He might be one of us now, but he didn’t feel that way at first. When he first got to Memphis, everything was oversized.
“I mean, for us, a highway in Spain is three lanes, and here, I-240 has seven lanes at some points,” he says. “And I saw the trucks. The trucks were unbelievably huge.”
The first time Marc Gasol had ever traveled to the United States — much less to Memphis, Tennessee — was when his older brother Pau reported for training camp with the Memphis Grizzlies in the summer of 2001, the team’s first season in Memphis.
“When Pau got drafted, I was at a summer competition with the Spanish national team, Under-16, in France. When Pau was in training camp, we [Pau, Marc, younger brother Adria, and their parents, both medical professionals from Spain] came here and stayed downtown at the Marriott, and then we moved into an apartment in Germantown. We were all living in a three-bedroom apartment, the five of us.”
Later, Gasol attended White Station High School for two days before anyone figured out he lived in Germantown and couldn’t actually attend a (then) Memphis City School. “We didn’t understand how the schools worked,” he says now with a laugh.
When I sat down with Marc Gasol to talk to him before one of the Grizzlies’ preseason practices, he seemed like a man at ease. Gasol took last summer off from playing with the Spanish national team, which he called “one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make,” but here he was, playing basketball again in the city that he’s embraced as though he’s always lived here.
Gasol’s relationship with Memphis didn’t start out that way. When he first got here, the oversized little brother of an NBA Rookie of the Year, he barely knew any English. “One of the reasons why I chose Lausanne was that they had so many European students there,” he says. “I could relate to them, and they could help me out. Honestly, at the time, my English was really, really bad. I could barely speak two words. I had a basketball teammate in every class so they could explain to me what the teacher was asking.”
It didn’t take him long to branch out, though. “Two of my best friends were from Frayser. I spent all of my days with them. I made sure one of them was in every class I went in.”
After high school, Gasol left to play professional basketball in the Spanish leagues (for FC Barcelona and then for Girona), while his older brother led the Grizzlies to the first string of playoff appearances in the history of the franchise. His parents and his brother were in Memphis, but it wasn’t home to him.
Everything changed dramatically on February 1, 2008.
“Pau thought he was going to be here for life,” says Gasol. “The NBA is a business where there’s a lot of coming and going, a lot of insecurities. And all of a sudden, you know, things go a different way. The franchise decides . . . to go a different direction and you’re just not here anymore.” On the first day of February 2008, Pau Gasol was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for a package of castoffs, two first-round picks, and the draft rights to one Marc Gasol, whom the Lakers had drafted 48th overall.
That summer, after signing with the Grizzlies instead of returning to Girona, the younger Gasol (who is actually the middle Gasol; youngest brother Adria played college basketball at UCLA) ended up back where he least expected to be: Memphis, Tennessee.
“As soon as I was driving around Memphis in the weeks after I was signed by the Grizzlies, it gave me a sense of coming back home in a way. Memphis has a great sense of continuity always, you know. Memphis keeps growing, but you can always see Memphis. You can picture things that aren’t going to change, that are always there for good. And the sense I got when I was just driving around, was knowing that everything was … not exactly the way I left it, but pretty darn close.
“I saw what Pau meant to the city,” he continues. “It wasn’t easy at first, because everybody had in mind Pau’s presence here for so long, but at that time there was a decline in the relationship with the fans and the city. And I took it as a challenge, too. Life itself is a challenge, and you gotta accept it and embrace it, and go for it, and try and knock it down.”
So why is Marc Gasol our Memphian of the Year for 2015? What did he do that’s worth celebrating? You know, in addition to being a Catalan-speaking native son who just happened to be named the center of the All-NBA First Team and a starter for the Western Conference in this year’s NBA All-Star Game.
One big reason, of course, is that he stayed. Gasol was a free agent this summer, meaning he had the option to sign a contract with any franchise with enough room under the salary cap to pay him. In the NBA, for an All-Star player almost universally regarded as the best center in the league, that usually means signing with one of the big-market teamsNew York, Los Angeles, Chicago. Gasol could’ve gone after a big city with brighter lights (and more endorsement money). He would have a fancier place to live, a higher profile, more opportunities to bask in the glow of being a fabulously wealthy professional athlete (which, even for a married family man like Gasol, are not inconsiderable). That’s not what Marc Gasol did.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “the reasons were much bigger — and went beyond basketball — for me to stay in Memphis. Of course, we have a great basketball team. But my ties, and my family’s ties, to this franchise are huge, and also to the city. That’s a rare thing that doesn’t normally happen. And also to my teammates. We’ve been a group for a long time; it’s not like we change the roster every year. Things like that? That made it really easy.
