What Pau Gasol Gave to the NBA
I was quickly rebuffed; Dirk Nowitzki remains a rare bird we have yet to fully capture in our minds, and Hakeem Olajuwon belongs in this category -- even if he did show up in the USA just in time to learn the game at the University of Houston.
I am not one of these people totally hung up on who wins what when and with whom. And I wasn't playing devil's advocate.
For those few, carbon monoxide-soaked moments, the case for Pau seemed strong as ever. Right now, Gasol is up to something big: one title, three straight trips to the Finals, acclaim as the game's most skilled big man, and for the foreseeable future, an All-NBA spot. Although Pau's not surpassing Dirk or Hakeem, it's safe to say that Kobe Bryant's not the only one who can burnish his legacy here.
Gasol is busy making a major statement about just how valuable international players can be. This comes on the eve of a draft that will see a Euro-free lottery, maybe even first round; the news that Ricky Rubio will spend another year abroad; and a general lack of interest in the NBA on the part of foreign players, many of whom never come over or head back after a season or two. Pau, though, stands as the prime example of how international stars can flourish without having to resort to novelty or pedigree.
The Big Barcelonean entered the league in 2001, at the height of Euro-mania. Euros -- they were always from Europe then, so "Euro" hadn't become a bad joke -- were drafted for their relative Dirk-ness. Nowitzki, if you recall, wasn't simply praised for his good manners and strong fundamentals. Coming ashore with a previously unheard-of skill set, he had the capacity to alter form and function in the game.
Thus, all sorts of strange creatures lurked just beyond the Atlantic Ocean. Chad Ford played the role of Heroditus, and players like Andrei Kirilenko were drafted with nothing more than a grainy, black-and-white VHS to go on.
Teams knew everything and nothing about Gasol, who rocketed up draft boards at the eleventh hour. He was young, raw, smart, skilled, thin, and reflexively compared to Dirk. Sidenote: As much as Euros were supposed to save the league, teams still couldn't help but pick high school players. Thus, Kwame Brown and Tyson Chandler were chosen first and second overall, with Pau going third to the Hawks -- only to be traded to the Memphis Grizzlies that same night for star Shareef Abdur-Rahim.
And then a strange thing happened. At age 21, Gasol proved to be instantly effective. Except he didn't have three-point range, or supreme ball-handling abilities. Despite his lack of muscle, there was no ambiguity about his position: Pau needed the ball in the paint. There was much that was novel, even bizarre, about Gasol -- his sneaky use of length, exquisite passing in tight spaces, and face-up moves that only obliquely took aim.
At the same time, Pau, while branded as "soft", rebounded and blocked shots with his whole body, and famously went baseline on his idol, Kevin Garnett. His game was, for lack of a better word, foreign in style, even as it worked a decidedly traditional niche.
Gasol was named Rookie of the Year for 2001-2002, and was thought to be the tip of the iceberg. Teams couldn't have been more excited; the league saw a truly international NBA as the next step on the road to world domination. Within a few seasons, though, we got a sense of just what the overseas invasion would really look like.
As it turned out, Dirks didn't grow on trees in the Eastern Bloc. There were impressive weirdos like Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur, Hedo Turkoglu, and Boris Diaw, but also notable busts like Darko Milicic, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, the elusive Pavel Podkolzine -- were players touted as "different" on a macro-level.
Meanwhile, Gasol lead the Grizzlies on an unlikely run of playoff appearances in the West. He wasn't changing basketball, but the now-fashionable "skilled big man" tag also doesn't do him justice. Gasol handled the standard job description, but he did so like no one else before or since. If his idol, Garnett, was an uber-original, Gasol could attribute at least some of his game to his Spanish background. That's not to say that Spaniards have spiciness, which is like suggesting that African-American players have rhythm on the court. But let's face it, different cultural groups bring a different feel to a sport.
This is accepted in soccer, where style is a stand-in for nationalism, even the outmoded concept of national character. In basketball, though, these kind statements make us uncomfortable.
Looking for macro-change agents, who would shake up the NBA's style and image, acknowledges difference less than Gasol's more modest innovations. Dirk can be a cipher for all sorts of agendas; Gasol is playing good, old-fashioned basketball with a Spanish tinge. This isn't assimilation, it's the chance to accept international as truly international -- not all simply from some other galaxy.
You could point to older players like Vlade Divac as having already mined this territory. But Pau came after Dirk, was rehabbed from a "Next Dirk," and is now a surefire Hall of Famer (NBA Division, thank you) who is much better than you think, and will be appreciated more with time.
There may not be so many international players coming over these days, or as much hope invested in them. Yet Gasol set the table for successful Euros like Tony Parker, Nene, Luis Scola, Anderson Varejao, and presumably, Ricky Rubio. Guys who, paradoxically, are at once completely traditional and highly unorthodox.