Before he was here he was there, Rookie of the Year, leader in points, blocks, and rebounds for the Memphis Grizzlies, agile and skilled and everything you could possibly want. But, of course, there is a plateau and then a fall, not from grace, just from perception. What the Grizzlies thought of Pau Gasol in 2001, a seven foot player from Barcelona who would be their all time leader in Player Efficiency Rating was not what they thought of him in 2008, someone who could not win in the playoffs. He could not win a single game; he was swept out of the playoffs three times. Worse, he was not beloved.
Enter fate and the wildcard of crazy things happening and an organizational transition. The uneven trade that allowed Pau Gasol to plant his feet on the Los Angeles ground in 2008 was perhaps his moment of destiny.
Nearly five years after that one moment of taking a breath and exiting the airplane there is nothing left of the original blissfulness that marked Pau’s shocking arrival. There is a sense of exhaustion, at having survived something. The complexity of what he accomplished in Los Angeles presses against failure and the burden bathes him in a continual scorn. It is the type of spite that does something to the heart, especially for a humanitarian like Pau. No longer is his voice layered with a subtle plea- don’t trade me. Rather, the edge of resignation and even some bitterness and isolation- he could not make it through the end of the year without trade speculation- has a grip upon him, upon everything about him, his posture, his language, his being, his emotions.
Pau treats his time here as if it is two things. The first is glass. Everything about being in Los Angeles is easily broken. Secondly, he treats it as if he no longer has hope, like someone with a terminal disease weighed down by the thought of mortality. Pau is fond of saying if a trade happens, well, it happens. He remarked earlier he would not mind returning to Memphis. Clearly the push and pull, the hate-me-love-me, the trade possibilities cropping up every few weeks, has long worn Pau down to a form of himself. As if that wasn’t enough, there is also his war with Mike D’Antoni.
The expected and traditional way of aging happens through evolutionary time, minutes become hours and hours become years. But there is another side to this, to growing old. There are those who have aged because of defiance, because of what has happened to them that was not fair, because of the rebuke and the doubt and the contempt sandwiched between praise- but praise is not what most of us remember, it is all of the other stuff that circles in our brain. It is this very thing that is larger than life that is the blood, sweat and tears of Pau Gasol, his up and down universe. His appreciation is skewed. It is juxtaposed against the labels of what he could not do, the disappointment of how he played, the judgment about his finesse.
There are some stars whom you love as if they are your brother, you have to love them. It does not matter if they have flaws, the romance never burns itself out. You covet their presence. And then there are the Pau Gasols of the world, the misconstrued and mischaracterized and perhaps, in a few days, the one who is permanently gone.
Questions about Pau, even when he was drafted, were culturally biased, primarily because of the discriminatory lens non Americans are viewed through. It is a continuing stereotype that borrows from both truth and fiction. European centers are finesse players because of geography but they have a stirring talent that cannot be overlooked. Their crime is their birth: they did not grow up on American playgrounds and endure elbows to the head and beatings in the park, they did not have to earn their worth or respect. When Pau was at Memphis, the narrative of his non-American style of play began with a whisper and then it echoed into the treetops. He was not physical, not tough, not dominant enough. It was the same narrative that traveled to Los Angeles and took up residence in the NBA Finals when Kevin Garnett pushed him around as if he had the weight of water.
How many times has Pau said, “I did my best”, not realizing this consoles no one. The saddest part of Pau’s career is that it was never appreciated in the moment. His skill was always funneled through someone else’s reality. His game engendered little affection and so did the man. Who will we remember once Pau is no longer here?
From a purely logical view the trade that has been talked of and debated makes economic sense. The Lakers are going nowhere this year. Trading Pau to the Cavs, receiving and waiving Andrew Bynum, receiving Early Clark, will save money. Why spend when there will only be diminished returns and regardless of what you think of Pau he is not the same player. He has limited lift and struggles with shots at the rim, he plays a meaningless game as if the foot injuries that continue to plague him-not uncommon with men his size- are wearing down his spirit. He can no longer block out men in the paint who routinely get position for offensive rebounds. As a mainstay in the offense he can only influence the game to a point, in spurts. If the Lakers are mediocre with him in the lineup, just 13-17 with him on the court, then it is true what Pau has descended into, one more guy on the floor, an overpaid thirty three year old, someone who is efficient at times but nurtures his own lethargy. Of course Pau damages his own cause by lingering on the perimeter in D’Antoni’s offense instead of rolling to the rim the way Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman do. If it is not difficult for them to score in the paint, why is it so hard for Pau?
He needed others, it was not a crime. Phil Jackson and Kobe pushed Pau into his own greatness, demanded things from him no one ever had. In his prime, when he was healthy, he became the player he should have been all along. He was the most skilled power forward in the league. He has been the Lakers best power forward in their history even though he has not been here 5 years. When Kobe returned in December it was clear he was nudging Pau back from the abyss. Pau no longer set up on the perimeter, he was in the paint, at the rim and his numbers (15 points, 7 rebounds, 54% shooting) showed how much Kobe’s presence meant for his game. He was happy, his smile returned, the light in his eyes seemed to burn a hole in his face. But when Kobe was injured again, Pau was the one who suffered. Kobe had a cracked knee but Pau had a vanquished game, a persecuted sense of what was to come.
The lie that is repeated often in sports is the one about loyalty. It exists but only as a sum. Pau is loyal and he is not loyal. Whatever loyalty remains is in knots. His emotions make it impossible for rationality because D’Antoni’s offense has made a victim of him. So Pau is loyal even as he sometimes lingers on the sidelines and at the same time he is mistrustful. He missed two games and some of his teammates began to question his commitment to them. It was both legitimate and unfair to ask if he still is dedicated. A better question may be is he still determined. Or is he going through the motions to get where he needs to be, free agency. Has he already conceded this is the end of the line, these are the last rites for him in a Laker uniform? This is his last chapter.
But even before this period of uncertainty, even at his height of dominance, when he could not be defended, Pau Gasol was complimentary. He had never been able to convert the faithful. His game was not that infectious or dominant. He did not dunk. He did not block shots. He did not have 30-30 nights. He was not a tough player others followed, it was the reverse, he followed others. Given this set of circumstances what inevitably happens if you are watching Pau Gasol is that you wait for his efficiency to take you somewhere you have been before and when it does not, when it seems to limp into being because he is no longer a 50% shooter, then you say he no longer fits. But what does that mean exactly, he no longer fits? He is seven feet tall and is being asked to play like a guard. Clearly his career is tainted by his own passivity, his willingness to submit.
So here he stands. Here he is. Until he is somewhere else. Perhaps he will be in Cleveland when it is all said and done. Or perhaps not. If he has had one enduring talent it is that he overcame the winds that were going to blow him far way. He was supposed to be a Houston Rocket several years ago. Until he wasn’t. He might be a Cleveland Cavalier. He isn’t right now. He has faced it all before. And yet the most important thing to know about Pau Gasol is that he is who you think he is. He is not selfish. He does have grace. He is no longer a dominant player. He has taken all of the stones thrown his way. Basketball is not what he does better than anything else, not anymore.
Once upon a time he was given a second chance. He turned it into a precious gift: two titles, three Finals appearance, a Kobe brotherhood. Perhaps that is all there is to know. It is the end to this particular story, the player from Spain who has an athletic death to mourn, grieving in private, playing in public. Pau came and he won. Pau came and he lost. Life is a circle. Pau fell into the Lakers lap in 2008. He was celebrated in 2009 and 2010. Now he is back where he started. Trying to prove that he is worth it, that his time with the Lakers is not over. Not yet.