“It was a matter of, ‘Do you want to stay in Memphis or not? Or with the Grizzlies or not?’ And then everything else. It was not in the same category. It was Memphis or not Memphis. I never got to that, ‘What if … ?’ And I’m pretty happy I chose that way.”
I asked Gasol how much his family had to do with his decision, now that he’s the father to a daughter born just before the start of the 2014-15 season.
“It’s special,” he says. “I’ve never had a feeling like that. My daughter has definitely made me a better human being, because it has made me put everything in perspective. Things that bother me, or would take my mind, or worry me somehow . . . I don’t have the time anymore to worry about things that don’t matter. She’s just always ready to laugh, to play, to smile, and I think life is great. Life is really short, and you gotta enjoy it. I’m thankful for having a little girl.”
That discursive free-association is how Marc Gasol talks, when you ask him about something he’s excited about. If you’ve only seen him in a postgame interview where he’s giving quotes to a camera, you might think Gasol is all business, calmly restating the facts of whatever just happened out on the floor. But the less-guarded Marc, the one whose eyes are lit up because he’s excited, seems to speak in rivers of mostly correct English, veering from the topic at hand to whatever else is in his mind, thinking three steps ahead just like he’s standing in the high post watching guards cut around him, processing what the offense is doing so he can stand in exactly the right spot to disrupt it.
When we were talking about Memphis, I asked him about music — what it meant to him. He’d just been front and center at the Memphis Music Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony two nights before, taking it all in, garnering a shoutout from inductee Justin Timberlake. But JT wasn’t the only reason Gasol was there.
“I’m a good friend of David Porter, the songwriter,” he says. “And to see Sam [Moore, of Sam & Dave] there, and being able to see Sam perform right in front of me, that was unbelievable. I mean, Keith Richards was in the house. How big . . . you can see throughout the history how much Memphis has impacted the world of music. Every kind of music. It feels like this was the nursery where everything was kind of created. Where people just invented new styles of music and really put different things together and created new styles. And it’s great to see.
“To be here, that allows you to know a lot about music history. You go to Earnestine & Hazel’s and you just sit there and play the jukebox, and you start hearing stories about Johnny Cash and guys like that. You know, if you like music, it doesn’t get much better than that. Not many cities have that.”
Gasol gushes when he talks about the city. He gets excited and he can’t keep it in, and he means what he’s saying or he wouldn’t say it. It’s hard to ask him a question about how he feels about Memphis and not come away inspired — feeling like Gasol’s passion is the way you feel too, and you just didn’t realize it until you talked to him about it. His excitement is contagious in that way.
Gasol is here because he couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. In an era where the NBA salary cap is rising, and players play for many teams throughout their careers, Gasol has been in Memphis most of his life, since he was 16 and hung out with his teammates at their house in Frayser. He’s not just “Memphis” because he plays here; if anything, he’s from Memphis just as much as he’s from Barcelona, and he doesn’t plan on going anywhere any time soon. By signing a five-year max contract with the Grizzlies worth somewhere north of $110mm, Gasol has tied himself to the city — to us — for the rest of the peak of his basketball career, defying the logic of the NBA to make a statement about staying in the place where you feel at home. Where the values of the city reflect his values. And his value is, above all, showing up for work.
“You only fail if you don’t do your job. You don’t fail if you don’t achieve your goal. You only fail when you don’t do your job every day. So the values of basketball, the sharing, the caring, the helping each other — those things are huge. You know, that’s me.”
It’s often said (even in these pages) that the Grizzlies are so beloved by the people of Memphis because they reflect the values we claim to hold for ourselves — that they are a reflection of the city. If that’s true, then Marc Gasol is the best version of ourselves. On a team that’s built around a throwback style of basketball, predicated on hard work and effort more than athleticism or technical prowess — a team that often accomplishes its goals through the basketball form of violence, through determined physical domination of their opponents — Gasol is the one who most insistently verbalizes their credo, their commitment to blue-collar basketball. Gasol says he sees that reflection of community values as the team’s duty.
“We bring people together. The team and the city — we’re both rising at the same time. We’re a fine example of the city nowadays — everybody comes from different backgrounds, different places, even different goals, but we are all fighting together to achieve a bigger goal.”
“Memphis will embrace you,” he continued. “If you give all you have, Memphis will take care of you. The fans will appreciate that. They don’t get blinded by the flashes and the drama and what not. They appreciate hard work, and dedication, and that’s what they want. They want you to be fighting. That’s what they like. So I respect that.
“I’m not saying by any means that Memphis is for everybody — but I don’t think it’s not; it depends on what you’re looking for, and what are your needs in life, but for the guys that we have here, they’ve found a home here. A lot of these guys. They’ve found a place that will embrace you.”