Sunday, 23 February 2014

Pau Gasol, and the Long Lost Art of Humility

The realm of professional sports is complex. It's an enigma, too often fuelled and beleaguered by corporatism, self-indulgence, corruption, and a glaring lack of transparency -- a distant reality from the work-a-day world of those who typically come to fund its very existence.

Recently, the lines that separate society and the vaunted imagery of professional athletes have become blurred, with innately political matters such as sexuality, illicit substancesharassment, and spousal abuse flooding industry-based discussions. Sensationalism aside, there is little doubting that the growth of social media as an interactive medium and the immediacy with which one can now access information have overtly influenced the daily dialogue. The vagueness of the idea of "celebrity," and the blissful ignorance of athlete-based adoration may once have made it easy to consume sporting product in a vacuum, yet this is quickly becoming an antiquated pastime.

As much as talking heads and national media outlets drive the agenda and cloud conversation with empty narratives of championships, individual accolades, and meaningless, exhaustive gimmicks, there is always more to the industry than the vanity of these façades. Hidden subtly beneath the canopies of hollow motives and fundamentally flawed institutions is a rare species.

In an age where "any publicity is good publicity," there is a certain humanistic appeal to the oft-forgotten labour of philanthropy. Few public figures exemplify this notion more than Pau Gasol, the Spanish basketball stalwart currently in his twelfth season in the NBA. With his involvement with UNICEF and perpetual charitable work, Gasol could easily be mistaken for a devoted (albeit oversized) Hispanic social worker. Except for the fact that he is the recipient of a $19.2M (USD) salary. The Spaniard's enduring profile of selflessness, understanding, and sympathy is, to say the least, a strikingly uncommon commodity.

Following a frustrating end to his 2013 season where injury and immaturity left Gasol as the Lakers' lone pillar in a swept series -- an abrupt conclusion to a campaign in which he missed 33 regular season games due to various ailments -- the international veteran seemed sure to be headed to a subdued summer of replenishment prior to a "contract year." With some 34,399 minutes of collective (regular season and playoff) NBA mileage and no fewer than ten appearances at senior-level tournaments with the Spanish national team (beginning in 2001) logged prior to 2013-14, an offseason of rehabilitation and solitude would have passed as understandable for the Barcelona native. Alas, it was not to be.

In July of 2013, as part of his ambassadorial role with UNICEF, Pau Gasol ventured to Iraq to provide aid to struggling Syrian refugees. Commenting on what he confronted firsthand in the throes of his visit, Gasol stated, “No child should experience such violence and destruction and be deprived of the basic services that they need to grow and develop to fulfill their potential.”

“Providing these services is a huge job,” he iterated. “While we can see some good results, the needs are enormous. So much more help is needed.”

It's fitting (if not a little token) to admire the fact that Gasol practiced altruism rather than low-post moves this past summer. In a climate where mandated, vanilla community appearances can mask more authentic voluntary work, it's easy to confuse humanitarian efforts amidst the smog of PR campaigns. This is where it becomes worth mentioning that the Los Angeles Lakers forward's journey to Iraq was his fifth "field trip" under his UNICEF-authorised role

Pau playing pickup with children in N'Djaména, in 2012.
The lanky seven-footer has also participated in and supported programs in South Africa (2005), Angola (2007), Ethiopia (2010), and Chad (2012), serving tirelessly as the UNICEF Spain Ambassador since 2003. Reflecting on his time spent in N'Djaména, Wadi, Mao, Kanem, and Miouh, in Chad, Gasol opined, "When I go on these trips, I then have a better and more real opinion about it. It then creates more attention and brings more people to collaborate to help what’s going on here."

Distinct from his own personal interest and compassion toward the projects, clearly, the 33 year-old is aware of the groundswell of positivity and international media attention that his mere presence generates. The resources and funds amassed in the aftermath of Gasol's visits and contributions are still significantly short of those required, however. In his most recent trip, it was reported that medicine, clean water, and school supplies were delivered for "the camp that was built for 15,000 but has [taken in] 50,000." This is tragically emblematic of the discrepancy of materials in the underprivileged regions that Gasol has traveled to, and the sheer weight of the work that he strives to assist with. 

