MEMPHIS — The billboard looks like any other. An eye-catching image. A two-word slogan. A company logo. There is nothing extraordinary about it.
The sign stretches 26 feet high and 34 feet wide, covering the north facade of the Rock 'n' Soul Museum, a block from Beale Street. It features a man in a jersey, holding a basketball. "Authentic Memphis," it says.
It's a simple, straightforward advertisement. But this billboard tells a richer story.
The man in the jersey is a 30-year-old center for the Memphis Grizzlies. And there is nothing simple or straightforward about how he got here, on this billboard, in this spot, in this city.
Marc Gasol is the fringe prospect who became a superstar. He's the fat kid who became an athletic stud. He's the kid brother who outshined his famous sibling. He's the foreign import Memphis claims as its own—a Spaniard with the soul of a Southerner.
"Marc won't tell you, but he's from Memphis," said the Grizzlies' Mike Conley, one of Gasol's closest friends. "We say that all the time, man. He embodies everything this city is about—the toughness, the blue-collar work ethic, all those things that this city's about, is how Marc carries himself. He's a low-key kind of guy, not a guy that wants to be all up in the spotlight and things like that."
NBA players routinely claim the mantle of their adopted city. But that's not what Conley is alluding to. When the locals call Gasol a Memphian, they are touching on a deeper connection, one forged more than a decade ago, when Gasol arrived here as a doughy 16-year-old with a contagious smile, a wicked sense of humor and a passion for basketball and Big Macs.
Back then, he was known simply as the brother of Pau Gasol, the third pick in the 2001 draft and the Grizzlies' new franchise star. When Pau made the move from Barcelona to Memphis, the entire Gasol family—his mom, dad and two brothers—accompanied him.
Marc Gasol spent the next two years absorbing English and Elvis, Memphis hip-hop and Southern charm, while leading a basketball revival at a tiny private school in East Memphis.
Gasol lived like any other Memphis teen—hanging out with friends, learning to drive, greeting everyone with a friendly "What's up, dawg?" or "Hey, mayne" (Memphis slang for man).
So while Marc would eventually refine his body and his game in the Spanish leagues, he was indelibly imprinted with the spirit of the Blues City—and was welcomed back like a native son when the Grizzlies acquired him in 2008.
"He's a Memphian," said Jon Van Hoozer, the former assistant coach at Lausanne Collegiate School, who grew close to Gasol in those early years. "He's not going to take any s--t from anybody. ... Now, he's got the sweet passes and all the fancy trimmings, but he's dirty, man. He's rebounding, he's playing great defense. He's not going to fill up a stat sheet with points, which he certainly could. He's a team guy. He just wants to win. And Memphians respect that."
This Sunday in New York, Gasol will be introduced as the starting center for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game, a career first. He will tip off against Pau Gasol, the starting center for the East.
It will be a poignant moment for the Gasols and for the Grizzlies—one brother representing the franchise's humble beginnings, the other embodying its current championship hopes.
The Grizzlies approach the All-Star break with the second-best record in the West and a legitimate shot to make their first NBA Finals this spring. Their strength is built on three uniquely skilled players: Conley, the cerebral point guard; Zach Randolph, the bruising power forward; and Gasol, whose role is not so easily defined.
He is the anchor of the Grizzlies' crushing defense, the leading scorer (18.3 points per game) in their egalitarian offense and a threat in the paint (and from 18 feet out), with the refined passing skills of a point guard (3.7 assists per game).
Gasol is not the prototypical NBA star, but he has earned a stronger label: the best two-way center in the league.
But around here, no one seems overly concerned. Memphians are not easily swayed by the bright lights of the big city.
"Marc," said Randolph, "ain't going nowhere."
If you happened to see Marc Gasol roaming the halls of Lausanne in 2001, you would not have recognized a future NBA star. Yes, he towered over classmates at 6'10", but he was beefy, with a roundish middle and baby fat in his cheeks.
As skilled as he was on the court, with a deft passing touch and a smooth jump shot, Gasol bore no resemblance to an elite athlete. He simply overpowered anyone in his path.
"It was King Kong playing basketball," said Shane Battier, who was a Grizzlies rookie the year the Gasols arrived.
But this Kong had a cheerful demeanor and a seemingly innate feel for the game. From the start, it was clear Gasol played the game at a higher level than most high school kids, with a selflessness that instantly endeared him to teammates. He could easily dominate the game but had no burning need to do so.
Jason Peters, Lausanne's head coach at the time, clearly recalled his first impression.
"I immediately thought we were going to win more basketball games," he said.
