Pau Gasol may be a hero in his native Spain, but when the Memphis Grizzlies' rookie forward arrived in the United States at the end of September, he was just another bewildered 21-year-old alone in a foreign country. Separated from his family, which had planned to move to the U.S. with him but had yet to obtain visas, Gasol spent his first month in a Memphis hotel room, relying on nods and shrugs to fill in the gaping holes in his English. Not surprisingly, the only place Gasol felt at home was on the basketball court. After all, that's why the Grizzlies traded up to the third pick in this year's draft to take this spindly 7-foot kid with the preposterously long arms: because he's talented and understands the game.
However, when Gasol joined his new teammates for a pickup run on his second day in town, even the basketball court felt foreign. He found the players engaged in some sort of strange full-court, one-on-one layup drill. They would hurtle down the court with the ball, regardless of court balance or teammates, and launch crazy shots. Where was the teamwork, the passing, the cutting, the offensive motion? Confused, he approached Shane Battier, a fellow Grizzlies rookie. "He came up to me looking puzzled and said, 'American basketball is sort of different,' " Battier says with a laugh. "I told him not to worry, that this is how we play pickup ball in America. Once we got refs and a scoreboard out there, it would all be different. He looked sort of relieved after that."
That Gasol would feel lost amid the me-first anarchy of an American pickup game is not surprising, for in that regard he is typical of most European players, who grow up playing the more egalitarian, team-oriented game that is prevalent overseas. In many other respects, though, Gasol represents a new breed of European player, one who can become the foundation upon which a franchise is built.
Never before has an NBA team used such a high draft choice to take a European player or given up so much to get one. The Grizzlies traded budding star Shareef Abdur-Rahim, a 24-year-old Olympian who averaged 20.5 points and 9.1 rebounds last season, to Atlanta to obtain Gasol, yet before last season he wasn't even a star on his own Spanish club team, FC Barcelona. Only after an early-season departure by Rony Seikaly, the team's center, did Gasol—who will play both forward positions for Memphis—get substantial playing time and a chance to excel. "To be honest, until last year a lot of NBA scouts didn't even know who he was," says Donn Nelson, an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks and one of the NBA's premier overseas scouts. "Even going into the draft, a lot of teams didn't know anything about him."
The Grizzlies also got center Lorenzen Wright and guard Brevin Knight in the deal, but it is upon the progress of Gasol that the trade will ultimately be judged. "In Pau we saw a player with extraordinary length [Gasol's wingspan is 7'5"] and a real basketball presence," says Grizzlies general manager Billy Knight. "We really think he can be one of the young pillars of our team."
Pillar of the team? Third player in the draft? These sound more like the accolades bestowed upon an American college star than a kid from Barcelona, especially considering that until now, only one Spaniard has played in the NBA, and that was forward Fernando Martin, who played 24 games for the Portland Trail Blazers in 1986-87. "It's not that the [European] players have changed that much," says Nelson. "It's that we've changed. After years of guys coming over, teams are finally beginning to trust these players and their abilities."
Traditionally, the European player has been either 1) a lumbering big man like former Portland center Arvydas Sabonis; or 2) a deadeye shooter like Sacramento Kings forward Peja Stojakovic or Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki. Gasol, an excellent passer and athletic finisher (he can dunk from the free throw line), is neither, and though he has drawn comparisons with Atlanta Hawks forward Toni Kukoc because of his ball handling and Nowitzki because of his size, he has also been compared with a certain bald-headed pogo stick from Minnesota who is Gasol's favorite player. "Pau reminds me of Kevin Garnett when Kevin came into the league," says Scott Roth, a Grizzlies assistant who coached against Gasol in the European Championships this summer. "He's strong, he's wiry, he's skilled and he's got more of a Garnettish type game."
Pete Babcock, general manager of the Hawks, also hesitates to compare Gasol with other European players. "He's a much different type of player than Kukoc," says Babcock, who scouted Gasol in Barcelona last spring. "I don't know who to compare him with in the NBA, because he's a 7-footer who can play the perimeter and handle the ball. I saw one play [in Spain] when he cleared a defensive rebound, brought the ball up the court, went behind his back through traffic and then distributed it."
Gasol's introduction to the game came through his parents, Marisa and Agustin, who both played second-division basketball (the rough equivalent of mid-level intramural college ball) in Spain. Starting when he was eight, Pau would accompany Agustin, a 6'3" guard, to a gym in the upper-middle-class Barcelona suburb where the family lived. Although always tall for his age, Pau played point guard until he was 13, and even after that, coaches encouraged him to hone his perimeter skills.
By the time he was 15, Pau was already 6'7" and playing on the FC Barcelona junior team, but he didn't consider basketball to be more than a diversion. His career plan was to follow in the path of his parents—Agustin is a nursing administrator and Marisa a general practitioner—and go into medicine. At 18 Gasol enrolled in medical school at the University of Barcelona (Spanish students can go straight from high school to med school), but within a year the dueling demands of hoops and labs became too much. Encouraged by the confidence of his coaches, he dropped out to pursue basketball full time.