Whilst his efforts have been widely acknowledged in mainstream publications, -- in addition to being named the L.A. Times' 2009 Sportsman of the Year and becoming only the fifth non-American recipient of the NBA's J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 2011-12 -- apparently no measure of formal recognition and adorned trophy cabinets can halt the progress of Pau's philanthropy. In near-poetic fashion, a telling parallel can be drawn between the nature of Gasol's work away from the hardwood floor, and his level of production on the court. At age thirty-three, with a faltering offensive arsenal, a weary, waning defensive output, and in the final year of a healthy contract with a modest (at best) supporting cast, Pau Gasol's standing within the league is not what it once was. 

"Father Time" has been stereotypically unforgiving to Gasol's body, and he has battled to cushion his on-court value and failing health with a formerly reliable catalogue of finesse manoeuvres and adept adjustments on the low block. Previously a sturdy silhouette of basketball excellence, the Spaniard has been reduced to being the subject of trade rumours -- at first with the Cleveland Cavaliers (in a proposed exchange for the contract of former teammate Andrew Bynum), and later with the surging Phoenix Suns.

Last season, Gasol wrestled with slumping play, and held a testing relationship with head coach Mike D'Antoni after he was benched in favour of undersized role player Earl Clark in February. For such an integral, high-character piece of the puzzle, it is rare for a player to be discarded with indifference by a franchise, as with the manner that Los Angeles managed their former All-Star. Questioned over his seemingly diminishing role with the team and the decision-making of the team's bench staff, this is what Gasol offered to the L.A. Times:
"So do you ask for a fresh start elsewhere?" 
"It's a possibility," he said, "yes." 
He will not request a trade before this month's deadline, he said, although he knows there is interest from other teams for a starting center and he will be returning to the bench soon. 
"I'm not a quitter," he said. "Just because things look better on the other side of the fence, I'm not going to take the easy way out. 
"I have a certain level of loyalty here, and I've been through a lot of great, amazing things. And there have been others that have been hurtful. But that's life."
Despite having been shopped widely and openly early in the 2013-14 season (and again before the deadline) little could deter the veteran's wisdom and understanding. Gasol provided a trademark, refreshing take on the juggling act between being "Pau Gasol: the player," and "Pau Gasol: the proverbial trade pawn," in December:
[That’s why] Gasol said he’s given it no mind that recently reported the Lakers are open toward trading him amid his recent complaints about his role and his 14.4 points per game average on a career-low 41.8 percent shooting. 
“I’m used to it by now,” Gasol said following the Lakers’ morning shootaround here at Philips Arena. “It’s been a constant thing for me. It’s like getting up from bed and having breakfast.”
Ever the bastion of loyalty, honesty, and a team-oriented philosophy, Gasol was even jettisoned in a complicated, star-laden trade in December 2011 (that was later nixed by the league's head office). Notwithstanding all of this uncertainty, he "survived" the NBA's February 20 trade deadline this season, and remains a member of the Los Angeles Lakers (the team he joined prior to the deadline some six years ago), for now.

It is indicative of Gasol's persona that instead of plying his trade by capitalising on his place in a large-scale market (Los Angeles) and focusing on private endorsements, he continues to be active with UNICEF in Spain, the United States, and abroad. Moreover, it should be noted that his influence and involvement with the non-profit organisation was well entrenched prior to his arrival on the west coast. As a prominent face in his homeland, on the international basketball scene, and within the NBA, Gasol's reach (both physically and metaphorically) extends far beyond conventional borders.

His compassion and community involvement is not simply limited to the offseason or his own down time, either. In the wake of the damage caused to the Philippines as a result of Typhoon Haiyan, Gasol pledged to donate $1000 for every point he scored in a late November game against the Golden State Warriors. He finished with 24 points in that outing, and later confessed, "I definitely had that motivation of scoring points tonight for the Philippines."

Although his status as an "elite" player in the Association may be forever lost in the shadows of his lengthy career, and he is -- at present -- stuck in the swath of basketball irrelevance on an otherwise forgettable outfit, Pau Gasol's value far exceeds the measurement of any advanced metric.

As diverse and storied as his on-court résumé is, a scarce handful of athletes could place in a conversation with Gasol with regards to his vast achievements as an activist, role model, and human. So, what does it all really mean?

"Obviously it puts things in perspective, and all the other things I might deal with my team or with my profession are much less important or meaningful than the lives of people that are on the line every day," Gasol suggested.  

Information from the Associated Press (AP), UNICEF,, and the Los Angeles Times was utilised to compile this piece.

No comments:

Post a Comment