That was, of course, a low bar. Lausanne, a private international baccalaureate school, was not built for sports prowess, with a small enrollment (about 80 students per grade), a tiny gymnasium and no football team. When Peters took the job in 1998, the boys' basketball program was just five years old, with a cumulative record of 10-113.
Gasol initially enrolled at White Station, a public school with a strong basketball program. But the campus was big, impersonal and ultimately uncomfortable for a 16-year-old Spaniard who spoke almost no English.
So Gasol transferred to Lausanne, where the student body—a mix of Memphis kids, international transfers and children of expatriates—resembled the United Nations. The basketball team included players from Serbia, Montenegro and Germany, as well as two kids from Frayser, one of the roughest neighborhoods in Memphis.
They were the San Antonio Spurs of Tennessee high school hoops.
Gasol's classmates also included other Spanish speakers, which helped ease his transition. The small classes, often just 12 students per teacher, meant more individual instruction. It took Gasol three months to learn English.
"My first day, they would ask me what grade I'm in," Gasol said. "And I couldn't respond. What grade I'm in? I don't know what grade I'm in. 'I'm Marc. I play basketball. I'm from Barcelona.' That was it.
"It was a cultural shock at first," Gasol said. "You don't speak English. You feel out of your element completely. You cannot communicate. My way of communicating was basketball. That's the thing that is international. You don't need to speak. With a look, you can understand."
In those awkward early months, Gasol rarely spoke in school, often expressing himself with whistles and gestures. But he walked with a cheerful, gentle gait, and was quickly embraced by teachers and students on the tight-knit campus.
"He hit his head on almost every door that he tried to pass through," recalled Brenda Coulter Robinette, who still teaches English at Lausanne. "And the kids were very much looking out for him. So he adapted this little swagger that he used to get through the doorways."
Adjustments were necessary. The move to Memphis had been jarring enough.
The news came in the middle of the night. Pau Gasol had just been drafted third overall by the Atlanta Hawks and traded to Memphis. Marc Gasol was in France at the time, playing for Spain's under-16 national team—and was sound asleep when the phone rang.
The family soon resolved to move with Pau, to ease his transition. Marisa, a family doctor, and Agusti, a nurse administrator, quit their jobs. Marc and Adria, the youngest of the three Gasol boys, were pulled from school.
"It just shows the nature of our family, how together and united we are," Pau Gasol said in a telephone interview. "For my parents to kind of drop everything and join their son on the adventure is pretty remarkable. And my brothers were kind of like dragged along."
The family's knowledge of Memphis was sparse.
"We knew where it was," Marc Gasol said, "and of course, we knew Elvis. Besides that, we didn't know much." And, he added, "We were not ready for the NBA life."
The five Gasols rented a three-bedroom apartment. Marc and Adria shared a room. Pau Gasol would earn nearly $14 million over four years on his rookie contract, but his parents were conservative by nature.
Before the 2001 draft, agent Herb Rudoy took Pau and his parents shopping for a suit in New York. As Marc tells the story, they were put off by the price tag: $500.
"I remember them freaking out—'A suit cannot be that expensive!'" he recalled. "So we were not that type of family."
Memphis has a population of about 650,000, less than half that of Barcelona, but it felt huge to a 16-year-old Spanish kid, who was used to the narrow alleyways and dense neighborhoods of Old Europe.
"Everything was so spread out," Marc Gasol said, recalling his first impressions of his new home. "And the highway had seven lanes! Seven-lane highway? What? ... Everything was oversized. The trucks. The cars. I couldn't believe how big everything was."
With few friends and little familiarity with their surroundings, the Gasols mostly kept to themselves in their first few months—"a lot of time at the apartment together, just taking it easy," Pau Gasol said, "and all kind of figuring things out on our own."
For Marc, leaving Spain meant an additional sacrifice: leaving FC Barcelona and his most trusted mentor, coach Miguel Lopez Abril. Looking back, Marc said, "It was a good time for me to change. Even though I was leaving what I loved the most, where I felt more comfortable, which was my team in Barcelona."
In Memphis, basketball was Gasol's haven and his social conduit. He quickly grew close to Lausanne's Serbian point guard, Mladen Mrkaic, a feisty sort who was as driven as Gasol and "as strong as an ox," Van Hoozer said. Like Gasol, Mrkaic had come up in the European youth leagues, so the two had a passing familiarity before becoming teammates.
