When you’re seven feet tall, an inconspicuous stroll down the Venice Boardwalk is a difficult thing to pull off. When you’re Pau Gasol, the newest member of the Los Angeles Lakers and the 7-foot savior of the team’s title aspirations, it’s pretty much impossible.
To put it another way — you know you’re famous when the guy wearing nothing but roller skates, a feathery headdress, blue Speedos and about a bucket’s worth of baby oil is staring at you.
“It’s my first time in Venice,” Gasol admits, drawing looks and shouts from every direction as he passes said oily, Speedo-clad skater on an impeccably sunny day. “It’s interesting. I haven’t really had time to go anywhere yet.”
One can hardly blame him. Since coming to the Lakers in a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies in February, he’s been a little busy — new city, new people, new co-workers.
“I’m living in a hotel right now,” he says, “so I’ve been trying to close a deal on my own place.”
Oh yeah, there’s that basketball thing too. In between the adjusting and the hunt for the new place, Gasol, a former Rookie of the Year and All-Star with the Grizzlies, has managed to turn the Lakers into the hottest team in the NBA.
Seeing Gasol in person, 27 years old and rail thin, with a baby face hiding behind several days’ worth of scruff, it’s amazing he’s able to handle the NBA’s rougher side.
“Yeah, I’m a little sore,” Gasol says, “but when you’re with the Lakers you’ve got to expect that type of stuff. Teams are going to come after you.”
He seems to be dealing. And his presence couldn’t have come at a better time. Weeks before Gasol arrived, emerging superstar Andrew Bynum went down with a knee injury that is expected to keep him out for the rest of the season. In the hypercompetitive Western Conference, the loss of Bynum looked like it was going to crush all hopes of a Los Angeles playoff appearance — let alone a title shot. After a previous offseason that saw Kobe Bryant throw several fits and demand to be traded, it looked like it was going to be another long, drama-filled year in Lakers country.
But with Gasol’s arrival, the Lakers have transformed from soap opera to title contenders — and with Kevin Garnett and the resurgent Celtics dominating the Eastern Conference, old-school basketball fans across the country are salivating over a potential Lakers-Celtics matchup in the finals.
Tantalizing as that prospect may be, though, Gasol won’t indulge any part of the discussion — yet. “It’s way too early to start thinking about that. There are too many good teams in the Western Conference. We’ve just got to focus on playing good basketball.”
Gasol may be sticking to the one-game-at-a-time mantra, but if the shouts of the people on the boardwalk are any indication, a lot of hopes are riding on his narrow shoulders.
“We want that ring Pau!”
“Bring it home baby!”
“This is the year man, you gotta do it!”
Apparently, some Angelenos have other demands of Gasol as well.
“Hey Pau, why aren’t you married?” asks one particularly vocal fan, shouting to make his voice heard over the gathering throng.
“I don’t want to get married right now,” Gasol laughs. “I’m just having a good time.”
Unsatisfied with this explanation, the man responds in a half-mutter, half-yell — “You need to get yourself a wife.”
After playing his whole career with the perennial bottom-dwelling Grizzlies, Gasol admits, “I didn’t get much of this in Memphis.”
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Still, he knew as soon as he got here there would be plenty of new expectations — championship or otherwise. “I’ve been waiting for this opportunity my whole career. I’m definitely ready for the challenge.”
Thus far, he’s been good to his word. If Gasol can stay healthy, the Lakers not only have a good chance of winning this year, they also could be at the start of another dynasty.
Photo by Kevin Scanlon