobin yet because he’s focused on basketball. When he does, Tobin Center president and CEO Michael Fresher said Gasol has an open invitation to come by whenever he’d like.

“We think he’ll love the Tobin and everything San Antonio has to offer,” Fresher said. “We have something for everyone. That includes seats that are comfortable for a 7-footer.”

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