It was Mrkaic who first lifted Lausanne to basketball respectability with his playmaking and hard-nosed style. Then came Gasol, who according to legend was dubbed the "Big Burrito"—a nickname that Gasol said he never actually heard and which, as it happens, makes no sense. Burritos are from Mexico. (Then again, geographical confusion was common among classmates, who sometimes asked Gasol, "How long is the drive from Barcelona to Mexico?")
The "big" part was accurate, however. Too much so.
Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki first met the younger Gasol in 2002, at All-Star weekend in Philadelphia. Pau was in the rookie game. Marc had tagged along and was staying in the hotel room next to Nowitzki's.
"I come out of my room and this huge guy comes out," Nowitzki recalled. "I mean, he was massive, tall. He must have been 350 (pounds) or something crazy. They said, 'Yeah, that's Pau's brother.' I never thought he would develop into that kind of (star) player."
At Lausanne, the athletic department scales topped out at 250 pounds, Peters said. He estimated Gasol at 310.
"At that time, I don't know how much I weighed," Gasol said, sipping on bottled water in a luxury suite at FedExForum. "Right now, I'm 250. I'm pretty sure I lost, if not over, 100 pounds."
So, Nowitzki's semi-facetious estimate was, in fact, close to the truth.
"He might be about right, yeah," Gasol said.
Memphis offers a massive platter of dietary temptations, from barbecue to Cajun to deep-fried, but Gasol's weakness was more basic and universal.
"The golden arches," said Van Hoozer, the former assistant coach, referring to McDonald's. "There was one on every corner when he got here."
As Karon Nash, a former teammate, recalled, "We would go and get two cheeseburgers and a small fry. He'd get two Big Macs."
Ask anyone who knew Gasol in his teen years about his interests back then, and the discussion invariably turns to fast food. In Barcelona, Gasol's days were structured around multiple workouts and practice with his club team. In Memphis, he had more free time, and more freedom, and cheap fast food was "something new for me."
"Being young and dumb, honestly, you pick up some bad habits," Gasol said. "When you're young, you make mistakes. But eventually you learn from them."
Scan through old photos of Gasol from his high school days, and he is hardly recognizable. He was already a little on the heavy side when he arrived at Lausanne. But he was so deft with the basketball that it hardly made a difference on the court.
Before Gasol's first season, the coaches held an informal scrimmage and watched their new center go to work.
"He was passing, and he was directing traffic," Peters said. "And his shot was—he was just a pure shooter."
The next tallest player was 6'4", and the shortest 5'7", looking like toddlers scurrying around a jolly giant. Gasol could have steamrolled them on every possession. Instead, he was throwing no-look passes.
"And as dominant as he was and could have been even more, you could tell he was just a team player, that he had learned basketball a different way," Peters said, before Van Hoozer finished the thought: "...than the American kids. Big time."
When the scrimmage broke, Gasol practiced jumpers for 45 minutes, converting about 80 percent of them, Peters said. He instantly became Lausanne's best three-point shooter.
For two young coaches at the smallest private school in their division, Gasol was a godsend.
"You throw in one Yugoslavian badass, you got a team," Van Hoozer said, referring to Mrkaic. "You throw in the badass and the 7'1" Spaniard, you're rolling."
Soon enough, the Lausanne boys were drawing a standing-room-only crowd to the intimate Norfleet Gym. The coaches busily rearranged the nonleague schedule to play the bigger schools.
"Everybody wanted to see him play," Peters said. "He was a Larry Bird, skill-wise. He had the hands. He had the shot."
In his two years at Lausanne, Gasol averaged 26 points, 10 rebounds and six to eight assists, his coaches said. He could have easily gone for 30 points and 20 rebounds a night, if needed. But it wasn't needed, and it wasn't Gasol's style.
"That was not my drive—that's never been my drive," Gasol said, articulating the same values that make him such a beloved figure in Memphis today. "It's never been about me.... It's a team sport. It's basketball. It's not how good you are, it's how good your team is."
When the games were out of hand in high school, Peters simply stationed Gasol on the perimeter, to play point-center.
"We'd be up 25 points at the half, and we'd put him on the wing and just let him work on his guard skills, his shooting and passing and all that stuff," Peters said. "Because we wanted to let him play. People had come to see him play."
At Lausanne, Gasol was literally the big man on campus, but he carried himself with a quiet confidence. He never wore Grizzlies gear to school, though he occasionally came to class in his FC Barcelona jersey.
"There was nothing there to remind you that 'I'm Pau's brother,'" said Robinette. "He really from the very beginning was trying to I think make his own path."
Like his older brother, Marc Gasol is generally thoughtful, reserved and low-key. But he is more fiery and emotional on the court than Pau, and can be a bit of a practical joker among friends.
