Marc Gasol never panics.
The red double-decker bus with "2019 Champions" emblazoned across the front that Gasol, teammates, coaches, and other staff rode through Toronto’s core as a sea of Raptors fans celebrated their first NBA title had run out of beers. Gasol chugged more than his share, to be fair, but four hours into one of the craziest championship parades in history, he wasn’t about to let a beer shortage get in the way of a good time. Instead, he chugged down an entire bottle of rosé, continued engaging with an ecstatic fan base, and the only bit of sidestepping he did was to ensure the mic didn’t find him at Nathan Phillips Square when the parade neared its conclusion.
“I was not bad to be honest,” Gasol said looking back on the parade in early December, claiming there was no hangover whatsoever. “I’m a big boy. I can hold my beers, easily.”
His bear hug-like embrace of the moment never would have led you to believe he hopped on a plane to Spain that very night to attend his national team’s training camp in preparation for the FIBA Basketball World Cup—a tournament La Roja won with the 35-year-old playing a pivotal role.
The NBA’s shutdown due to the COVID-19 global pandemic is the longest Gasol’s gone without playing basketball in about four years and came on the heels of his longest stretch of play: going from the NBA regular season to the playoffs to the World Cup to the next season with no time to rest or recuperate.
In Gasol’s words, he made a lot of withdrawals from his bank account without any deposits, and it was only a matter of time before someone came to collect. His hamstring proved a nagging problem throughout the season before the stoppage, and so his health and fitness became a central focus once again as he spent lockdown with his wife, Cristina, and two children in Spain, taking comfort in knowing he was close to his parents, uncles, aunts, and other near and dear ones in case they were in need.
“It was a frustrating season for me, personally, because I could never get a rhythm and help the team the way that I should be helping the team,” Gasol said. “As soon as—I can’t remember which day it was—we got informed the facility was closing down, I got together with my team on a phone call and got going on a plan to resolve these ongoing issues.”
Time with family and being able to maintain consistency in his training regimen provided some necessary R&R and has had ‘Skinny Gasol’ trending online with teammates and coaches raving with reviews on his new leaner physique, ranging from Terence Davis’ “It’s scary” to assistant coach Adrian Griffin having to do a double take to make sure he knew who he was looking at. In truth, though, it isn’t something we haven’t seen before. He’s been showing and telling us for years.
The biggest battle Gasol has fought in the face of uncertainty came back in February 2016, when the then Grizzlies centre was forced to leave a game against the Portland Trail Blazers, feeling severe pain in his right foot. An MRI the next day revealed a break and sent Memphis’ season into a tailspin. The injury meant Gasol missed out on an opportunity to play for Spain at the Rio Olympics as well, an especially crushing blow for someone who takes tremendous pride in representing his country.
"I always say: Don’t confuse my kindness with weakness. I’m gonna go at your neck and I’m trying to beat you every time that we step on the floor." - Marc Gasol
But Gasol, 31 at the time, recognized this wasn’t time to bury his head in the sand over what might have been. With Steph Curry’s three-point revolution in full effect and the value of the traditional centre diminishing at an exponential rate, Gasol knew it was time to do what he’s always done in difficult moments.
“Either I change a few things about my habits and really adapt to the new style of the league… or find a new job,” Gasol said, looking back before a November clash with the Philadelphia 76ers in which he held superstar centre Joel Embiid to zero points. “I kinda like my job.”
The Spaniard’s first step was to test drive an organic diet, initially experimenting and finding what worked and what didn’t before fully buying in as he steadily began to lose weight, increase his energy levels, and improve his sleep. Further introspection over time has since landed him on a paleo diet, all part of the evolution process and seeking what he can be most consistent with.
Gasol’s adaptation to the league we see today offensively came through a three-point shot that has seen him make 36.7 percent of nearly 1,000 attempts since the injury (compared to 66 attempts in eight seasons prior) and that came courtesy of trading post-ups for orchestrating the offence from the elbows or the top of the arc. Defensively, as his 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year accolade would attest to, the IQ and sense of timing have been ever-present, but the ability to get to areas of the floor quicker—primarily to defend pick-and-rolls better—allowed him to execute at a level that was only in his mind before. There’s still plenty of body to Gasol’s defence, and Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse finds his starting centre’s ability to use it quite unique.
“He’s in the paint, has somebody on him, and I would say stomachs them,” Nurse described. “He throws his stomach at them and seems to make the shot very awkward when he gets his stomach on them or his chest or whatever, right? So, he’s just got a crafty way of playing defence and, again, he’s won a lot of games and you can see why.”
