Pau Gasol Is Happy


This past summer, Pau Gasol reached a point of no return. First loved, and then discarded, the Spaniard bore the scars of being a Laker the last two years when the road was littered with debris. Gone was the perfection of those championship years when everything was easy. Everything was wrong now. So, when it was time to make a choice, it was like an incision, quick and painless. Pau followed the footprints. He did what Dwight Howard did the year before. He got out of town without looking back.

When Pau Gasol turned his back on the Lakers, it ended his second act.

Dec 15, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Pau Gasol (16) gets a rebound against the Atlanta Hawks during the second half at Philips Arena. The Hawks defeated the Bulls 93-86. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

More than a decade earlier, his first act began. The hopeful and smart 21 year old was drafted by Atlanta with the third pick of the 2001 draft. Summarily, he was traded to Memphis. Ten months later, Pau won Rookie of the Year, vaulting his career into the Memphis record books. Rebounding, blocked shots and scoring statistics helped the young franchise survive.

But, there is something about Pau Gasol’s niceness that makes it easy to take him for granted, to lob criticisms his way. It followed him each year the Grizzlies could not win a playoff series. By the time winter rolled around in 2008, his faults were etched into stone: not tough, not dominant, not aggressive.

When he came to the Lakers, it was a whirlwind. Pau had a glorious, unforgettable championship ride that put his name side by side with other Lakers big men. Mikan. Chamberlain. Abdul-Jabaar. O’Neal. And then, just as quickly, Pau Gasol was tortured. Not the same as he was in Memphis, actually it was worse. The Lakers dangled him on a string, refusing to offer any hint of support or loyalty and the worst part of all was having Mike D’antoni as his boss.

The same organization that methodically dragged him over a cliff begged him not to leave. In a way, Pau’s rebuke of the Lakers was his very own last laugh. The nicest man in the NBA, the Barcelona seven footer who attends the opera and observes children’s surgeries and donates his time to almost every conceivable charity, executed his revenge with the same seamless professionalism he posts up 6-8 power forwards. What goes around comes around. Karma, Pau Gasol style.

Mitch Kupchak recently said Pau was “terrific for the organization”. And yet the Lakers didn’t treat him as such. He was supposed to be dealt in the Chris Paul trade. After that, he was supposed to be traded a half-dozen more times. Through it all, he did what Pau always does. He behaved professionally, he took it all in stride even as it hurt. The Lakers were on record. They didn’t want him.

Tom Thibodeau and the Chicago Bulls had no such problems expressing their jubilation that Pau was on their team. He provided them the length they did not have as well as the offensive skill and another unselfish post player. The Bulls have an advantage in the Eastern Conference against every team they play. No one can match up against Pau’s intelligence and talent and size. What he lacks in physicality, he makes up in intellect. It has allowed the Bulls to let Derrick Rose heal at his own pace. In a way they could not have foreseen, the Bulls do not have to depend on Rose like they used to.

The Bulls are in first place in the Central Divison, a game and a half ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Pau is averaging 18 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks. The last time he put up such dominating numbers was…well, never.

He’s had seasons in which he scored 20+ points, and seasons in which he averaged double-digit rebounds. But only once before in his NBA career has Gasol averaged 2 blocks a game. Then, he was 21 years old. Many Lakers fans watch him in a Bulls uniform and wonder why he never dedicated himself to blocking shots when he was in Los Angeles.

His best Los Angeles season was in 2009-10 when he blocked 1.7 shots a game. The Lakers repeated as champions and Pau had a scintillating game seven: 19 points and 18 rebounds. He didn’t shoot the ball well, 37%, but he played 42 minutes. After the game was over, the exhilaration on his face was matched only by his extreme exhaustion. How could he know? This would be his finest Lakers moment. For Pau, it would go downhill from there. The ride was over.

Dec 10, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Pau Gasol (16) shoots over Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Garnett (2) during the first half of their NBA game at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The next playoff season was dreadful for Pau. He put up terrible numbers against the Dallas Mavericks, barely north of 10 points. He disappeared. It recirculated the Pau Gasol narrative of soft, and not driven and not good enough anymore. After Phil Jackson retired from coaching, Pau was a silent bystander to the Mike D’antoni disaster. Eventually he and D’antoni were at war and Pau had one foot out the door.

When a marriage is over, you don’t need to hear the words. You just know.

In Chicago, Pau has been a god-send. He fills in the blanks, he makes up for all of the mistakes. The young scoring star, Jimmy Butler, is playing off of Pau the way Kobe Bryant used to but without all of the maniacal intensity and perfectionism and demanding personality. A weight has been lifted off of Pau’s shoulders. He is breathing again.

The Bulls have won 4 games in a row. One of those games was against his old team, the Memphis Grizzlies. The added burden of playing against his brother has never gotten easier. It has always filled Pau with conflict, beating his brother on such a large stage. In this game, Pau struggled. He shot 28%. But for the first time in a long time, his production did not matter. He had a bad game, so what? His team still won, they were that type of team, able to overcome when he was flawed on the court. There were no critics, no death stares.

And so here he is, 13 years after draft night. Pau Gasol who wanted to be a doctor but became a champion and was later trivialized, has overcome his Mike D’antoni nightmare. Finally, it is over. Finally. Pau Gasol is happy again.

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