SHANGHAI — Marc Gasol is 34 years old, which means he’s particularly fond of offseasons.
He didn’t get much of one this year.
There’s a very good reason for that — a most unusual and, he thinks, worthwhile opportunity. After helping the Toronto Raptors win the NBA championship in June, Gasol is now looking to lead Spain to a World Cup title in September. And although the 7-foot-1 veteran centre’s body may have preferred some more downtime before the grind of another season begins, Gasol could not pass up this chance.
"It’s a special group of guys," Gasol said. "It’s always special when you put on this jersey. And I couldn’t leave them hanging. That’s what my heart told me and that’s what it keeps telling me."
Gasol was on the team that won the World Cup — then called the world championship — for Spain in 2006, rolling past a Greece team that had just beaten the United States in the tournament semifinals. He helped Spain win silver medals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, losing both times in the title game to the U.S.
He’s the oldest player on a very seasoned team that will play for Spain in this World Cup. Out of the 12 on the final roster for coach Sergio Scariolo, eight have celebrated their 30th birthdays already. But it’s also clear that Gasol, even on a roster featuring the likes of Phoenix’s Ricky Rubio and Real Madrid standout Sergio Llull, is the leader of the bunch.
"It was probably a key move for us, one of the important ones, the most important one," Scariolo said. "We need somebody to be the guy who you can give the ball in the tough moments, not necessarily for the shot but to make a good play — whether it’s to create a shot for a teammate, to take a shot himself, to draw a foul and be a solid free throw shooter. He’s extremely important and the rest of the players respect him a lot."
That respect was there before Toronto topped Golden State in six games for the NBA title.
But the ring Gasol will be getting on opening night certainly adds to his legacy.
Among players born outside the United States, Gasol is one of only seven — a list that also includes his older brother Pau Gasol, who would have played in this World Cup had he not gotten injured last season — to have amassed more than 11,000 points, 6,000 rebounds and 2,700 assists at the NBA level. And when the Raptors added him in a trade last February, their entire makeup seemed to change.
"I think we started passing the ball, our assists started going way up, we became the No. 1 3-point shooting team in the league because of the extra passes and the contagious passing," said Raptors coach Nick Nurse, who is coaching Canada at the World Cup. "And our team’s sense of who they thought they could become went up."
The same could ring true for Spain.
The U.S. has won the last two World Cups, though a third consecutive gold in the event — something that no nation has ever accomplished — hardly seems guaranteed. Spain lost to the Americans by nine in an exhibition earlier this month in Anaheim, California, a game where neither side was exactly in tournament form.
Spain should have little, if any, trouble getting through its group phase: It faces Iran, Tunisia and the Dominican Republic in its first three games at Guangzhou, China starting on Friday. The top two teams will advance to the second round. Those first three games will likely become mere tune-ups for Gasol and the Spainards, as they get ready for the bigger matchups later in the tournament.
"The teams that are in the past, they’re in the past," Gasol said. "What matters is the guys who are playing today and their talent and their qualities."
There has been minimal rest for Gasol this summer.
The Raptors won the title, had a parade a few days later, and within a few days after that Gasol was simultaneously starting recovery and workouts for the FIBA challenge. Spain spent about a week in the U.S. for the game against the Americans, using that as a bonding trip of sorts. Then it was back to Spain for more games, before heading out to China.
All worth it, Gasol said.
"I cherish every second of it, every practice, every trip, every lunch that we have together," Gasol said. "I know how special it is. Obviously it’s not ideal, but I think it was completely worth it to play all the way to June. … Whenever it is, 10 years from now, when I’m sitting on the beach in Spain, I won’t be able to reproduce this feeling."