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Pau Gasol is an Incredibly Rare Big Man

Whether he’s playing with his Chicago team or hooping overseas, Pau Gasol is one of the most loyal and devoted players that the NBA has to offer. His devotion for Spain is a well-documented example; the big man has consistently played for Spain since 2001 when he was on the U-19 FIBA team. Coming out of a grueling Bulls season under coach Tom Thibodeau, 35 year-old Gasol is pushing his body through a plethora of painful instances in the name of his country — despite medical orders to take a break.

An excerpt from EuroHoops.net:

Pau Gasol was in pain just before the start of the game against Poland and he had to run to the locker rooms in order to get medical treatment; however, this was the start of an amazing story.

As Spanish coach Sergio Scariolo revealed in a recent press conference: “The doctors told me that Pau couldn’t play more than five minutes straight. But after the first five minutes, when I asked him to come to bench he told me now. “I will take the risk,” he answered me and he had an amazing game.”

Gasol, Spain’s leader, reared his team to the quarter-finals with an extraordinary performance, having 30 points on 6/7 from the three-point range. And while teammate and partner in crime Rudy Fernandez is day to day and may miss the next big game versus Greece in the quarterfinals, Gasol expressed his readiness for any challenge: “I never jumped off the boat and I will not do that now. We play against Greece, I will play for sure”.

Check out the highlights from Gasol’s incredible performance from that game:

And just two days ago, Gasol put up a ridiculous 40-point, 11-rebound performance against Rudy Gobert and France in the EuroBasket semifinals, giving Spain a spot in the championship game and an Olympic berth in 2016:

Truly appreciating and understanding Pau Gasol tends to elude most fans. Often times, his lack of explosiveness and vigor justifies many fans to believe that he’s “soft” and isn’t giving his all on the court. One glaring example of this scenario presides back in December 2013 during Gasol’s last season as a Laker when he was blasted for not playing through an upper respiratory infection.

Little did the fans know that Gasol’s injury made it difficult for him to breathe, and running up and down a basketball court for 30+ minutes would’ve seriously tampered with his performance (assuming he wasn’t already hacking up mucus all over his teammates due to his contagious illness). When Gasol did play through his injury, he was criticized for not playing well or hard enough (or both).

Gasol even disclosed the lose-lose situation he dealt with in an article to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. Clearly, pushing through injuries just to prove to Joe-Schmo fans that you’re a manly man is never the wisest decision, especially when you’re in the midst of a hopeless season. The injury-riddled big man was also past his prime and losing mobility even then, and consequently when he did lace up his sneakers, it appeared as though he wasn’t playing to his full capacity.

At the tail-end of an article that was mainly about Kyrie Irving, a Cleveland Cavaliers beat writer made random, boorish and uncalled for remarks about Gasol’s willpower, saying that the Spaniard’s inability to participate during a couple of playoff games last season is one of many proofs that  “Kyrie Irving is [contrarily] such a warrior for playing through [his] injuries.” Granted, the author isn’t a doctor, and neglected to assess Pau’s physical condition throughout his piece, yet subjectively criticized his resolve in the conclusion.

Nonetheless, last offseason Gasol proved his winning dedication to naysayers when he politely relocated from the rebuilding (and unappreciative) Lakers to the glacial city of Chicago in pursuit of further championships. The aging big man made a bold decision to play under Tom Thibodeau, who’s notorious for driving players into the ground.

Even still, Gasol displayed a historic season for a 34-year-old veteran, and he routinely suited up for work, appearing in 78 games. The demanding Thibodeau himself exalted the practice habits, leadership and championship pedigree that Gasol encompassed during all of last season, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.

Despite Gasol’s obvious drive for success, his reputation is generally tainted by fans who are bitter towards his defense, which is becoming increasingly atrocious due to age. Even at his physical prime Gasol was labeled as “soft” by a plethora of fans. In today’s social-media-driven, instantly gratified and impatient fan base, the athletes who play with the most physical pizzazz and energy are generally favored over the earth-bound, cerebral players. High-energy players with tremendous leaping and dunking abilities are generally regarded with awe while the fundamentally sound and mechanical players tend to be overlooked.

That’s not to say that Pau is perfect and ferocity and aggressiveness are unimportant. Surely, aggressiveness is the Spaniard’s weakness, and many fans have noted how Pau tends to “softly” go up when shooting, occasionally getting his shots blocked as a result.

However, most “aggressive” and stereotypical big men in today’s game (with few exceptions) play one-dimensionally; they struggle to carry out any task that requires using their brain, skills or solid fundamentals. Their job is limited to thoughtlessly protecting the rim, standing in the post like a refrigerator, mindlessly grabbing rebounds and belligerently boxing out. They’ll also salivate at any opportunity to melodramatically slam a blocked shot into the third row just for the crowd recognition (as opposed to keeping the ball in play and attempting to take possession).

Pau responds with his thoughts on these types of athletes in his latest book, “Life · Vida”:

“One criticism arises from stereotypes of athletes: that we need to be aggressive; that all athletes should have great strength and toughness, and, for the most part, no brains. I don’t really feel like I fit that stereotype.”

Many athletes have to use their force, athleticism and ferocity to make up for their lack of basketball IQ and fundamentals. It’s easy for bigs who are endowed with superb athleticism to neglect the technicalities of the game, thus finding big men like Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal who combine physical dominance with creditworthy skill a rarity.

Gasol may not be gifted with an athletic edge, but he makes up for it with his multifaceted game, which is displayed in the videos above. The cerebral 7-footer’s scrupulous attention to detail allowed him to perfectly fit into the intricate Triangle offense in L.A., where he thrived as the clear-cut second best player on back-to-back championship runs. In fact, Gasol was so crucial to those championships that he may have even deserved to be the Finals MVP in 2010, but that’s a topic for another day.

Gasol’s rare blend of supreme talent and serene humility is a subtle yet crucial component to his success with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Many players were rumored to repel Los Angeles due to the difficult and hardheaded Kobe, but the fact that Gasol’s decision to leave L.A. was actually made difficult because of his bond with the abrasive superstar speaks volumes about his selflessness and teammate intuition.

Don’t forget, Bryant has made it clear that he’s unconcerned with being a good friend to his colleagues. Tons of NBA All-Stars have bigger egos than brains, but Gasol has discovered an uncommon route to success — with brains, humility and commitment. Bryant demands that his teammates rise to his level of hard work and dedication — meaning that Kobe couldn’t possibly hold Pau in such high regard if he were complacent and weak.

Maybe that’s what led hard-to-please Bryant to label Pau as his favorite teammate ever. In “Life · Vida” Kobe writes,

“[Pau has] the highest basketball IQ in the league. You’d have to search and search and you still would not find another player in the history of the game with his skill set.”

Aggressiveness may admittedly be his weakness, but logic absolutely continues to be Gasol’s great strength. Gasol’s high intellect, dedication and calm tenure not only negate his apparent lack of ferociousness, but they give him an edge that big men in the today’s game typically don’t have. The fact that he’s stood his ground despite the biggest challenges that the NBA has thrown at him along with his dedication and humility have conformed him into the player he is today: an incredibly rare big man, an NBA champion and a future Hall of Famer.

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