In the last month of his junior year, Gasol stayed at Peters' house, because his parents had returned to Barcelona to take care of family business. The entire time, Peters worried that Gasol would hit his head on the door frames, or the ceiling fans, or poke his eye out and ruin his basketball career.
On the day Gasol was to fly back to Spain, he ran into the house to grab something and slammed into the doorway between the garage and the kitchen, then doubled over, his hands over his face.
"Of course, I jump out of the car, I'm all freaked out," Peters said, "and by the time I get to him and he looks up, there's blood all over the place. I go, 'Marc!' And he starts laughing. He had gone and gotten ketchup out of the fridge and put it all over his face and his hands and faked it."
That transformative first season ended in a sectional playoff game, one win shy of the state tournament—leaving Gasol with a choice: return to FC Barcelona or stay at Lausanne to chase a state championship. In a decision that might be instructive for NBA watchers, Gasol chose to stay.
"He just wanted to win," Peters said. "He wanted to come back to win a championship."
In Gasol's senior season, Lausanne got another big import, this one from Los Angeles. Jerry West was hired as the Grizzlies' team president, bringing his basketball-playing son Johnnie with him. On any given night in the Norfleet Gym that season, you might run into a basketball legend (West), the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year (Pau Gasol) and the Grizzlies' starting small forward (Battier, whose wife also taught at Lausanne).
As a senior, Gasol averaged 26 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks. He carried Lausanne to the state title game to face Nashville powerhouse Brentwood Academy, whose roster included Brandan Wright (now with the Phoenix Suns) and four other future Division I athletes. Brentwood triumphed, 68-49, using Wright and King Dunlap—now an offensive lineman for the San Diego Chargers—to throttle Gasol.
He finished with 18 points on 6-of-16 shooting, a modest end to a memorable high school career.
"I'm still mad to this day that Brandan Wright beat us," Gasol said, though he still relishes the achievement. "Some of those guys [at Lausanne] would never have played in a state final. So I was happy that I was able to help them. It was a good thing for the school, too. Everybody rallied. It was unique."
It might have all ended there for Gasol—his basketball stardom, his place in Memphis lore. He was too big, too slow for the top college programs. And he needed more structure, more hands-on work, than NCAA rules would ever permit.
"I looked in the mirror, and I saw how big I was, and that's not how I wanted to be," Gasol said. "And I knew I had to break it down to the basics and go in the drawing board again and start from scratch."
That could only happen back home.
In Barcelona, Gasol was reunited with former coaches and teammates from his youth. He lived at La Masia, the famous youth academy for elite soccer and basketball players. He ate all of his meals there. He practiced or worked out three times a day, splitting time between the first and second teams.
And he benefited from the tutelage of Svetislav Pesic, one of Europe's most decorated coaches. "He helped me, he pushed me," Gasol said.
"I couldn't pass having that opportunity," Gasol said, though it meant leaving his family behind in Memphis and rejecting his mother's pleas to pursue a college degree. "My mom always felt that you can get an education here in the states—just go to school and forget about basketball."
Returning home changed everything. Barcelona is where Gasol began reshaping his body, refining his game. It's where he met his wife, Cristina, who Gasol credits for helping change his diet, and more.
"She was probably one of the biggest changes that I never mentioned to anybody, honestly," he said. "She's one of the persons that gave me the confidence, because of how impressive she is to me, how good of a person she is, and how strong she is. I kind of fed off that strength.
"It gives you the confidence of having somebody that is strong next to you and is just a good person, and helps you with those things," he continued. "When you're down, she picks you up. When you want to do something that you're not supposed to, she's like, 'OK, now.' And you trust that person. You know she's not doing it for her. You know she's doing it for you."
The two now have a five-month-old, Julia, another life change that helped Gasol find clarity in his life and his career. "It cuts all the b------t off, all the things that don't matter," Gasol said. As human beings, and as men, too, we tend to be problem-solvers, so we put everything on our back. With a little girl, the only thing I put on my back is my wife and my little girl. It simplifies everything."
During his five years back in Spain, Gasol made the national team, won a gold medal alongside Pau in the world championships and put himself on the radar for pro scouts. And he came to the realization that his NBA dreams were not so far-fetched.
"I can play, and I can find my place with the best team in the world," Gasol said of his national team experience. "So that means I can actually play anywhere."
NBA talent evaluators still had their doubts.
"A below-average athlete by NBA standards, lacking quickness and leaping ability," DraftExpress declared in February 2007, calling him "just a good player." The site projected Gasol as a low second-rounder, with the potential to be the next Mehmet Okur (his best-case scenario) or the next Marc Jackson (the worst case).
