I interviewed Pau Gasol during the third month of his NBA career, in January 2002. My task was to profile the lanky, then clean-cut, 21-year-old forward who was climbing his way up the list of Rookie of the Year candidates for the Memphis Grizzlies' game-day program.
We sat down after the team's practice at Rhodes College — the first brick had yet to be placed for FedExForum — and spent a few minutes talking about the new life of an NBA player and the hopes that player had for the months and years ahead. I was astonished at one missing element to this Spanish novice in Memphis: humility. And I mean that in a good way.
When the Grizzlies traded Gasol to the Los Angeles Lakers last Friday for salary-cap relief — the acquisitions of Kwame Brown and Javaris Crittenton were merely to make the dollar figures work, as required by the NBA — the team ended the closest thing to an "era" the franchise can claim.
Gasol went on to win that Rookie of the Year trophy — an honor he coveted, particularly since he was the first European player to win — and became the first (and still only) all-star in Memphis history when he suited up for the Western Conference in 2006.
Gasol leaves as the Grizzlies' franchise career leader in games played (476), points (8,966), and rebounds (4,096). He was the centerpiece of the team's three consecutive playoff teams from 2004 to 2006.
Alas, those three playoff teams lost all 12 games they played. And sadly, this will be part of Gasol's Memphis legacy. He was a good player — a star, even — but not a difference-maker, not "The Man" the 11 other players in uniform could lean on for the biggest of wins and a post-season run. He was Pippen without Jordan. McHale without Bird.
The two-year descent the Grizzlies have suffered since that last playoff appearance might well have begun when Gasol broke his left foot competing for his beloved Spanish national team in the 2006 World Championships. The Grizzlies lost 17 of the 22 games Gasol missed to start the 2006-07 season and haven't had their collective heads above water since.
New blood has arrived in the forms of Rudy Gay, Mike Conley, and Kyle Lowry to provide hope for a return to playoff basketball in the Bluff City. But the hope wasn't enough to keep Gasol (and his salary of just under $14 million) in the mix for the current brass. With the departure of Stromile Swift factored in, these are — good, bad, or ugly — the New Griz. General manager Chris Wallace and coach Marc Iavaroni have established their presence and the dawn of, dare we say it, a new era in Memphis NBA history.
The trade seems like a rarity, in that it should benefit both parties. For Gasol, he must be tingling with delight, landing in the middle of a playoff race, asked merely to complement the incomparable Kobe Bryant (a player who just might have found his own Pippen).
And the Grizzlies — suffering in attendance figures every bit as much as they are in the standings — now have budget flexibility to pay necessary bills short-term and decide just how much cash to throw in the free-agent derby this summer.
A transformation is needed for this franchise, and it couldn't be accomplished in its entirety with Gasol's bearded face still in the picture.
"You have to be confident if you're going to be able to do things on the court," Gasol told me six years ago. "I'm very ambitious. I want to be one of the best ever."
Who knows whether or not Gasol will land in that conversation when his career ends. But you get the impression the ceiling for the now 27-year-old former all-star just rose with his move to the City of Angels.
Frank Murtaugh is managing editor of Memphis magazine. He also writes the "From My Seat" weekly sports column for memphisflyer.com.