Gasol’s Path Leads Him To NBA All-Star Game

By Don Wade

People smiled and shook their heads. In high school gyms all across Shelby County, the curious came out to see the novelty act that was Pau Gasol’s younger brother and they dismissed the kid. If he looked soft playing for Lausanne Collegiate School against players a foot shorter and 100 pounds lighter – and he did – then he didn’t exactly project as an NBA player.

Memphis Grizzlies forward Marc Gasol has stepped out from the shadow of his older brother, Pau Gasol of the Lakers. The younger Gasol has earned his first trip to the NBA All-Star game with a solid season for the Grizzlies. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“He was a chubby center,” said the Grizzlies’ Rudy Gay.

And Gay wasn’t even talking about a decade ago when Marc first played high school basketball in Memphis. Rather, that’s his description of the 7-1 Spaniard when he showed up at FedExForum as a member of the Grizzlies after the blockbuster trade that sent his brother Pau to the Los Angeles Lakers.

The trade, made four years ago this month, was aimed at giving the Grizzlies salary cap relief and the Lakers a shot at an NBA title. Both goals were achieved, and for Pau Gasol and a second-round draft pick in 2010, the Grizzlies received forward Kwame Brown, guards Javaris Crittenton and Aaron McKie, the draft rights to Marc Gasol and first-round draft picks in 2008 and 2010.

The general consensus at the time: The Lakers fleeced the Grizzlies and Marc was a Pau knock-off. To win medals as a member of the Spanish national team was one thing; to win a job and respect in the NBA was quite another.

“He was a throw-in,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said of the trade. “I don’t think anybody in the entire organization knew what he could do. When I got here (as head coach in the middle of the 2008-2009 season), nobody had any idea of his skill level.”

But it wasn’t just those within the organization who doubted. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich gave public voice to what a lot of people around the league were saying privately: The deal looked so lopsided it never should have been allowed. Popovich called the trade “beyond comprehension.” It took two years for Popovich to amend his original view.

Marc Gasol is 27 now and if he harbors any bitterness for how he was formerly viewed he doesn’t offer it.

“I knew I had talent,” he said. “I didn’t have the work ethic yet.”

He said joining the Spanish national team in 2006 was the start of finding that work ethic and charting his course. Now, through 28 games this season, he is averaging a double-double (15 points and 10 rebounds), is fourth in the league in blocks (2.25), and is doing it all without injured forward and frontcourt mate Zach Randolph.

Result: Coaches voted him a Western Conference reserve for the Feb. 26 All-Star Game, a matchup of the NBA’s elite that is most known for its fan-friendly alley-oops and slam dunks.

“I don’t think I’ll put up a lot of dunks,” Gasol said with a laugh. “I’ll just play my game.”

Marc doesn’t have Pau’s offensive finesse but, like Pau, is a good passer and can step out and drain a jump shot. And Marc, who weighs 265 pounds, is easily the more physical of the two – the blue-collar Gasol.

“He’s doing the dirty work around the rim,” said Grizzlies guard O.J. Mayo. “And he’s so unselfish. He makes the hockey play – the assist before the assist.”

Even though his best has elevated him to All-Star status, he remains uncomfortable talking about himself. He’s also not one to demand the ball.

“I haven’t seen a stat sheet in three years,” Gasol said with a shrug.

But his point guard, Mike Conley, said, “I can read his body language better than anybody. He doesn’t like to bring attention to himself. When he starts rubbing the hair, I can tell he’s kind of frustrated.”

Meantime, in L.A., Pau Gasol has not been shy about saying when he believes the ball needs to be fed into the post more often.

“They’re much different players,” Conley said. “Marc wanted to make it known that he’s tough, gritty, smart and has a lot of skill. I think it’s like that in any situation with a brother, and not just sports. You always want to be like the brother or better. So he’s always had that chip on his shoulder.”

This isn’t to imply there is a problem between the brothers. Before Marc Gasol agreed to his new four-year $58 million contract with the Grizzlies he spent some time in L.A. with Pau absorbing brotherly advice.

“I couldn’t be happier for him because he works so hard to get from where he was to where he is,” Pau Gasol told The Los Angeles Times.

And where he was and where he is are two very different places.

“I saw him play in Europe,” said Houston Rockets coach and Hall-of-Famer Kevin McHale. “He was a big guy that needed to get in shape, trim up. It’s a credit to him how he’s re-reshaped his body and now he’s an All-Star.

“I said last year, when I was doing some Memphis games in the playoffs for TNT, he’s as skilled a big man as there is in the NBA. Passing, shooting, feel for the game … he’s got it all.”