The Toronto Raptors had just wrapped up their first full practice since the 2019 trade deadline that saw the club make a big splash by acquiring three-time all-star and former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies, the only team the 34-year-old centre had played for during his decade-long NBA career.
Gasol has stayed late — call it one of the few benefits of having his wife and two young children still back at his home in Memphis — and, along with fellow newcomers to the club, is pacing through different plays and sets as he commits his new team’s playbook to memory. It isn’t long before the Raptors practice facility gymnasium is empty, save for a few assistant coaches and training staff playing half-hearted games of 1-on-1. Gasol leans his back against a padded wall and slides down to the ground — “It’s more comfortable here,” he says — as we began to talk through his long, strange trip from Barcelona, Spain to Toronto and the Raptors, his upcoming matchup with older brother Pau, the iconic Grit’n’Grind Grizzlies, and much more.
Sportsnet: You spent 10 seasons in Memphis before being traded here, but the city was your home long before that, having moved there at the age of 16 with your whole family in 2001 once Pau was drafted by the Grizzlies. I’d imagine that city meant a lot more to you than just where you played basketball.
Gasol: Yeah. That relationship with that community, when you go back to high school, you have so many friends and memories. It has a huge impact on who you are. I’m grateful for the way they treated my family and embraced me early on.
Barcelona to Memphis must have been quite the change of scenery.
Gasol: From the outskirts of Barcelona to Memphis, Tennessee. You can’t imagine the cultural shock. But the love the Memphians gave us — back then and to this day — meant so much to my whole family.
I first came there as a teenager at 16, and I left a father of two at 34. So, you do the math.
You have pretty much the same fan base in Memphis, year over year the same group. We watched teenagers in the stands become parents. You’d see little kids become young men and women. Those relationships mean much more than just basketball. And at the same time we were able to be so successful on the court with a really unique style of basketball, because we were so close to one another. It was a great ride.
Those “Grit n’ Grind” Grizzlies certainly had a clear identity.
Gasol: It was perfect timing. At a time with OKC having Kevin Durant and Russell [Westbrook], a time with DeAndre, Blake, and Chris and “Lob City” — compare that to me and Zach [Randolph]. Those guys combined get maybe 80 inches off the ground; me and Z-Bo combine for six.
It just meshed with the city so well. It really resembled who we were and our community. There’s not much of a show in Memphis, there’s not the bright lights and those kinds of things. Everything is blue-collar, hard-working, you have to earn everything — and then the power that sports has to bring people together in a place where it hasn’t always been known for the closeness of the community. To bring together people from different places — here we are, Zach, Mike Conley, Tony Allen and myself — those four guys, bringing that community as one, that was great.
Before he was in the NBA, Gasol was a high school basketball star in Memphis. In his sophomore year, NBA icon Jerry West was hired as the Grizzlies GM and his son, Jonnie, became a teammate and close friend of Gasol’s.
What was it like being around a legend like Jerry West at that stage of your development?
Gasol: Jerry was very direct. He tells you what he thinks, and what he expects of you, and you better do it. He was somebody that always believed in me. He didn’t tell me, “You’ll play in the NBA,” but he told me that if you take care of your body and do the right things, the way you approach the game is the right way. To hear that coming from Jerry West had a huge impact, somebody that is that well-known telling you that, it’s a big thing.
You mentioned taking care of your body. You famously went through a big physical transformation early in your career. How did you go about it?
Gasol: You’ve got to reflect, and be brutally honest in the things you want to do. Everybody has goals, dreams, whatever you want to call it. But are you willing to pay? You have to be honest with yourself: What do I need to do every day to reach those goals and achieve the level that I want, not only for yourself but also for the team?
Back then there were more bangers [in the NBA], but eventually the game evolved and you have to evolve with the game.
Was there a specific moment you realized that you needed to change?
It’s just been my whole life. It’s a thing I have to continually do, taking care of my body. And I need that challenge as well. I’m big on planning and organizing. It just gives me piece of mind knowing that I have a plan and that I’m disciplined enough to execute it, probably 95 per cent of the time.
