The Chicago Tribune's NBA columnist Sam Smith is notorious for making stuff up. His latest laughable trade rumor has the Memphis Grizzlies sending Pau Gasol and Shane Battier to his hometown Bulls for Eddy Curry and Jamal Crawford. But one line in Smith's February 9th column stuck with me: "The talk in Memphis is that the Grizzlies are down on Pau Gasol. It appears they don't appreciate what they have ."
Judging from events of the past couple of weeks, I wonder if Smith doesn't have a point. Though it's been papered over with Gasol's back-to-back monster games against Milwaukee and Minnesota, the booing incident against Golden State brought to the surface something that's been true for the entire life of the Memphis Grizzlies: Gasol's popularity with local fans has never been commensurate with his importance to the team or his production on the court.
I don't believe that xenophobia has anything to do with this, but I do think Gasol's reception is connected to a couple of other ingrained biases. Sports fans have a tendency to respond to players who "hustle," or at least make a show of it. They swoon for the gritty overachiever. (Remember Stubby Clapp.) With Memphis' history as a college/minor-league sports town, local fans seem particularly susceptible to this line of thinking. This is why so many Grizzlies fans thrill to the energetic exploits of players like Earl Watson and Bo Outlaw but are rarely heard grousing about Watson's poor shooting or the fact that Outlaw's limited offensive skills often force the team to play four on five at one end of the floor.
In other words, fans tend to respond more to athletes who make easy plays look difficult than to those who make difficult plays look easy. Early in the life of the Memphis Grizzlies, point guard Jason Williams was the victim of this bias. His flashy play was negatively compared with the steadier hand of backup Brevin Knight. For a while, the specious "style-versus-substance" argument (in truth, Williams was far superior on both counts) resulted in the insane notion, among not just fans but some members of the media, that the team would be better with Knight at the helm.
With Williams generally rehabilitated in the eyes of most onlookers, Gasol has become the new whipping boy, and if he doesn't always seem to be giving maximum effort, well sometimes it's because he isn't and sometimes it's because he doesn't have to. One local sports-radio host is fond of the theory that Gasol pads his numbers with "plastic points," as if Gasol's penchant for scoring on the break and on dunks isn't a result of his ability to run the floor, to handle passes in traffic, to finish with either hand, etc., and as if getting "easy" baskets isn't a desirable outcome of every possession.
But there's another reason that Gasol hasn't been entirely embraced by local fans: Gasol's body language and mannerisms on the court don't always conform to the typical fan's notion of American macho. There is, of course, a submerged misogyny or even homophobia (and, yes, maybe xenophobia too, since the difference in Gasol's physical mannerisms is cultural) in the comments of fans who snicker at what they take to be Gasol's effeminate gait. But if Gasol runs like a girl, other seven-foot basketball players should be so lucky.
I've come to think that Gasol has become the Howard Dean of the Grizzlies, with fans focusing on him, waiting, sometimes gleefully, for evidence that confirms their preconceptions. Last week at the Milwaukee game, instead of taking my usual seat along media row, I bought a couple of tickets in the nosebleeds and took my wife. Sitting a couple of seats down from us was a teen-age girl watching the game through binoculars and delivering a running commentary -- apparently to herself. A few minutes into the game, Gasol was fronting Bucks center Daniel Santiago in the post. When point guard T.J. Ford floated a lob pass over Gasol, frontcourt mate Wright was late rotating over and Santiago got a lay-up. Make no mistake -- Lorenzen Wright is generally a better defender and tougher player than Gasol, but on this particular play, it was Wright who was at fault. So what does our companion in section 244 have to say about the play? "Pau, you so soft. You gotta play like Ren."
Don't get me wrong: Gasol has played soft this season, though his play has improved considerably of late and his stats are misleading because of the way minutes are distributed in Coach Hubie Brown's 10-man rotation. The question of whether Gasol has plateaued or is merely experiencing growing pains is a key one for the second half of the season. But fans shouldn't let cultural biases and handed-down talking points obscure how crucial Gasol is for this team. Seven-footers with immense skills are hard to come by. Seven-footers with immense skills who actually produce -- as Gasol has, rather unexpectedly, from day one -- are even more rare.