Raptors’ Gasol won’t get homecoming, but he’s still rooted in Memphis

Toronto Raptors centre Marc Gasol speaks about his time as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies and how different it'll be facing them in the bubble instead of in Memphis.

Sports in the pandemic have had their moments. After months without them, it’s been wonderful to have them back, in whatever form.

But what’s been lost is all too apparent also.

What would Scotiabank Arena have been like if Kyle Lowry had been dropping daggers from deep in the fourth quarter to tap out LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers last Saturday night?

Live, safe to say.

Would the house that Vince built on Bay Street still have a roof on it after the Toronto Raptors’ hockey cousins stormed back from 3-0 with less than four minutes left to stave off playoff elimination, as they did Friday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets?

These lost moments aren’t exclusively a Toronto issue.

On Sunday afternoon, the Raptors will be the “visiting” team when they play the Memphis Grizzlies at the Visa Athletic Center on campus at Walt Disney World Resort in their fifth of eight seeding games remaining in their regular-season schedule in the NBA’s carefully constructed quarantine bubble.

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In normal times it would have marked one of those special moments on a schedule when a particular athlete returns for the first time to a market they were synonymous with after an amicable parting to say their hellos and properly say their goodbyes.

Raptors centre Marc Gasol bears a strong connection to Memphis and the Grizzlies franchise. He arrived a boy and left a man – and he’s yet to be back as a Raptor.

“I mean, I got there when I was 16 years old,” Gasol said on a conference call Saturday. “It was my first time out of Spain and imagine what it meant for me to go to high school there as a teenager and left as a father of two kids. My youngest actually is from Memphis. He was born in Memphis and my daughter, their best friends are from Memphis and so on. My ties to the city and my roots go pretty deep and my love for the people there and what they mean and for the franchise… you know it’s forever.

Going back and standing on the floor at FedEx Forum for the first time since the Raptors acquired him at the trade deadline last February would have been a special experience, a moment that not many athletes ever get to have in the mercenary world of professional sports.

Now? Raptors-Grizzlies is a matchup with plenty of meaning, but there will be no one around to soak it in.

“I’m sure [it will] be a mix of emotions for Marc [because of] what he meant to that city, to that franchise,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said. “Obviously it’s a little bittersweet that we couldn’t play in the city of Memphis, to get that love and feel that love from the fans. But I’m sure he’ll be happy to see some familiar faces and a lot of the people that he spent a lot of time with over the years, talking about one of the biggest staples, you know, for a city — for [a] franchise over the last, you know, 10 or so years.”

Gasol’s Memphis roots run deep. He moved to Memphis from Barcelona with his family when his older brother Pau was drafted by the Grizzlies in 2001.

At 16, Marc enrolled in high school in the gritty southern city and made a successful integration into the culture and the city. His well-documented passion for widely available U.S. fast food earned him the nickname “The Big Burrito” as he led tiny Lausanne Collegiate School to its first Tennessee state championship game.

The relationship deepened when Pau was traded to the Lakers for Marc, who held the younger Gasol’s rights.

For 10 seasons, Marc Gasol was at the hub of one of the NBA’s great success stories – the “grit-and-grind” era Grizzlies. As a small market team that played big when the league was going small, Memphis emphasized knock ’em down, lock ’em up defence. When the league was getting more and more wide open, Memphis continued winning year over year, even though they peaked with a Western Conference Finals appearance in 2013.

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Grind City might not have enjoyed a title during their peak years — with Gasol and his friend Mike Conley running pick-and-roll, Zach Randolph pounding the offensive glass and Tony Allen terrorizing wings across the NBA on defence — but it was a team that earned respect and affection, with Gasol at the heart of it.

By the time Gasol had evolved from a second-round pick with uncertain professional prospects to a three-time all-star, two-time all-NBA selection and the 2012-13 defensive player of the year, he was part of the community fabric.

At his peak, the massive billboard on the side of the Rock ‘n’ Soul museum featured Gasol and a simple slogan: “Authentic Memphis.”

“It was [a style of play] that gave us the best chance to be the best team possible,” Gasol said. “There was a way to maximize each player’s abilities — Zach, Tony, Mike, myself. Lionel (Hollins) kind of (started) it and then Dave (Joerger) perfected it. It was a team effort. Everyone that was brought in, they understood what it was about and how we were going to play and approach each and every single game. That’s just the way we worked. We were never afraid of anybody… You had to come and not only beat us but beat us down. We would not give up, ever.”

Gasol hasn’t played two full seasons in Toronto yet, but his influence has been deeply felt.

Championships require sacrifice and Gasol — who was averaging 19.5 points a game for the Grizzlies just two seasons ago — has made his so easily and comfortably that it’s been an example for Toronto. The Raptors were trending toward being a championship-calibre group, but they’ve adopted the concept of sacrifice as a mantra since the Big Spaniard showed up and began devoting himself to his teammates’ well-being.

“That’s totally who he is,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “You can see that when you watch him play internationally, too. He’s just all about the right things, which is first and foremost winning.

“He wants to win and he wants to be seen as the guy who really knows how to play the game, plays it the right way — great teammate, all those kinds of things. He’s a high-level sportsman, if you know what I mean.”

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On the floor that means the ball moves, the screens are set and defensively Gasol is there to support everyone as needed, even if he’s averaging less than seven shots a game in Toronto.

“The way our team is set up, somebody’s got to get the short end of the stick [offensively], whether it’s game to game or month to month and I think Marc is that guy for us and he doesn’t complain about it,” VanVleet said. “He’s not worried about his box score and that helps our team a lot.

“That’s a big part of our chemistry is being willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team and Marc’s a guy you never have to worry about complaining about, you know, where’s the ball and how many shots he’s getting. I mean, he’s probably on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of not wanting to shoot a whole lot, so I know that he’s helped me out.

“I probably would, you know, average, about five or six points less if he was jacking them up so I got to thank him for that.”

Gasol remains rooted in Memphis. He still owns a house there, and his family owns the home he lived in when he was a teenager and his brother was the franchise star.

If there is a benefit of playing the Grizzlies on a neutral court and in an empty building, it’s that he doesn’t have to deal with all those memories and feelings while getting ready to compete.

“I don’t think it’s an easy game to play just because there are so many emotions, right?” Gasol said. “I’m somebody that really locks in to play and it’s not easy to say hello to all the ushers and all the people who work around the team and then try to execute the game plan and beat the other team. It’s not as simple as it seems. There are a lot of emotions.

“I’m very business-like when it comes to playing and I would not like all the [attention] before a game. I like to just go there and play the game, win and then we can chit chat.”

In that context, things may have worked out for Gasol, for now.

There is no doubt that the city of Memphis would have loved the opportunity to show their appreciation for 10 great years and allowed Gasol the chance to reciprocate. But the hugs and tears will have to wait, a casualty of the times, regardless of the moment.


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