‘Old School’ Gasol Feted As League’s Top Defender

By Don Wade

The NBA’s new Defensive Player of the Year was remembering another ceremony, more than a decade ago at The Pyramid.

“I was just a little kid watching my older brother be happy to be recognized,” center Marc Gasol said.

The Grizzlies’ first season in town, 2001-2002, Pau Gasol was the NBA Rookie of the Year. Marc was a high school basketball curiosity at Lausanne. And for the record, anything but little.

“First time I saw him at Lausanne he was a fat kid,” recalled Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins.

And that was the image most Grizzlies fans had on Feb. 1, 2008, when Marc’s draft rights were traded to the Grizzlies in the deal that sent Pau to the Los Angeles Lakers. Critics slammed the Grizzlies for getting fleeced.

Since then, the younger Gasol – Big Spain – has made an All-Star team and now picked up the franchise’s first Defensive Player of the Year Award. He’s also the first European to win the award and, no, Pau was never in that conversation.

Not everyone, of course, believes Gasol should have won. And maybe the timing, getting the award between Games 2 and 3 of the series with the Clippers when the Grizzlies were down 2-0, wasn’t the best. Oklahoma City’s Kendrick Perkins, miffed that teammate Serge Ibaka didn’t win (third in the voting behind Gasol and LeBron James), waxed eloquent on Twitter the way only Perk can:

“I’m not hating but the NBA just give awards away. Serge don’t get defensive player of the year. That don’t make any sense …”

The argument for Gasol goes like this: He was the 7-1, 265-pound backstop of a defense that allowed a league-low 88.7 points per game as the Grizzlies set a franchise record with 56 wins. As point guard Mike Conley said: “When we mess up, he’s there to help us.”

Gasol also was one of just six players to average both more than 1.5 blocks per game (1.7) and at least one steal.

The argument against Gasol is that he wasn’t the league’s top shot-blocker (that was Ibaka, with three per game) and not even the best rebounder on his own team (that would be Zach Randolph).

Even Hollins conceded that Gasol was one of several players that were “worthy” of the award. But Hollins also said: “He epitomizes what it’s all about in this league as far as winning. We have the leading assists, leading rebounder, leader in steals, and that’s all great, but the ultimate goal is to go out and win games and Marc has always had that attitude. It’s a pleasure to coach him and I’m proud of him.”

So, too, Tony Allen, judged the league’s best perimeter defender in a recent poll of general managers, and who finished fifth in the DPOY voting.

“That’s my man,” Allen said. “I’d rather him get it than anybody. If anybody (other than him) had gotten it, I’d be highly upset.”

Gasol’s defensive inspiration began, at least in part, by watching and then playing with three-time Spanish ACB League Most Valuable Player Darryl Middleton. A 6-8 third-round 1988 draft choice out of Baylor by the Atlanta Hawks, Middleton never played in the NBA. But in Europe, he was the Grit and Grind long before it was a Grizzlies theme.

“Hardest worker I ever met,” Gasol said, “and he was 41.”

That story, coming from almost anyone else, would sound fishy. But Gasol is an old-school perfectionist, the one Grizzlies player who can display the dissatisfaction of a coach after a win (regular season, mind you) when he sees too many mistakes.

“That’s what makes great players,” Hollins said. “They want to go out and play the perfect game.”

But on the day before Game 3, Gasol was not concerned with perfection so much as improvement leading to a better end result.

“How to stop Chris (Paul) on that pick and roll,” Gasol said to cheers from fans in the FedExForum’s lobby, who had come for his award ceremony. “That’s what I’m thinking about right now.”

Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.