People are often taken by surprise just how popular a sport basketball is in Spain. Everyone knows that the Spanish are football crazy but you don’t have to be here long before you find out that, especially with the younger generations, basketball is now an equally big draw. Look at the playgrounds (or patios, as they refer to them) in Spanish schools and you’ll always see more kids, of both sexes, doing basketball drills than playing football.
Much of this is due to the fact that people can play basketball outdoors for most of the year but also it is down to the increasing number of Spanish representatives in the greatest basketball league in the world – the American NBA. And Pau Gasol is right at the vanguard of that Spanish presence.
Pau Gasol Sáez was born in Barcelona in July, 1980 to parents involved in the medical profession. He was, in fact, born in the Sant Pau Hospital, where both his parents worked. Not only were his parents medical, however, they were also both basketball players and Pau quickly followed their example and was soon scouted by representatives of the local Barcelona team. His progress was such that, by the age of 19, Pau was an established professional in the Barcelona squad and was already being monitored by NBA teams. Whilst at Barcelona, the team clinched the League/ Copa del Rey double in 2001, with Pau being voted Most Valuable Player in both competitions. This was also the year in which Gasol became established in the full Spanish squad, after helping the Juniors become European champions in 1998 and World champions the following year.
It was no shock to anyone then when, at the end of the 2001 season, the 7 foot, 240 lb Pau was tempted across to the USA and signed by Atlanta Hawks, although they actually traded him with Vancouver Grizzlies before the season started. His impact in the NBA was instantaneous and he was voted Rookie of the Year in 2002. He later became the first ever Spanish basketball player to be selected for the NBA All-Star game, in Houston, in 2006.
Crucially, Gasol has always been sure to maintain strong links with his home country – visiting regularly and, indeed, becoming a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for Spain in 2003 and, if anyone bothered to count, has probably appeared in more television adverts in Spain than any other individual. His commitment to his country’s national squad has also been exemplary and he has helped them develop into one of the strongest squads in the world, culminating in their World Championship success in Japan in 2006. Ironically, in the final of the European Championships, held, with tremendous enthusiasm, in Spain in 2007, the pressure to succeed seemed to get the better of Gasol, as he was less than his usual dominating presence when they narrowly lost to Russia. After the disappointment, though, Gasol still reacted in the sportsmanlike manner associated with him and his television interviews were an object lesson of how to deal with defeat.
Pau Gasol has two younger brothers, both of whom are now beginning to create their own reputations in basketball. The day I am writing this, ironically, is the morning after Pau made his debut for the Real Madrid of American basketball, Los Angeles Lakers, having been traded with the Memphis Grizzles (the franchise moved from Vancouver) on the 1st February – ironically a trade involving one of Pau’s brothers, Marc. In his first match at centre for the Lakers, against the New Jersey Nets, the Lakers won 105 – 90 and Gasol scored 24 points, with 12 rebounds.
So, on the day that Spain play France in a football match, it was Pau Gasol who was first item on the Sports News!