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Chris Ballard
October 29, 2001
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October 29, 2001

Pau Gasol Vs. European History


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Gasol was a member of the national team that shocked the U.S. in the 1999 junior world championships, but it was only last year that he finally came into his own. "His progress was spectacular," says Antonio Maceiras, the general manager of FC Barcelona. "He became a starter and then in a month became the star of the team." Last March, Gasol led Barcelona to a victory over rival Real Madrid in the King's Cup finals, the tournament involving the league's top eight teams. Women loved him, the media swarmed him, and scouts began inventing new superlatives. "The expectations for him are very big over here," says Maceiras.

Gasol has similarly grand expectations. Though polite and good-natured in conversation, his halting English belies a quiet confidence. There are no maybes or hopefullys, but straightforward proclamations. "That's why I came here, to be one of the best players in the league," he said a few weeks ago while showing a visitor his collection of CDs, which includes everything from Ja Rule to Jay-Z to Ricky Martin. When asked about the last game of the King's Cup finals, in which he scored 21 points, Gasol says, "I told my team, 'Give me the ball, and I'll do the rest.' " Did his coach approve of such forwardness? "Yeah," Gasol says, looking up from his CDs, slightly confused. "Why wouldn't he?"

Such confidence is rare in European players. Nelson says early imports like Petrovic and Golden State Warriors guard Sarunas Marciulonis had to overcome the preconceptions of refs, coaches and other players when they came into the league a decade ago. "I found myself talking to a lot of those guys, telling them to hang in there," says Nelson. "It was very frustrating for them, and many would turn inward and blame themselves."

Even Kukoc, heralded as Europe's answer to Michael Jordan, wrestled for many years with the idea of playing in the U.S. and didn't come over until he was 25. When Nowitzki entered the league in 1997, he was tentative and deferential. "Dirk was always humble," says Roth, who was a coach in Dallas at the time. "He was always saying, 'I don't know, I'm not sure, I don't know what will happen.' Pau is very confident."

This was especially apparent, Roth says, on one play during this summer's European Championships in Turkey, in which Gasol averaged 17.5 points and 9.8 rebounds and led Spain to the bronze medal. In the first half of a game against Germany, a team that featured not only Nowitzki but also 7'6" Mavericks center Shawn Bradley, Pau drove baseline, cradled the ball and tried to windmill it over Bradley. "Shawn blocked it, but that didn't phase Gasol," says Roth. "About four or five minutes later he came down the lane and dunked on Dirk in a crowd and got fouled. After that, he had a little swagger to him, not cocky, but like, 'I got that one.' "

The most convincing proof of Gasol's confidence, however, is the $2.2 million he paid to buy out the last year of his contract with FC Barcelona so that he could sign a three-year, $7.85 million deal with Memphis in September. Meanwhile, Gasol is trying to adjust to his new life in the U.S. One of the first things he did was purchase the two obligatory accessories of the American basketball star: a PlayStation 2 and a mammoth silver SUV straight out of a P. Diddy video. Battier has helped Gasol make the transition by taking him under his wing, treating him to his first American fillet at a Memphis steak house ("I liked!" Gasol says) and cracking him up with his corny Spanish accent.

Gasol has endeared himself to his Grizzlies teammates with his enthusiasm. He also has shown a playful side, such as when he took a camera from a Spanish reporter during training camp and began taking pictures of the media, cooing and exhorting them like a fashion photographer. In the middle of October, Gasol's parents and two younger brothers finally arrived in Memphis, and Gasol is looking for a house in Memphis, where his 16-year-old brother, Marc, the middle child of the three Gasol brothers and a talented 6'10" center, will play for White Station, a top high school basketball power in the state.

On the court Gasol will no doubt struggle at times this season. At 227 pounds, he will get pushed around, and it is imperative that he bulk up his grasshopper frame, something he claims he's prepared to do. ("I love to lift weights," he says, somewhat unconvincingly.) He also must address the two biggest weaknesses in his game: his jump shot, which is merely serviceable, and his one-on-one defense. (He may get some help from the new zone-defense rules.)

Ultimately, though, all involved understand it will take at least two years before it can be determined whether this wiry Spaniard is the shape of things to come. In the meantime, listening to Jay-Z and owning a PlayStation and a souped-up SUV isn't enough. As Gasol will soon learn, if you really want to be an NBA star, one of the first rites of initiation is actually throwing one down over Shawn Bradley.

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