SHANGHAI — Marc Gasol remembers the day the coveted invitation to join Spain’s storied national basketball program arrived in the mail. He was maybe 14 or 15 years old at the time.
"(Me and my friends) were all very excited, and we all called each other on the house phone — we didn’t have any cellphones back then — we all asked our friends if they got the letter too. We were all so thrilled when we got it," Gasol said.
The Toronto Raptors centre told the story Tuesday just moments after lifting Spain to a 90-78 victory over Poland and into the semifinals of the FIBA World Cup. Gasol had 10 points, seven assists and at plus-22 had Spain’s best plus/minus.
The Spanish national team has occupied a huge space in Gasol’s heart for the better part of the past two decades. That’s why just a week after the Raptors captured the NBA championship, and Gasol partied like a rock star at the championship parade, the seven-foot-one centre — whose 34-year-old legs clearly could’ve benefited from an extended break — reported for national team duty.
"June 19th to the 26th. That was my week off, and then I had to get ready for this," said Gasol. "It’s not easy, it’s not ideal, but we are one game away from a final game, so it’s all worth it."
Spain’s victory came on the same Shanghai Oriental Sports Center court that only a night early had seen Canada’s World Cup campaign end with a loss to Germany in the classification round. Canada, which boasts the second-most players in the NBA behind the U.S., had just two of its 17 NBAers on the invitation list in China in Cory Joseph and Khem Birch.
"Yeah, that’s surprising," Gasol said.
"It is a sacrifice," he added. "It’s not easy to give up your off-season when you want to work on stuff, when you want to work on your body, heal your body after a really tough long season. All of a sudden you’re joining the national team and you’re committed for 10 weeks out of the summer.
"It’s definitely not ideal. But it’s totally worth it, because you only get to do this for so long."
Spain is unbeaten at the World Cup, steamrolling past Tunisia, Puerto Rico, Iran, Italy and Serbia to earn its quarterfinal berth. They’ll play the winner of Wednesday’s quarterfinal between Australia and the Czech Republic in the semis.
"It’s great feeling to be in the top four of the world in such a competitive and demanding competition like this, with so many great teams out," said Spain’s longtime head coach and Raptors assistant Sergio Scariolo. "I would say it’s a good time to one day off and rest and enjoy this and then prepare the next one."
Phoenix Suns guard Ricky Rubio led the way with 19 points Tuesday, and passed Argentina’s Pablo Prigioni to become the FIBA World Cup all-time leader in assists. Prigioni had 106 assists in 24 games, while Rubio had nine assists Tuesday gave him 115.
Spain worked like a well-oiled machine, and when Gasol tapped a volleyball pass out to Rudy Fernandez for a three-pointer it gave the Spaniards a 56-44 run, and prompted a delighted roar from the crowd of 12,400.
Gasol captured a World Cup title with Spain in 2006, beating a Greek team that upset the U.S. in the semifinals. He also captured silver medals with Spain at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, losing to a pair of American teams stocked with NBA players.
He’s the oldest player on a Spanish team that’s heavy on experience.
"In this tournament, experience is the key," Rubio said. "Experience in those tough moments, when you have experience and Poland makes a 7-0 run, different teams will look at each other and say ‘What are we doing?’ We came together and that’s what team means.
"In those tough moments … , you don’t get nervous, coach has been with us for a long time, and you know exactly what he wants to run, I know exactly what my teammates want, and that experience helped a lot tonight."
Spanish fans occupied a huge section of the arena. In red and yellow wigs, and wearing Spain’s flag like capes, they sang along loudly to "Marcha Real." Their beloved team gave them plenty to cheer about.
Spain led 22-18 after the first quarter, took a 46-41 advantage into the halftime break, and led 67-58 with one quarter left to play.
Poland cut it to four with 5:30 to play, but when Gasol — with a Poland defender in his face like a flag in a strong wind — found Rubio open on the perimeter, Rubio’s three-pointer put Spain back in full control with a couple of minutes left to play.
In the tunnel to the locker room after the win, Jorge Garbajosa — a former Raptor who’s now the secretary general of Spain’s basketball federation — waited with a hug for each one of his players.
"It’s something that doesn’t happen overnight, that commitment," Gasol said. "It’s a long process and I’m sure that eventually (Canadian) guys will find that passion, because it is a sacrifice."
Gasol was acquired in the February trade that sent Jonas Valanciunas, CJ Miles and Delon Wright to Memphis, and his savvy playmaking and smarts on the defensive end were almost instantly felt. The three-time NBA all-star averaged 9.4 points and 6.4 rebounds in 24 playoff games with Toronto.
While he was huge on the court, the big Spaniard put on an MVP performance during the team’s championship parade. He chugged beer and wine at the encouragement of fans. He did the "billionaire strut" atop his double-decker bus.
He’s the lone big-name player from the Raptors 2018-19 rebuild that stuck around for another season. He signed a one-year player option on his contract worth about US$25.6 million, about a week before superstar Kawhi Leonard left for the Los Angeles Clippers and Danny Green departed for the L.A. Lakers.
In China, Spain hopes to keep the United States from capturing a third consecutive title. The U.S. team beat Spain by nine points in an exhibition game last month.
Then finally, Gasol might get a breather.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse has been keeping an eye on Spain at the World Cup. With the NBA season fast approaching — training camp opens on Sept. 28 — Nurse is concerned about fatigue.
"He’s more of a when are we going to be able to integrate him in," said Nurse, who coached Canada at the World Cup. "Because he’ll probably need some pre-season time off, right?"
Gasol will have earned it.