Silence falls as soon as Pau Gasol and his 7-foot-16-inch-tall walk into the Lafayette Park gym in downtown Los Angeles on Monday. About twenty kids from a couple of public schools stop dribbling the basketball with the Lakers logo. They do not hide their surprise. “Oh wow!” they exclaim in wonder at the tower in front of them. Seconds later, the little ones, from the Everest and Rise Kohyang schools, form a swarm that surrounds the NBA and Spanish basketball legend, who receives a flurry of questions: “Who is your favorite player?”, “How was play with Kobe Bryant”, “How tall are you?”. Gasol (Barcelona, 42 years old) is about to climb to the Olympus of the American professional league. This Tuesday he will become the twelfth player from the Los Angeles team to see his number retired. His name will be elevated in perpetuity along with those of Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Shaquille O’Neal, Earvin magic Johnson and, of course, Kobe Bryant.
“They are players and names that have marked an era. It is an amazing group and it is dizzying to understand that your name, your family, your dreams and I want to think that my country, are part of that exceptional group. It is overwhelming, it overwhelms you”, explains Gasol to EL PAÍS. Not even that boy, the son of a couple of doctors, Agustí and Marisa, who played on a field near the Sagrada Familia, with the same age as the boys he has left breathless, dreamed that he would reach one of the places most dominant in the NBA. There he played three finals and won two consecutive championships, in 2009 and 2010.
The dream even seemed distant in the first days that Gasol wore the yellow jersey. He came to the team in February 2008 from Memphis, a team that had 20 wins on the season. The operation is still remembered as one of the best ever done by the Lakers. To win Pau, a center who became the first non-American to win the rookies of the year in 2002, the team transferred to the Memphis Grizzlies Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton and Aaron McKie, in addition to the rights to his brother Marc.
22, 13, 44, 25, 52, 33, 32, 42. Eight imposing numbers were present at the Lakers facilities where he trained, the same courts that Magic Johnson and James Worthy stepped on. “The retired numbers are also there, but you don’t get carried away by those distractions, although it is certainly a motivation. You want to live up to it and you think that maybe, at some point, it would be nice if your name was there, but you don’t want to believe it,” says Gasol, who was inspired to reach the NBA by the Dream Team that played in his city. , Barcelona, in 1992. That moment comes now. Nobody will be able to use 16 again on the Lakers.
The retirement of the number is a great moment for the Barcelonan to reflect on his impressive career: 11 medals with the Spain team, four of them gold, three leagues and a Cup with Barcelona, in addition to the titles won in the NBA, where he was part of the All Star teams six times and wore the jerseys of Memphis, Lakers, Chicago Bulls, San Antonio Spurs and the Bucks
This Tuesday’s event will take place at halftime of a game between the Lakers and Memphis, two of the teams whose colors he defended. The athlete will be supported by several of his classmates from the unrivaled team that played in the final of the Beijing Games in 2008, Juan Carlos Navarro, Felipe Reyes and, of course, his younger brother Marc (who won an NBA title with the Toronto Raptors and will also have his number retired with the Grizzlies). In addition, his family and his special guests will be present, such as the cook Dabiz Muñoz or the singer from Estopa, with whom Gasol performed a song at the 2011 All Star.
Gasol said Monday that one of the great legacies he left behind was the fight against the idea that European players have great style but are soft on the court compared to Americans. Gasol experienced that criticism firsthand, when the Lakers were defeated by the Celtics in the 2008 championship. The center was outplayed by Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and had more turnovers than baskets in the final game. “I knew that I had to take a step forward to be physically better prepared. I got to work to win the following season, the 2008-2009 season. And we won, ”he points out.
To achieve this, Gasol pushed himself to the limit and marked a turning point in his career in Los Angeles. In just one year he gained seven kilos of muscle. There was another vital presence to demand more: Kobe Bryant. “He challenged me so we could win. In the end, life and sport test you and condition you with adverse moments. If you learn you overcome and grow. You get stronger. It is what happened, ”he points out.
The NBA is very different now. Two of the current stars are European players: Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic, for example. Gasol believes he has some responsibility in a league that has fewer and fewer borders. “I have contributed my grain of sand to open doors, to widen that path and help basketball and the presence of international players grow. It gives me great pride,” says the former center, who in turn is heir to others such as Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic and, more recently, Dirk Nowitzki, who arrived in American basketball two years before Pau.
Retired from the courts since October 2021, Gasol has turned to philanthropic activities. It’s a path many celebrities turn to after the end of his career, but the solidarity was always present throughout his playing career. He has collaborated with spinal operations in children’s hospitals in all the cities he played for, has visited refugees in Iraq and Syria, promised to donate $1,000 (936 euros) for each point scored to help typhoon victims in the Philippines. Since 2013, together with his brother Marc, he has led the Gasol Foundation, which focuses on spreading better eating habits and physical activity to combat childhood obesity.
On Monday, he told the children about the first injury that left a mark on his memory. He was 12 years old and was playing in the schoolyard when his finger twisted. “I had never felt that pain, but my love for the sport was greater so I pushed myself to continue playing. In basketball and in life sometimes you have to move through pain and difficulties. That makes you better.” He said he won that match. Perhaps his words made more than one dream of reaching the NBA.
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