With averages of over 25 points and nearly 9 rebounds per game, Pau Gasol ripped through the EuroBasket Tournament, bringing an aging Spanish National Team to yet another medal finish. The 35-year-old, with longtime teammates Rudy Fernandez and Felipe Reyes, guided their squad to their third title in four tournaments, adding yet another crown jewel to the golden age of Spanish basketball.
His brother Marc Gasol, point guard Jose Calderon and sharpshooter Juan Carlos Navarro all missed the championship tourney, leaving the bulk of the scoring and playmaking responsibilities to the five-time All-Star big man. Despite the serious lack of star power on a Spanish team usually rife with it, Pau dragged both his inexperienced and aging teammates to glory with his usual combination of deft post moves, smooth mid-range jumpers and passing down low. Who could ever forget Gasol, he of 15 NBA seasons and 10 postseasons, rolling through contact and throwing down a bone-shaking slam dunk in the semi-final against France? Is there a more indelible image than Pau's teammates rallying behind their fearless leader who selflessly competed once again in international competition despite another punishing NBA season? I certainly couldn't forget it.
Because I didn't watch one minute of this tournament. Not one. But none of that changes the wellspring of emotion it's made me feel for one of the greatest Lakers of all time.
No, I didn't take any time to watch the EuroBasket Championship this summer. Not even the depths of the NBA offseason could get me to watch ball at strange hours with many players I'll never have to know. But everything I read about Pau Gasol and the unexpected triumph of the Spanish National Team made me reflect on a full year without the Spaniard in the purple and gold. And while I wrote those words without having witnessed the actions, everything I know about the big man lets me believe that I can fictionalize the account of what assuredly happened in real life.
A little over a year ago, I wrote that maybe now was the time that Gasol could be appreciated after 6 1/2 years of neverending dissatisfaction with him, whether it be his alleged softness or how an excellent player had to be quickly discarded because of his age. Has this happened? It's hard to say. Just like any fanbase, Lakers Nation has been embroiled in their own torrid relationship with the team over the past 12 months, watching both veteran stars and rookie prospects go down in heaps by the baseline and franchise-changing free agents spurning LA's dollars. A look back at Pau Gasol surely hasn't been top of mind for many fans in the Southland.
However, there's nothing the Spaniard has done in the last year to dilute how badly Lakers fans should miss him.
Gasol put up another monster season, this time at 34 years of age, dropping 18/12/3 in 78 games for the Chicago Bulls. Through injuries to Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler and virtually the entire roster, Pau notched his fifth All-Star berth and his fourth All-NBA Team nod. He was a spectacular force of steady production for a banged up Bulls squad, with perhaps his newfound surroundings with a winning team warding off any sign of decline. Throughout all the turmoil with now ex-head coach Tom Thibodeau, Gasol maintained his ever professional attitude and put on his armor through another tough season on the NBA frontlines. Pau's incredible sense of duty and unchanging calm in the face of turbulence was tested once more, and once more, he did not disappoint.
But he didn't stop there. After an unceremonious departure from the postseason, Gasol once again volunteered for service to his country's National Team, deciding to forgo rest and relaxation on his 35-year-old frame. There, without the likes of Ricky Rubio and Serge Ibaka, Pau put the team on his back and brought home a championship--a time-tested tale that he doesn't ever seem tired of recreating. Once again, Pau continued to show that his reputation as a "soft" player was nothing more than a fictionalized account from a time long since past. If anything, over the past five seasons, Gasol has shown what a tireless gamer he is, fighting through injury, age and an otherwise understandable desire to quit on his losing teams. He's broken through all these adversities and more, with the previous year being no exception to his performance during his otherworldly career with the Lakers.
Many times, we don't know what we've got until it's gone. While Pau Gasol might not call LA his professional home anymore, he's certainly not gone. His unbelievable performance in the past year, on both the NBA and international floors, have given us the incredible opportunity to appreciate one of the very greatest athletes in league history. All the qualities that we never admired with the proper shine are still there, allowing us more time to witness a great player and person.
Thanks again, Pau. Not just for everything you've done, but for the continued opportunity for us to keep on saying it.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino