Marc Gasol needs to share what he saw on a rescue boat last summer


Toronto Raptors Marc Gasol controls the ball as Brooklyn Nets guard Shabazz Napier (13) defends during second half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Nearly eight months later, the question still can’t escape Marc Gasol’s mind — and it likely never will:

What if the boat hadn’t arrived when it did?

It was mid-July this past summer, one of the 10 days Gasol spent volunteering onboard the Open Arms, a migrant rescue ship patrolling the Mediterranean ran by Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms.

Gasol and the ship’s crew spotted Josefa, a Cameroonian woman, clinging to a plank of wood floating in the water about 90 miles north of the Libyan coast. She had been there for 48 hours.

Having survived a shipwreck while among the many thousands fleeing north across the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy, Josefa was one of the lucky ones. Beside her in the sea were two bodies, one of them a toddler.

"What if we had arrived maybe two hours later?" Gasol asks last Wednesday afternoon during a 1-on-1 following Raptors practice.

The 34 year-old NBA veteran is sitting on the floor of the Raptors practice facility, staring out onto an empty court, sharing this story for the first time to a reporter in his new NBA home. It’s a story that has previously gained attention south of the border and overseas.

But to hear the passion in his voice this past Wednesday he may as well be looking back onto those waters.

"Josefa would have died. Nobody would have seen it. And three people would have never been accounted for."

It all started with a photograph, one you’ve surely seen.

The picture was of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy, lying dead in the sand in Lesbos in 2015. He had drowned as his refugee family was trying to make their way to Europe until their inflatable rubber raft capsized off the shores of Turkey en route to Greece.

"That picture hit everyone," says Gasol, "it travelled around the world. Everybody was obviously upset and shocked by it. At that point my daughter was one, and that was what first got me going in the sense of, ‘Ok, what’s going on? What’s going on in the world?’”

It was around this time that Proactiva Open Arms was established with the mission of carrying out search and rescue missions to help prevent tragedies like Alan’s. The first volunteers for the foundation came from near where Gasol grew up.

"They were lifeguards from Barcelona, three or four of them," he says. "They just grabbed their bags and left, saying, ‘We have to get those people out of the water.’"

Gasol was close with the founder, Oscar Camps, and asked if he could volunteer his services. Camps said yes — they could always use help — but warned Gasol that he’d have to go through training along with standard psychological testing to ensure he’d be able to deal with the shock of what he was about to see. Gasol readily agreed.

"I knew that if I had a chance that I was going to get involved," says Gasol. "It was a process for me, but I was determined to do it. I was ready for that challenge."

Nothing could have prepared him for the realities of what he had signed on for, the images and memories that will stay with him forever. Gasol credits his fellow volunteers and the Open Arms crew, with whom he spent long days aboard the vessel, with helping him through it.

"When I think of how good they took care of me, allowing me to be a part of their team for those 10 days at sea [shakes head]. I’ll be forever thankful."

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Given his own background in sports, he was particularly taken by how they operated as a unit.

"To me it felt so right the way they interacted as a team. It taught me so much for what you do here," he says, pointing out onto the court, "although obviously on a very different scale. But it teaches, first and foremost, to always look out for your guys. You put yourself second."

"There were a few situations we went through that I never thought I would be able to handle. But thanks to them I was able to."

The most difficult, he says, was lifting a lifeless child out of the water. "A body. A dead body. A dead five-year-old boy. Picking him up…" his voice trails off. "You know, at that time my daughter was almost four years old. He was right around the age of my daughter. I never thought I would be able to do that, to face that. But the strength of the pack allowed me to be able to."

Gasol remains in contact with his fellow crewmates, some of whom he speaks to on a weekly basis.

Initially, he never planned to make his humanitarian efforts publicly known. The Memphis Grizzlies didn’t know he was headed out to sea to locate and rescue refugees in need. He only told his wife, parents, and a small handful of people about what he was embarking on. As he puts it, "I didn’t want to make it a thing."

But it wasn’t long until he realized the responsibility he had to bring what he was seeing to the public.

"When we saw the catastrophic situation we encountered, I thought, ‘This story must be told,’" he says.

Near the time of Gasol’s mission, The Guardian reported that 1,443 people had already died or gone missing attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2018. As that figure has risen, it’s only given Gasol more validation for doing what he can to bring the story to light.

"I have a chance to use who I am, and use it for a reason I truly believe in. That’s the humane thing to do."

Apart from shining a spotlight on the humanitarian crisis he witnessed firsthand, Gasol sees it as an opportunity to help further open the discussion of what it should mean to be a human and be there for our fellow humans, regardless of sets of arbitrary lines drawn on a map.

"At some point, the only difference between those people and ourselves is just where we were born. There’s no other difference than that," he says. "We can’t think of or treat anybody differently just because they were on the wrong side of a border."

Time and again, Gasol’s thoughts keep coming back to the photo of Alan, the Syrian boy on the beach.

"You have to tell the story of what happened there, out of respect for that kid. Out of respect for the thousands and thousands of people who go through this."

"People didn’t know," Gasol continues, "but Alan’s mom and two siblings died on that day, too. But there was no picture. So, what I’m saying is, if you don’t see it and if you don’t tell the world, then it’s like it never happened. That’s why I made that decision to make public what I was doing, and what happened in the Libyan waters that July."

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