TORONTO — The lights in Scotiabank Arena were dimmed, the court floor illuminated by flashes of Raptors red, nearly every Raptors player was bobbing around on the gym floor and Marc Gasol was very confused.
"From North Philly to your city," belted out arena host Mark Strong over a roaring bass. He was introducing the Raptors' starting lineup and had reached Kyle Lowry's turn. Lowry squatted down, his rear hanging just a few inches above the court, and marched through a tunnel of teammates.
Danny Green and Pascal Siakam, like a couple school kids trying to join a game of tag, darted past Gasol and splayed their bodies across the floor. Green crunched his abs while rocking an imaginary medicine ball from side to side. Siakam made snow angels. Raptor big man Chris Boucher did pushups. Lowry doled out low-fives to all.
Gasol—playing in just his second game with his new team, his first in Toronto—swiveled his head back and forth. He turned to Raptors big man Serge Ibaka, his Spanish national team teammate, searching for some sort of explanation. Ibaka smiled. Gasol's eyes grew wide, like a guy who wandered into the middle of a religious ritual in a foreign land.
Later that night, Gasol retreated to the locker room and scrolled through social media. By then, the video had gone viral.
"What the hell were you doing?" Siakam asked Gasol between laughs.
"What the hell were you doing?" Gasol responded. He turned to Raptors point guard, Fred VanVleet. "You don't do this shit, do you?"
Recalling the moment in an interview about two months later, Gasol repeats the question.
"Seriously, what the hell were they doing?" He laughs. "I'm coming off the bench, I'm out of my element, I'm trying to deal with it the best I can—and then I got this," he says. Another laugh. "But it's a cool thing, and we never did anything that like in Memphis. Maybe part of that is my fault, because how I am, but sometimes it's good to embrace change, whatever the situation is."
Later on in our conversation, he phrases it a different way.
"We're not talking about something negative here," he says of being traded. "As you get older, you understand that this is a game, that we're fortunate to have a great life. It's just something impactful."
For him, and his new team.
On the first Thursday of February, just four days before watching his new Raptors teammates bob around on the Scotiabank Arena floor, Gasol was stuck at home with nothing to do. His team—and few teams over the past decade have belonged to a player more than the Memphis Grizzlies have to Gasol—was in Oklahoma City, preparing for an evening matchup with the Thunder. Gasol, at the directive of the Grizzlies, was back in Memphis, listening to his two toddlers tear up the house. He was told a trade was imminent. It would be easier for all parties if he stayed behind.
Gasol considered the franchise his family even before Memphis acquired his draft rights in 2008. He came over from Spain a 16-year-old when the Grizzlies drafted his older brother Pau in 2001, living with Pau and their parents in a three-bedroom apartment in the suburb of Germantown. Pau and his teammates often watched Marc's high school basketball games. Years later, in 2011, Marc helped lead the Grizzlies to their first ever playoff series win. As part of the rugged "Grit and Grind" era, he helped transform Memphis into a playoff mainstay. But it was more than that. He shopped at the local Whole Foods. He sipped espressos in downtown's coffee shops. He regularly brought smiles to sick children confined to the halls of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
"In Memphis, I'm Marc," Gasol says. "Not Marc Gasol."
Now, he was on the verge of being sent away. Basketball gave him his identity, and his basketball skills were regressing. The 34-year-old Gasol and his star point guard teammate Mike Conley Jr. could no longer carry a team without sufficient help.
That help never arrived. In January, Gasol and Conley met with Grizzlies owner Robert Pera. Pera was concerned that the Grizzlies had plateaued. The team was on the verge of missing the playoffs for a second straight season. Pera wanted to know how his two aging stars felt about the future. Both players told him they were optimistic.
We can get out of this, Gasol told Pera.
"If it was only up to me, I wouldn't have gotten traded," Gasol says later, but not in a bitter way.
A few weeks after meeting with Pera, on the Tuesday before the NBA's Thursday trade deadline, Gasol was nearly dealt to the Charlotte Hornets. Told he would be held out of that night's game against the Minnesota Timberwolves and unsure of how to occupy himself during pre-game warm-ups, he found a box and some trash bags in the locker room. He discovered all sorts of relics in his locker: A set of souvenir barbecue spices commissioned by the Grizzlies back in 2012. Bobbleheads of former teammates, like Shane Battier and Pau. Small posters. A Tim Duncan trading card.