After high school, Gasol opted to play professionally in Spain, returning to Barcelona. He barely saw the court his first two years, and by 2006 wasn’t sure where his career was headed. That summer he was on his way to visit Pau at the Spanish national team training camp when he got a phone call from the team’s head coach asking if he’d tryout to replace an injured player. Along with his brother, Gasol would join the likes of Spanish superstars Rudy Fernandez, Jose Calderon Juan Carlos Navarro, Sergio Rodriguez, and Jorge Garbajosa. The team went on to win the world championships in Japan, with Marc playing a pivotal role.
That 2006 world championships was something of a breakthrough. What changed for you, and what impact did playing with that great Spanish national team have on you?
Gasol: I had been living in Barcelona for a couple of years and wasn’t playing much. It was hard on me not playing. I didn’t care if it was second division or whatever, I just wanted to play. Basketball to me has never been about the economics, it’s been about the feeling. So I wanted to play.
Just being around those guys, being able to compete against them and learn against them, that had a huge impact on me.
I guess there’s something to be said about being ready for whenever an opportunity presents itself.
Gasol: No, I wasn’t in shape at that time, not basketball shape. It was early July, you know, so I’m like [expletive] it you have to get serious.
I want to compete against Pau and try to beat him up every day. At that time Pau was at his very peak. He was unstoppable. His quickness, his finishing. I’d never seen a 7-foot-1 guy play that well and that fast. So, yeah. I had a chance to work with the best at the highest level.
You and Pau will face off on Friday. How has your relationship evolved over the years?
Gasol: Once he saw that I was willing — obviously he always saw me as his little brother early on, but once he understood that Marc works on his own and functions on his own, that I make my own decisions and risks [pauses]. You know, I left home at 18, I left my family back in Memphis so it was kind of the opposite of what we did. The whole family moved to Memphis and now I’m moving back to Spain. I believed it was the right thing to do, and I understood the risks and everything that was in place, but I needed to do it. Once I made that decision I think he changed his view and saw me more as a grown man.
Now he’s not only my brother but the uncle of my kids. So, it’s different. Now he’s getting married — finally. It’s just good, man. The older you get the more you realize that life is more than just basketball. Your vision of the world gets much wider, and you’re not the centre of it no more. You understand that you’re a moving part and that you have other responsibilities.
The possibility of being traded had already been on your radar for awhile, right?
Gasol: Yeah. The team put it out there. At that time you have two choices: accept it or not. It’s nothing personal, that’s the team’s [decision], and that’s it.
Does that feeling change once it actually happens?
For a few days you wake up like, ‘Did that really happen?’ And then you realize, ‘Yeah, this is the situation you’re in.’ In the grand scheme of things, I ended up being in a great situation, with a great team with great expectations. That’s what this is all about. You can’t be mad about that.
What have your early impressions been?
Gasol: Today was our first full pracice, so I’m happy that we’re getting more under our belts; in games everything is sort of on the fly. We’ve had three games with three different point guards [Fred VanVleet, Patrick McCaw, and Jeremy Lin]. That alone is an adjustment within the adjustment that you have to make on the fly.
Thankfully, I know now 100 per cent all of the plays. Ok, 90 per cent all of the plays. But I know them pretty well, so now it’s trying to understand what the team is looking for. How can I be effective within the flow of the game?
I’m probably going to start getting more and more aggressive pretty soon as I get more comfortable with it, and start being the player I’m supposed to.
I’d imagine your willingness to move the ball will make you popular among your new teammates.
Gasol: I’m unselfish by nature but at the same time, for us to be successful I’m going to have to be, at times, very assertive and make them understand how I can help the team be better. That’s what’s it’s all about.
What’s your impression been of the team so far? Have any players surprised you?
I’ve played mostly with the second-unit. I really like those guys — how intense they were defensively, and how they honour calls. Norm and Freddie were great, Patrick was really good. OG, we’re trying to get him involved as much as possible and get him back to the player he is. And I like that. I like bringing players’ games up, by talking to them and giving confidence, or by pushing them. Different players have different needs and I’m learning to understand what they need out there.
I’m not a rah-rah guy, I’m not somebody who will get into anybody’s business. I’m pretty laid back and I stay in my lane a lot. But I want to win. At the end of the day it’s about winning and competing and making this team the best possible.