Tellingly, DraftExpress also critiqued Gasol's tendency to forgo easy scoring chances in favor of passing to open teammates.
The Lakers selected Gasol with the 18th pick of the second round, 48th overall, that June. But Gasol was rapidly developing into one of Europe's best big men, and by the end of the year, DraftExpress was calling him "an absolute steal," having improved his shooting range and his confidence. His athleticism was still a question mark, "but to land a player this big with this kind of skill level and basketball IQ is an absolute coup," the site declared. Indeed, had Gasol been drafted a year later, Memphis general manager Chris Wallace says he would have been a top-10 pick.
At that time, Gasol was happily building his life and his career with a team in Girona, Spain, having followed Pesic there. Once again, Pau would be the one to deliver Marc to Memphis.
By 2006, the relationship between Pau and the Grizzlies had frayed badly. Pau had the All-Star stats but none of the grit or the outward passion that the fans demanded, or the Grizzlies needed. They made the playoffs in 2004, 2005 and 2006 but never won a single game.
Locally, the Grizzlies were an afterthought, overshadowed by the University of Memphis Tigers.
"We're like a junior high school team, compared to them in terms of interest," Wallace recalled.
The trade that changed everything came on Feb. 1, 2008, when Wallace shipped Pau Gasol to the Lakers for a package that had critics howling: Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, two first-round picks and the draft rights to Marc Gasol.
"Beyond comprehension," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said at the time, a stance he has since revised, though he was hardly alone initially.
"My reaction was the same as everybody else's," Battier recalled. "Like, what is Memphis doing?"
It was, despite widespread perceptions, the best offer any team made for Pau Gasol, Wallace said.
"The critics of the deal, I don't think any of them spent five seconds researching Marc Gasol, or watching tape, or making calls to Spain," he said. Where critics dismissed Marc Gasol as a throw-in, Wallace said, "We wouldn't have done the deal without him."
Lounging in an arena suite, gesturing toward framed photos of the Grizzlies during pregame introductions, Gasol said, "It was sad for me [knowing] what Pau thought of Memphis, and with how some of the people treated Pau when he was leaving. They will never know the complete truth. But you move on eventually.... I got the ultimate fan dream, which is to play for the team that you watched growing up."
Watch the Grizzlies on defense, and you'll see Gasol barking out instructions, pointing, pushing teammates into their proper spaces. Listen to the huddle in a timeout, and you'll hear him bellowing, coaxing, correcting.
Watch when the ball goes up for a shot, and you'll see Gasol nudging, grabbing, holding, aggravating. This slimmed-down version of Gasol is more nimble than most 7-footers, and too strong for most big men, period.
He has grown, however reluctantly, into a go-to scorer, but he is still just as likely to zip a perfectly timed bounce pass to a cutting teammate. The gradual weight loss has made him more nimble, more energetic, and it tracks with his evolution—from afterthought to Defensive Player of the Year (2013) to All-Star starter.
"I never thought he would develop into that kind of player," Nowitzki said, recalling the 350-pound behemoth he met in the hotel hallway years ago. "I mean, just really no weaknesses out there. Tough-minded. So yeah, I'm a big fan."
Between plays, subtle hints of Gasol's quirky humor slip out—crossing himself facetiously after a questionable foul call ("So that he doesn't get a technical," Conley said), patting himself on the rear end after making a good play.
And if you happen to visit the Grizzlies' weight room on any given morning, the sound system might be blaring a rotation of Yo Gotti, Juicy J and Project Pat—three of Memphis' biggest hip-hop artists. That would mean Marc Gasol had been arranging the playlist.
"You can't change what Memphis means to me, what Memphis has meant to me," Gasol said, putting aside all speculation about free agency. "It's a special place for me. There's no doubt."
All across town, billboards, bus placards and digital signs promote the Grizzlies with punchy, two-word phrases that evoke the city's grit: "Stronger Memphis" (Zach Randolph), "Tenacious Memphis" (Tony Allen), "Relentless Memphis" (Vince Carter), "Bolder Memphis" (Mike Conley).
Only one player is identified as "Authentic Memphis." And it's no accident that the billboard closest to the arena is the one featuring the former Lausanne star. Around here, they adore Randolph, revere Conley and deify Allen, the embodiment of the Grizzlies' "grit-n-grind" motto. But Gasol stands apart—a pillar of strength, a personification of selflessness, a son of Memphis.
"Not just one of the Grizzlies," said coach Dave Joerger, "but one of their own."
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.