But negotiations with the Hornets fizzled and now, two days later, the 2 p.m. CT trade deadline was just about three hours away. Home with his family, he was in desperate need of an activity to calm his nerves. "He seemed out of sorts," says Conley, who texted back-and-forth with Gasol that entire day.
Gasol found the answer in the form of a five-pound octopus, buried deep in his freezer. He'd never made one before, but this seemed like the perfect time to learn. He cued up Google for a Spanish recipe, boiled a pot of water, dropped the cephalopod in and sprinkled some garlic, spices and bay leaves on top.
At around 12:30 p.m., Pera called Gasol. The Grizzlies and Raptors had completed a deal.
"We're going to Toronto," Gasol told his family. His phone range again
"We're going for it," Masai Ujiri, the Raptors' president of basketball operations, told him. "And we think you can help."
Pau was always the family's basketball star. Tall and thin—he looked like an athlete. Marc, on the other hand, was a regular at McDonald's. In high school, he ballooned to over 350 pounds.
"There were close family members and friends who said things to me like, ‘What are you doing playing basketball? That's Pau's thing,'" Marc says. "It's not something I hold against them. They thought they were helping me."
He's explaining how he's changed over the years. He emphasizes that being told you can't do something, and then not only doing it, but doing it better than almost anyone in the world, can harden a person. Can breed a stubborn streak. When he was younger, Gasol says, he'd occasionally bristle if something didn't go his way. He'd harp on negatives and worry about perceived slights.
"It's something I had to work on," he says.
In September 2014, Spain hosted the FIBA Basketball World Cup. It was a big moment for the country and one Gasol was proud to be a part of. He helped Spain advance to the quarterfinals and had three days before his next game. His wife was 38- weeks pregnant and back in Barcelona, about a 90-minute flight away. Gasol figured he'd fly east and spend the time off with her.
He did, and while there, his wife delivered a daughter, the couple's first child. Marc spent two nights sleeping onin the hospital's on a couch. On the morning of Spain's next matchup, he boarded an 8 a.m. flight in Barcelona and joined his team for an 11 a.m. shootaround in Madrid. That night he missed six of his seven shots against France, scoring just three points. "I played like pure shit," Gasol says. Spain lost. Fans across his native country were furious.
"I remember getting burned. People didn't understand why I left. Even some of my teammates didn't understand," Gasol says. "I was like, ‘OK, great, but this is my life, I make my decisions.' And even though I played like shit, I'd do it again.
"That experience for me, that's when I realized what's actually important in life, and that my life isn't all about me, and that you have to do what feels right to you, that you're the one who has to live with those decisions. Thinking about things like ‘should have' or ‘could have'—you can't think like that."
He mentions this because, he says, it laid the foundation for his transition in Toronto. Years earlier he likely would have derided the Grizzlies for even thinking about trading him. Years earlier he might not have accepted coming off the bench, which he initially did for the Raptors. Years earlier he might have scoffed at seeing his usage rate plummet to a career low.
"I try to be all about embracing moments and changes, and devoting everything I have to the situation, whatever it is," he says. "All this, the attention, the games, the fame, comes and goes and when it all fades away, all that's left is who you truly are. That's what's important to me now."
It took maybe a week for Gasol to realize how different life in Toronto would be. Coming off of the bench, he scored just seven points in his first game. In four of his first six games as a Raptor, he notched single-digit points—his worst such stretch since February 2014."
There were times, says Raptors assistant coach Sergio Scariolo, who's also the head coach of Spain's national team, where Gasol wouldn't touch the ball for three possessions. Scariolo would see Gasol's energy drop.
"It's definitely easier when everything revolves around you, when you're the top decision-maker," Gasol says. "Here, I'm the guy making a move to open something up for someone else."
About two weeks after acquiring him, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse pulled Gasol aside.
"I just want to let you know, the players around you have all gotten better because of your presence," Nurse recalls telling Gasol.
This wasn't a case of a coach deploying an empty cliche to soothe a dejected player. Ujiri and the Raptors had pushed all their chips toward the center of the table in the summer when they traded fan favorite DeMar DeRozan for impending free agent Kawhi Leonard, knowing a year later Leonard could bolt. Every decision in the months since, every move, has been about putting together a championship-caliber team, one that could entice Leonard to re-sign long term.
