The Silent Sacrifice of Pau Gasol


November 15, 2012; El Segundo, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Pau Gasol (16) works out before the press conference to introduce new head coach Mike D

There are things he does not say. Not because time has healed wounds and he has forgotten. In fact it lingers still, the pain of being traded. The humiliation of being benched in the fourth quarter. The lack of fairness: he is credited for a loss but overlooked in a win. But Pau doesn’t express such things publicly; he is polite. He is also patient. Over time his team sacrifice has been noble. He stepped aside so others could thrive. To understand why that is so is to understand why peace exists in the world- peace exists in the world because some men decide to be silent. If nothing else about his story makes sense, it is this: it has been a puzzling few years for Pau Gasol.

On November 21 Pau Gasol experienced perfection. All ten of his shots went in. It had been an amazing month for Pau in November, 2010. He would average 20 and 12. Just five months earlier Pau won his second championship. Dead weary from grabbing eighteen rebounds, Pau could barely speak after playing forty two minutes. As the new season wore on Pau became stronger. He had 43 double- doubles, a career high. But none of that mattered by the time the playoffs started. Pau was particularly terrible. That perfect game in November was fool’s gold. It was just a memory. He endured the worst performances of his career in early May 2011. He averaged thirteen points on 42% shooting, abysmal for a seven footer. Not surprisingly the Lakers were swept out of the playoffs by Dallas.

Think of it this way: a part of basketball is order, logic. A part of basketball is abruptness. Reacting to situations. In May the Lakers lost four straight playoff games. In December Pau was the odd man out, traded to the Rockets. When Pau found out about the trade he was devastated for three reasons all having to do with love. He loved the Lakers as an organization and as a team. He loved the city of Los Angeles. And he loved the idea that he was settled and in a place he would stay until his contract ended. And one more thing: Pau had sacrificed being here. He was no longer the best player on the team. He was no longer the brightest star. Pau had given up the institutional luxury that comes with being the face of an organization. He rationalized it by telling himself that with the Lakers he could win championships. And he did that. In fact he did everything that was asked of him even as he compromised his own glory.

Dec 7, 2012; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol (16) watches against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the second half at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Believe them when they say: it hurts to fall on a sword; it does not matter if it is your sword or someone else’s. There is blood. Bleeding on the inside was the consequence of this new trade. Pau was not the same because he was human. He resented the situation. Put yourself in his place. Pau had given his all by way of two championships. He literally sacrificed his body. As the fans vented about the rescinded trade Pau was resigned. This was how it was going to be from now on. Essentially he was a man on a wire. Worse, he was asked to act as if it had never happened. As if they never wanted to exchange him for someone else. As if rejection was irrelevant. And in a non Pau way he lost his aura of forgiveness.

There was a new coach. Mike Brown wanted to feature young Andrew Bynum instead of Pau. That year, despite the uncertainty, Pau continued his traditional level of consistency. In sixty five games he had 42 double-doubles. In game 7 of the playoff series against Denver, Pau had 23 points and 17 rebounds, redeeming himself from the year earlier when he struggled against the Mavericks. Not that he needed more proof given his career but there it was. He could be trusted. He could come through when it counted.

The thing about quiet players that very few people understand is that their game speaks in a thousand tongues; you just have to be still enough to listen. Pau’s game in the Olympics, the gold medal game, when he displayed his array of hook shots, up and under moves, shot fakes, jump hooks, his artistry, told the story of who he was as a player, who he had always been, why he was Rookie of the Year in 2002 and an All Star four times. It was not his fault that his skill was diminished in the Kobe Bryant vortex. Here in London, it was on display for the world to see and he singlehandedly almost pulled it off, almost stole the gold from the Americans.

And then just a few months later in camp with Dwight Howard, Pau had tendinitis in his knees. But that was not the reason why he deferred to Howard. It was Pau’s nature to be inclusive. Also he was not the same player he was in the Olympics, not with the knee pain. When the team changed coaches it went from bad to worse. Pau was secretly hoping for a return of Phil Jackson. In their nearly four years together Jackson challenged and pushed and elevated Pau’s mental game to a different level. With Jackson he knew what to expect, how to survive.

Of course players don’t choose coaches. Their responsibility is to perform regardless of who is in charge. So Pau accepted with grace the hiring of Mike D’antoni. It did not work in reverse. Grace was the last thing on D’Antoni’s mind. Three days on the job he benched Pau in the fourth quarter. Without the coach’s confidence or maybe he was just pissed off, Pau’s game never recovered. He approached career lows in every category. Then on January 21st Pau was benched for Earl Clark, a younger unproven player with potential. It was the ultimate disrespect for a former All Star and NBA champion. Some two weeks later against the Nets the season continued to fall apart. Pau tore the plantar fascia of his foot and was out nearly two months. He returned later in the season but it was a forgettable year. Pau only had 15 double-doubles, a career low.

Mar 27, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Los Angeles Lakers power forward Pau Gasol (16) congratulates teammates Kobe Bryant (24) and Steve Nash (10) at the end of the fourth quarter at Target Center. Lakers won 120-117. Mandatory Credit: Greg Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Some men have no country; they belong everywhere. They represent the past more than they do the future and though they do not stray there is the sense that the end is somewhere in sight, their end with us. With Pau things are never, ever settled and things are never quite fair. While the team was in China the rumors started again, about him being traded for someone else but at this point the truth no longer matters. In some ways he will always be the whipping boy, the repository for blame, the imaginary piece that is moved around. He is wanted one day but not wanted the next. He is a leftover, a collection of crumbs. But he has not fallen far; he still has virtue.

And so the world turns. Pau is not a dreamer. He does not expect roses. He knows it all by heart anyway. Liked today, tormented tomorrow. Praised today but never revered. It is his greatest gift that he senses the politeness of his followers. It creates distance, though, even as he is generous to everyone. He knows: you are nothing more than those things that have happened to you. So Pau has a cautious reserve beneath the scar tissue. Quietly, he has accepted where he is, that he is borrowing fame. But the flip side of that is Pau gets the Laker mystique.

It is about history, all of those great players who are in the shadows. It is about showing you are one of them, you belong. It is about giving everything. Being unforgettable. Being all in. So here he is. He is ready to continue what he started five years ago or maybe the opposite. Maybe he wants to start over. Maybe he is a dreamer after all and yesterday does not matter. It is forgotten. It is what happens right now that has his attention.