September 6, 2010

Pau Gasol in India: Q & A

‘No, I don’t sleep with the championship trophy!’

This article was first published on September 2, 2010, on SLAMOnline.

The first thing that drew my attention toward Pau Gasol was how little attention he commands. Scheduled to start his only day in New Delhi with some media interaction, Gasol inconspicuously entered the VIP lobby and walked through to the meeting rooms. No entourage, agents, body guards, fanfare, nothing. Just a solitary friend who waited for him outside. If it wasn’t for the fact that he’s a 7-footer, Gasol would have passed by virtually unnoticed. Midway through his interaction inside the meeting room, he rushed out to quickly have breakfast with his friend in a corner, in the same lobby area.

India has had a big summer in terms of basketball and NBA promotion, from the visit of Dwight Howard, to the expansion of NBA’s recreational leagues around the country. And, of course, there was the big news that dropped a few months ago that IMG-Reliance and the NBA plan to build infrastructure, train players, and help to eventually launch a professional league in the country. The arrival of Pau Gasol, a Laker (India’s favorite team — blame the TV programmers!), a world champion, and one of the most skilled big men in the game, beefed up the summer’s basketball events in the sub-continent.

Gasol’s trip to India, from August 23-28, was primarily a journey to the community in India through the ‘NBA Cares’ program. As an ambassador for the NBA, he visited several schools and held workshops in Mumbai and Delhi with young children to promote healthy living through basketball. “The community in India should see that the NBA is involved in a positive way,” he says. “It is not just about the sport but also about social work.”

Gasol took a tour of Mumbai and conducted two clinics during his stay there. He conducted a clinic at the Mastan YMCA in hoop-crazed Nagpada on August 25 and at the St. Dominic Savio High School in Andheri East on the 26th. His appearance in the Nagpada region in particular was of special significance: Nagpada is largely a poor, Muslim-dominated area where people live amongst the close-quartered chawl housing settlements, and it’s an area which has also been home to some of the greatest players in Indian basketball history.

In New Delhi, Gasol continued the NBA Cares events, teaching basketball drills and entertaining children at the Father Agnel’s School and at the Delhi Public School (DPS) at Mathura Road on August 27. The NBA’s Director of Basketball Operations (India) Troy Justice and Indian basketball’s legendary player and coach Shiba Maggon also assisted Gasol in his clinics.

Gasol again turned into a quiet crowd-pleaser in Delhi, speaking softly and letting his skills do the talking. He worked with the kids on dribbling drills, showed off his pivot, Hakeem-esque fadeaway, and of course, did a variety of dunks at the DPS basketball court, including doing a “jumpman” style dunk over a hapless kid in a ‘Starbury’ t-shirt!

When asked about who he feels is the best basketball player in the world, Gasol didn’t hesitate to answer: “I gotta go with my teammate Kobe Bryant!” When asked if he, a Barcelona native, hates La Liga rivals Real Madrid, he gave a semi-diplomatic response: “I’m not a hateful person. I don’t hate Madrid. I don’t hate the Celtics, either. I don’t like them, but no, I don’t hate them!”

Another special feature of Gasol’s visit to India was that he brought along the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship trophy, which he won with the Lakers for the second year running this past June. This was the first time that the trophy was brought to Indian soil, and it garnered almost as much attention as the superstar player himself. Gasol unveiled it during his clinics in Mumbai and New Delhi much to the delight of the young NBA fans in the crowds.

But back to that same hotel lobby, where I finally got a chance to have a Q + A session with legendary Spaniard. Humble and gracious, it was almost like he has forgotten that he’s a two-time, reigning NBA champion, reigning World Champion (and MVP), and generally, awesomely talented. But, don’t let the humility fool you, behind it lay a quiet confidence to keep succeeding and keep cementing his legacy. Gasol talked about Ricky Rubio, the USA team, and the World Championships, the future of India and world basketball, the Lakers, and about carrying around an NBA trophy.

Hoopistani: How does it feel to be in India? Is this your first time here?
Pau Gasol: Yes it is my first time. It is very exciting to get to know this country and promote basketball. It has been an intense and enjoyable experience so far.

Hoopistani: How would you compare your homeland — Spain, not L.A.! — to India?
PG: Well, each country is different from the other in its customs, cultures, tradition and people. India is growing rapidly — but I hope to come back here and have time to explore it for myself later.

Hoopistani: On Spain — How do you think they will perform in the World Championships? (The interview was conducted one day before the Championships tipped off.– Ed) Obviously, they will miss you, but are they still favorites?
PG: I think they will do well — there is a lot of competition at the Championships, and it’s not going to be easy. We have a good team and good players. We have performed well so far in the practice games, winning each game convincingly, and only losing one game to the US, that by 1 point. I will be going to watch them play in Turkey during the latter stages of the competition.

Hoopistani: Why have you decided to skip out of this tournament?
PG: It’s just fatigue… I have been playing a lot of basketball lately, and have been busy with the national team almost every offseason. It is important for me to get this rest this offseason because I honestly felt physically, as well as mentally, completely worn out. I really needed a summer away from basketball because I have a long-term plan to continue playing at the high level I have been playing for my team for several more years.