Look around the NBA landscape of successful, winning big men in the league, and it has become a prerequisite to either shoot the three or be able to create it, provide the last line of defence or help prevent dribble penetration by enemies at the front gates. Good bigs can do some of those things, great bigs can do most of them. Gasol checks each and every one of those boxes. The most recent dynasty that was the Golden State Warriors made a habit of running centres off the court—they couldn’t do it against Gasol. When Utah brought their big, bad defensive system to Toronto in December, Gasol rendered reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert useless by forcing him to stretch out to the perimeter. The Jazz have an elite defence, but Gasol’s elite skills allowed the Raptors to expose their flaw and go up by as many as 40 by halftime. On the other end, while Toronto is stacked with versatility and length along the perimeter, Gasol affords Nurse the luxury of going from man-to-man to triangle-and-two to box-and-one and an assortment of other tricks up his sleeve without skipping a beat.
While Gasol’s well-rounded game has inspired teammates to be better, including current partner in crime Serge Ibaka, other big men around the league respect Gasol’s ability to do a bit of everything, admire it even. Al Horford has a fair bit in common with the Spaniard in terms of skill set, but even he finds himself trying to offer the sincerest form of flattery.
“He’s somebody that has a great feel for the game, so when I look at him, his passing ability, that’s something I’m always looking to take,” Horford said. “I feel like he reads defences very well, and he’s a person that just knows how to use his length to his advantage, and those are things that, when I look at him, I definitely try to take it and apply it to my game.”
Erik Spoelstra pointed out that one of Gasol’s great strengths is not getting seasick in the game’s biggest moments, and he has entrusted Adebayo with more playmaking responsibilities not only because he’s made a case for it but because of the way it can unearth exponential value in a big. While the newly minted All-Star lists Kevin Garnett as his biggest idol, Adebayo has steadily been shaping his game through the lens of Gasol’s.
“When I first got in the NBA, I started recognizing, really, who Marc Gasol was,” Adebayo said. “I was like, we have that same ability, and I talk to Marc every once in a while when we play Toronto. But he notices me, I guess you could say. I feel like it’s a great honour, you’ve got a player with a high caliber of intelligence, that’s a big thing as a young player, for somebody like that to notice you.”
When the pair do talk, true to Gasol form, it’s virtually never about basketball. Adebayo does intend on picking Gasol’s brain about his championship journey just like he already has Dwyane Wade’s and Udonis Haslem’s, but has a special appreciation for the genuine care Gasol shows for him as a human being and how he’s doing outside of the 94 feet of hardwood. It’s a sentiment that’s universally felt by those who cross Gasol’s path and something that’s just a part of who he wants to be as a person.
“What we do here is just a portion of life, and sometimes we’re caught up so much on our job and that kind of takes away from our life and, this, what you do is not who you are, it doesn’t define you,” Gasol said. “I think, once you look at basketball as what it is, and just as a great thing, it frees you in a way. I like Bam, I like everybody to be honest with you. I have fun interacting with players, but I also like competing against them and trying to beat them—that’s when I have the most fun. I always say: Don’t confuse my kindness with weakness. I’m gonna go at your neck and I’m trying to beat you every time that we step on the floor.
“It’s just the way I see myself, and the way I feel like you can help the next generation of guys and that’s what this is about. Obviously, we compete against each other every day and year-in, year-out, but somebody was telling me the other day that there’s only been about 4,000 players in the history of the NBA. So, we are a small family when you compare it in the grand scheme of things, you wanna look out for the game, you wanna look out for the players, make sure the game that has given you so much, you can pass down what you learned over the years.”
Maintaining perspective plays a big part in allowing Gasol to keep track of his North Star in the face of temporary obstacles. When he went through the worst two-point shooting slump of his career earlier this season, he didn’t get caught up in the chatter of age catching up and maintained the belief that good times would return by recognizing he was doing plenty of other good things such as his passing, defence, and three-point shooting. He also made the adjustment of bringing in his own people from Spain to work on his shooting mechanics, and that helped him raise his two-point percentage from 25.5 percent through Nov. 28 to 60.3 percent since.
That improvement teases that Nurse can make his plans of making Gasol a bigger part of the offence a reality, knowing that he’s just the type of player to understand that having a play run for him is about putting him in a position to take what the defence gives him and make the best decision in the face of difficult circumstances and not necessarily take the shot.
Soon, Gasol will survey the floor and see options dry up like a shallow well in the driest of conditions, but still keep looking to find a way to quench his team’s thirst for a bucket anyway. The defence has taken away the first, second, and third look, but in doing so, he recognizes a slight opening and makes eye contact with his teammate while tilting his head ever so slightly. His teammate blindly follows the subliminal message like sheep following their trustworthy shepherd and the result is an easy basket.
It’s Gasol’s vintage move. Why panic when you can adapt?