Pau Gasol walked out of class on Nov. 8, 1991, not sure where he was headed. It was recess at Escola Llor, the private school he attended in suburban Barcelona, and students were starting a soccer match. Gasol wandered the perimeter of the field as if in slow motion, neither playing nor watching, enveloped in a fog that was emanating from a foreign metropolis 6,000 miles to the west. He tried to comprehend the words and letters he had just heard in class: Magic Johnson and HIV. "I was deep in thought," Gasol says. "I was trying to figure out what it meant and what I should do. It was one of those moments that sticks in your mind and stays there your whole life."
For many of today's athletes, too young to have seen a president assassinated or remember a space shuttle falling from the sky, it was the first such moment. When the fog finally lifted, Gasol came to a conclusion about his future. He did not decide then that he would move to Los Angeles and play for the Lakers and lead them to a NBA championship.
He decided that he would become a doctor and try to cure AIDS. He was 11.
Making the NBA, and especially the league's upper reaches, is for the single-minded. The best players are often identified by the time they hit puberty, then hermetically sealed in AAU programs and club teams, ushered from hotel to gym and back to hotel. Any pursuit outside basketball is deemed a distraction, frivolous and ultimately pointless.
Gasol is unique in that he has become one of the most skilled post players in the world without ever retreating inside the basketball bubble. His name is pronounced pow, which sounds ideal for a power forward. But he was actually named after the hospital in which he was born, Hospital de Sant Pau, as well as the renowned Catalan cellist, Pau Casals. At 13 Gasol could play Tchaikovsky on the piano, and at 18, as his American peers plotted premature jumps to the NBA, he enrolled in medical school at the University of Barcelona, where he cut open cadavers and dreamed of a career in a lab.
Even later, after he quit med school, grew to 7 feet, became the No. 3 pick in the 2001 draft and was named the Rookie of the Year with the Grizzlies, his coach, Hubie Brown, asked him what he planned to do after basketball. "I'll be a doctor," Gasol said. Now that he is 29, a linchpin of the reigning champion Lakers and a three-time All-Star, he realizes obtaining an M.D. is out. But his education never ends. He teaches himself Italian and French, plays the works of French composers on his keyboard and kicks back with 1,000-page historical novels. Playing in the NBA has also made him fluent in trash talk, but as he said after a game last month against the chatty Nuggets, "I don't listen to things that don't make sense."
He has chosen cultural immersion over isolation. In L.A. he has been to concerts at the El Rey, the Orpheum and Largo; musicals at the Pantages; and operas at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, after which he reviews the performance backstage with tenor, friend and countryman Plácido Domingo. Gasol prefers to watch documentaries and independent movies. He attends matches featuring another friend and countryman, Rafael Nadal. Gasol lives in Redondo Beach, across the street from the shoreline, where he takes in the sunset when he feels his mind getting too crowded. "I like beautiful things," he says, which is why he fell for basketball in the first place, at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, when the Magic-led Dream Team was in his hometown, giving its hoops recitals at Palau Sant Jordi.
Gasol flashed back to those halcyon days earlier this month, from behind the wheel of his black Porsche Cayenne, tinted windows rolled down, famous tangle of brown curls visible to the passengers outside. He was navigating L.A. surface streets at rush hour, an art in itself, on his way to Children's Hospital in Hollywood. The one-hour hospital visit is a standard stop for athletes, but Gasol contributes more than photo ops and autographs. At Children's Hospital he met with doctors in a conference room, quizzing them about their treatment of patients with scoliosis, asking how they ensure that their procedures do not stunt lung development. "We all looked at each other like, How does he know this stuff?" says Dr. David Skaggs, chief of orthopedic surgery. Next month Gasol is scheduled to sit in on a spinal surgery with Skaggs, dressed in scrubs. "We talk to him now almost like he is a surgical colleague," Skaggs says.
The goals Gasol set when he was 11 have obviously been revised but not forgotten. He has an official partnership with Children's Hospital and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, and he is a Spanish ambassador to UNICEF, specializing in AIDS among children, a position that has taken him to South Africa and Angola. "I wasn't able to become a doctor like I planned," Gasol says. "So I try to make an impact in other ways."
The Lakers have discovered that Gasol's intellectual curiosity is not a distraction at all but in fact a key to one title and perhaps more. The triangle offense requires a big man with a brain because, when he catches the ball in the post, he has myriad options to choose from. "He's either the hub or the hole," says Los Angeles assistant coach Jim Cleamons. Gasol can find Kobe Bryant cutting across the lane, kick the ball out to point guard Derek Fisher at the three-point line or lob it down to center Andrew Bynum on the block. He can also keep it, which opens up another wide array of possibilities, given that Gasol can drive left as well as right and finish with either hand. Get in his jersey, and he beats you with a blinding first step. Give him space, and he drains a 15-foot jumper. Double-team him, and he finds the open man, like a European Magic Johnson. According to Cleamons, Gasol picked up the triangle faster than anybody since Scott Williams, who joined the Bulls 20 years ago, and his decision-making helped it hum. "There is a rhythm to it, a poetry," Cleamons says. "It's like a good movie or a nice book. It's domination with mind as much as body."