Hoopistani: Of course, there is a lot of hype surrounding Spain’s next “big thing,” Ricky Rubio. Do you think he can be a success in the NBA?
PG: Ricky will do well — he’s a very hard worker, and although he’s really young, he has always been very mature for his age. He’s extremely gifted — there are few players in the world who see the game like he does. He’s a great point guard and I really like playing in with him.

Hoopistani: What about the US team? How do you see them performing in the Championships?
PG: USA is loaded with guards. They are a speedy team who will be hard to beat. There is a lot of young talent there. They are strong, and will be tough to beat, but they are not unbeatable. Anything can happen in the World Championships — one game can change everything.

Hoopistani: Coming back to India — What do you feel we need to do here to improve our level of basketball to be able to compete on the International stage (India’s men’s team is ranked 52nd on the FIBA rankings)? Countries like China, although not world-beaters, are now good enough to at least compete with the best in the world — how can we reach that goal here?
PG: India needs to involve the youngsters to experience the excitement of basketball. Basketball is an attractive game. To promote the game here, they have to start with the youngest children, and give them the infrastructure, resources and opportunities to play. Furthermore, India should continue working with school kids, and create competitive school and grassroots leagues around the country.

Hoopistani: How did Spain grow to be a basketball superpower that it is today?
PG: In Spain, it began with a competitive league in the country, and people started to have fun watching the game. Kids went out to watch their idols and watch a good national team. There is complete satisfaction in watching great players defend your country.

Hoopistani: The NBA has been investing a lot of effort into developing the game in India — just two weeks ago, Dwight Howard was also in India encouraging youngsters to take up the game. What steps should the NBA take for India in the future?
PG: NBA should continue creating attention for the game, so that younger players can have a chance to see us and start to think of basketball as a real career option. This will encourage their parents to allow their children to participate, too. As the game grows, the NBA can show our other companies and partners that they should continue being involved with basketball here.

Hoopistani: You have brought along your NBA Championship trophy to India — Is it your most prized possession? Do you sleep with it?
PG: [Laughs] I don’t really carry it, it’s too heavy! Someone else carries it as we fly around! Obviously this trophy carries with it a lot of meaning; it is very precious to me because it’s so hard to get — But, no, I don’t sleep with it!

Hoopistani: Does Kobe call you every day to make sure you’re treating it right?
PG: [Laughs] No, it’s nothing like that. Now that we’re champions, we all have a trophy in our hearts which is more than a material thing. The real thing is too heavy anyway!

Hoopistani: Tell me about your Laker teammates — for two years, the Lakers have proven to be the best team in the League. Outside of the fact that you guys have a great roster and a great coach in Phil Jackson, what makes you tick? What should any squad — be it an amateur team in India or a pro team in the NBA — learn from the Lakers as a team?
PG: Yes, we do have a great team with great chemistry, and we all do well to play our role. It’s a great block of players that obviously starts with Kobe. We have a talented coaching staff supporting us, and have made some great new additions to the team this offseason. We’re obviously the team that everyone else wants to come hard at since we’re the champions, but it’s an exciting kind of pressure situation to be in to have the opportunity to go out and defend your title. We have a clear goal — to win a championship — and we’ll do anything to get it. It takes great dedication, discipline, sacrifice, and commitment to your goals to make your team work. And you have to remember that to accomplish that goal you have to do it as a team, do it together.

Hoopistani: What are the challenges that your Laker team will face in the upcoming season?
PG: Well, there is a lot of expectation on us, but it is a good position to be in. We will have tough competition this year. Many teams have gotten stronger and signed good players — their moves are an incentive and motivation for us to do better. Actually, the biggest challenge to be able to star in the League is to stay as healthy as possible. This is something you can’t always control and you need luck on your side. It’s a complicated situation. Otherwise, we as a team have to make sure to come out this season with a hungry mentality and do whatever it takes to win again.

Hoopistani: What about yourself? What will be your own personal challenges this season?
PG: I have to improve the little things. Since I haven’t been working with the national team this offseason, I have been able to rest and train myself to work on certain specifics of my game. I want to be prepared with the right energy and excitement when I show up for training camp at the beginning of the season.

Hoopistani: Now that you’ve had some time to reflect on this recent championship victory, as well as your successes in the past, how do you foresee your future? You are 30 years old now — how would you like to end your career?
PG: The most important thing I feel is to end on a good note. I want to be in good shape and be healthy enough to keep giving my best for many years and become one of the top players in the world. I want to continue to win championships and continue playing at the highest level. My contract with the Lakers will expire after four years — after that, I will either look to resign or maybe explore other options. I will see how I feel then — it is hard to predict right now because every year is a different story.

Hoopistani: Last question — although you are here in India as an ambassador for the NBA, your international achievements have made you into an ambassador for global basketball. How do you see basketball growing around the world over the next 10 years?
PG: I feel lucky to have seen basketball grow so much already over the past 10 years. So many countries play the game well now, and so many more countries are getting harder and harder to beat. I find it amazing to see strong basketball teams out of countries I would have otherwise never expected to be competitive at the highest level. It is rewarding to see the game improve like this. I think that the game will continue to grow like this. The more international basketball gets, the better — it’s a sport that teaches good values and a healthy lifestyle!

No comments:

Post a Comment