Pau Gasol was never going to win a popularity contest, at least not in Memphis. He arrived with a strange name, a strange game (a seven-footer with touch!), and an accent to boot. So in many respects, Pau Gasol embodied the arrival of big-league sports in the Bluff City, a foreign concept to generations accustomed to football and basketball B-leagues that didn’t make the sports section beyond the Mid-South. While he didn’t start the very first game in Memphis Grizzlies history (he scored four points off the bench on November 1, 2001), Gasol started 79 games as a 21-year-old rookie, and led Memphis in scoring average for each of his six full seasons here.
My introduction to Spain’s preeminent hoops export came in the form of an interview for a profile in the Grizzlies’ inaugural-season game-day program. I expected a wide-eyed, eager athlete trying to find his way with English, let alone his back-to-the-basket skills. Instead I found a confident — cocky, even — young man playing where he expected to play, in the world’s greatest basketball league. “You have to be confident,” he said, “if you’re going to be able to do things on the court. I’m very ambitious. I want to be one of the best, ever.” He took particular umbrage with the label most European players have been tagged with upon their arrival in the NBA. “You cannot be soft and play in the NBA,” he stressed. “There are more and more [Europeans] playing in the NBA, and we’re doing what we have to do.”
Gasol went on to lead the Grizzlies in scoring (17.6 ppg), total rebounds (730) and blocked shots (169). Despite Memphis winning only 23 games, Gasol was named the league’s Rookie of the Year (the first European to earn such honors). Among the players he topped for the trophy: San Antonio’s Tony Parker, Golden State’s Jason Richardson, and Utah’s Andrei Kirilenko.
Gasol averaged 19.0 points and 8.8 rebounds in 2002-03, the season Hubie Brown took over as coach. The following season remains the Grizzlies’ finest to date: 50 wins and the franchise’s first playoff berth (where they lost to San Antonio in the first round). Gasol topped the team in scoring in 34 games. Lacking the flash of point guard Jason Williams or the off-the-court charms of swingman Shane Battier, Gasol was merely an efficient difference-maker at both ends of the court. Ironically, this was the only season as a Grizzly that Gasol did not shoot higher than 50 percent from the field (48.2). He paced the team in scoring in the playoffs, too (18.5 ppg), but was unable to thwart a sweep at the hands of the Spurs.
Gasol was the centerpiece for playoff teams again in 2005 and 2006, but found himself twice more on the wrong end of series sweeps. He averaged a career-high 20.4 ppg in 2005-06 and earned the first All-Star nod in Grizzlies history. Playing for a Western Conference squad that featured fellow-Europeans Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker, Gasol failed to score but grabbed 12 rebounds in 14 minutes of action. The shaggy beard Gasol sported during the 2005-06 campaign added a dose of personality to his game. But despite becoming the hairy face of the franchise, he never gained unqualified devotion from Grizzly fans. An 0-12 playoff record will do that to a star.
Despite missing 23 games with a broken foot, Gasol led the 2006-07 Grizzlies in scoring (20.8) and rebounding (9.8). But the club fell off the playoff wagon rather violently, losing 60 games. With the team on its way to another 60-loss season, Gasol was shipped to the Los Angeles Lakers on February 1, 2008. (Along with a pair of future draft picks, the trade brought the rights to Gasol’s younger brother, Marc, to Memphis.) Gasol left the Grizzlies as the franchise’s career leader in points (8,966), rebounds (4,096), blocks (877), and games (476).
In less than two full seasons as Kobe Bryant’s new sidekick, Gasol has played twice in the Finals (earning a championship ring last June), played in a second All-Star Game, and earned third-team All-NBA honors. Whether or not his path leads to the Hall of Fame, though, Gasol will always be the first big-league star Memphis could call its own. Worthy of Athlete of the Decade honors. Almost.
[The countdown is almost complete. After Stubby Clapp (5), Danny Wimprine (4), Chris Douglas-Roberts (3), and Pau Gasol (2), only one slot remains to be identified. Memphis’ Athlete of the Decade will be profiled here in December.]