But there were still a few holes scattered across the roster. The Raptors' offense relied too heavily on Leonard's isolation prowess. Their defense could be pushed around on the defensive glass. Their starting center, the 6'10", 235-pound Serge Ibaka, didn't boast the size to bang with the behemoths, like Joel Embiid, who the Raptors would be encountering in the postseason.
Gasol was one of the few players in the league capable of plugging these holes. "He's changed who we are," Nurse says. During the regular season, the Raptors were 17 points per 100 possessions better with Gasol on the court, per NBA.com. Even more telling: The difference between how well the Raptors performed in the 620 minutes with Gasol on the floor compared to without him was the top mark among all rotation players, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Gasol has always been one of the game's shrewdest players. He's always been one of the league's best and most willing passers. The Raptors, who eventually moved Gasol into the starting lineup, have leveraged those skills by stationing him at the top of the key. There, he can drag defenders away from the rim (he's a career 35 percent three-point shooter), level opponents with bruising screens (he weighs 255 lbs), and run the offense like a conductor if a Leonard iso stalls (throughout his career he's consistently ranked in the 95th percentile and up among all centers in assist rate, per Cleaning the Glass).
"The new offense is ‘throw it to Marc and start cutting like crazy,'" Nurse says, half-jokingly. It's a role Gasol has embraced, occasionally too much. After scoring just 12 points combined in Games 2 and 3 against the Philadelphia 76ers during the Eastern Conference semifinals, both Raptors losses, Nurse had to implore Gasol to shoot more frequently. Gasol responded with a 16-point performance to help Toronto tie the series.
On defense, the 7'1" Gasol is one of few giants capable of hanging in today's pace-and-space world. He can wrestle in the paint. He can dance on the perimeter. He blanketed Orlando Magic All-Star Nikola Vucevic in the first round of the playoffs, limiting him to 11.2 points on 36.2 percent shooting. In three of the Raptors' four Eastern Conference semifinal contests against the Sixers—a series currently tied at two apiece with Game 5 on Tuesday—he's given Joel Embiid fits ( 18 points per game on 36 percent shooting in four games).
"He's just such a smart player and understands the game so well," gushes Conley. "His ability to talk on defense, and anchor it from behind, and how he understands coverages, it's just huge. Not a lot of teams have a big who can do all that."
Now that the Raptors do, they have a chance to capture the franchise's first- ever championship and validate every one of their all-in bets. That, at least, is what the Raptors are getting out of this.
Gasol? He's searching for something different.
"Obviously I've never won an NBA title, and you want everybody, from top to bottom, to be about winning all the time, to be thinking about a championship," Gasol says. "But what happens if you win? Like, do you just quit playing basketball? No, you come back and go for it again. All you can do is put everything you have into the present and worry about controlling what you can."
In other words, it's not the title that actually matters. What might matter is how the process of chasing a title changes him.
It's Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and the lights in Scotiabank Arena are dimmed again. It's time to introduce Toronto's starting lineup. Strickland calls out Gasol's name, then Green's, then Siakam's. It's now Lowry's turn. "From North Philly to your city," he shouts.
Gasol still misses Memphis. He misses the city and the Grizzlies, and especially Conley. About a month earlier, Conley surpassed Gasol for most points ever scored by a Grizzlies player. Afterwards, Gasol texted him a celebratory GIF—it was of Conley flexing.
"I don't even know where he got that," Conley says.
But Gasol is also getting accustomed to his new surroundings. His kids have recently joined him in Toronto. His daughter is excited that Daddy is now playing for the dinosaurs instead of the big bears. His wife has discovered some suitable eateries and supermarkets ("She's my advanced scout," Gasol says). And, man, is the Raptors organization great. The facility! The chefs! The different juice options available after workouts! The medical staff! The coaches! The DJ playing music during practices!
"It's really well-run," Gasol says. "All first class."
Does that mean he plans on exercising his $25.6 million player option for next season?
"We'll see when we get there," he says. "It would be pointless for me to say anything now. Not because I'm hiding anything, but I would be lying, it's just impossible to know. We'll have to see what makes sense for everyone. You can't weigh things on a scale before you have everything to weigh. I much rather focus on the present and make the most of it."
Back in Scotiabank Arena, Lowry settles into a crouch. Green and Siakam fall to the floor. Gasol? He's toward the back of the line, not lying down, but not separate from his teammates, either. He steps forward with his left leg and twists his torso side to side. He's doing calisthenics, like the rest of the group. Lowry shuffles by and slaps his hand.
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