LOS ANGELES – Here’s a dirty little secret about Pau Gasol.
The guy who went to medical school and reads history books. … The guy who refers to himself as “a Renaissance man” and responds to a request to describe himself in one word with “multifaceted.”… The guy who as a decade-long UNICEF ambassador dipped a finger into special formula and nursed a severely malnourished one-year-old Ethiopian baby who had lost his mother and also Sunday night sweetly gave just-demoted-to-the-bench Nick Young an extra hug just before tipoff. … That guy wants very badly to be known as a warrior.
For all his intelligence and interests, Gasol is in a line of work that is fundamentally physical. So to earn true respect in a physical business, Gasol has to be physically tough, too. He knows that. And at Gasol’s best, it is both body and mind, same as it was in the final sequence of the Lakers’ 105-103 victory Sunday night over the Atlanta Hawks.
Despite visible fatigue and trouble breathing in the second half as he played through a sinus infection, Gasol nailed the go-ahead free throws and quickly analyzed Atlanta’s final play at the other end in time to jump out and block Kyle Korver’s potential tying shot before the buzzer.
“I had to make up for so many other shots I missed,” Gasol said.
That’s the tough talk that Gasol knows resonates in this world. He wants to be more than that, but he does want to be that. Bigger picture, Gasol prides himself on being different than the people you automatically think of as warriors, whether they also have the dedication of Kobe Bryant, energy of Kevin Garnett or ferocity of Kendrick Perkins. And for the Lakers to be a lot better than people think this season, Gasol is being asked to find the dedication, energy and ferocity this season.
He is deeply glad for the opportunity to put up triple-doubles again, but he is also smart enough to be realistic about how he was off his feet for most of three months in the offseason because of tendon-regenerating procedures to both knees. Gasol has to pace himself—but then he also has to step it up with Bryant out early in the season.
The lone Lakers representative at the pregame captains’ meeting on opening night, Gasol has to be the present face of the franchise—yet he has an expiring contract and needs his individual numbers to set himself up for what should be his last big contract this offseason. As usual, it’s a constant two-pronged agenda for Gasol.
The loyalty issue is especially dicey when we all know Gasol was semi-traded by the Lakers once before, and the honest truth of the summer is that the Lakers begged Dwight Howard to stay, and if he’d chosen to, Gasol would’ve been the most famous player in NBA history ever to know the indignity of amnesty waiver. With Howard bolting, the Lakers instead cut Metta World Peace to save some money—giving Bryant one more year with his Spaniard as the inside to Bryant’s outside. Bryant commemorated it with that Instagram post—Bryant and Gasol, united as one—as soon as Howard decided to leave:
So it is no surprise that Gasol feels a sense of responsibility while Bryant is out, not just to score but to lead by assertive example. Even as the Lakers were being blown out by Golden State in their worst game of this 2-2 start, Gasol was noticeably aggressive in trying to turn the tide by posting up harder. He didn’t want to let the game pass him by as happened often in recent years deferring to Andrew Bynum or Howard.
Same as he did in the last half of the fourth quarter vs. Atlanta, Gasol largely failed in those attempts. It’s just not his natural way to force the action, which is why it was appropriate for his moment of scoring glory Friday night to be those free throws he got trying to make a pass to Jordan Hill. Even as Chris Kaman began kindly but openly pushing for more playing time next to Gasol after the game, Gasol made his own push for Hill to play more.
Gasol knows how much easier it is for him to balance his body and mind if Hill is in there throwing another big body all over the place. Gasol made his comments while uncharacteristically sitting down, fully dressed, for his postgame interview Friday night. He was that weary—though it should be noted that he drew those free throws at the end by rolling hard to the hoop after setting a pick for Steve Nash.
When not getting straight post-ups, Gasol had been settling all night for pick-and-pop opportunities. (His one big dunk came after he stayed outside but pump-faked Al Horford out of position.) It’s the easy way to linger out there when you’re not feeling so great, but even when not ill, Gasol this season has been reluctant to roll hard to the hoop.
He can make jumpers all the way out to three-point land, which is fine once in a while. But that’s not Gasol tapping into the warrior within. We know the warrior when remembering Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals and how Gasol pushed himself to track down 18 rebounds and controlled the game from inside for several pivotal fourth-quarter minutes.
The way he finished Friday night even after coming up short on an open shot that Hill rebounded for him was another reminder.
One of the curious events from the Lakers’ trip to Beijing last month was how far Gasol hiked up the Great Wall of China during the team’s excursion there. It was Gasol’s second trip to the Great Wall, the knees were feeling good, and he said this time he just wanted to see how high he could go.
That was a reminder, too. For all the interesting things that go on in Gasol’s mind, he is at his most inspiring when his body follows.