The Spanish have a word to describe Pau Gasol: baraka. Translated into English, it means divine luck. The etymology stems from the Moorish influence and alludes to a benevolent aura transmitted from God, imbuing a chosen one with “prosperity, protection, and happiness.”
If you've ever read Gasol's beatific Twitter account, it all adds up. Amidst a maelstrom of trade reports that stopped just short of a “HasPauLandedYet” hashtag, he said: “Off to Dallas. We'll stay focused on playing as a team, giving everything we have. I'm always thankful for all your support. #GoLakers.” If you've ever been in the Lakers locker room and seen the look of Franciscan decency that mists in Gasol's eyes when talking about some act of goodwill, you'd understand why he's the most based man in the NBA – a combination of St. Francis of Assisi, Lil B, and Kevin McHale.
Baraka is arguably the only way to explain how the Barcelona-raised 7-footer survived news stories claiming with a 99.98 percent certainty that he'd be shipped to Cleveland for Andrew Bynum, several of Bynum's homemade PC desktops, and a Groupon for Flamenco lessons. Instead, Bynum got swapped to Chicago on Monday for Luol Deng and a passel of draft picks.
The Spanish said that Francisco Franco had Baraka. After all, the brutal but rabbit-footed dictator survived numerous assassination attempts and a World War I assault that left him a testicle short. You apparently need as much luck to lord over the Iberian peninsula for nearly a half-century as you do to remain on the Lakers when you're prominent trade bait and collect $19 million a year for an injury-hexed team that looks increasingly lottery-bound.
But like the nixed 2011 deal for Chris Paul, Gasol got another reprieve. General Manager Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers ownership credit wisely resisted the temptation to say “Fuck It” and embrace the chaos. For now, there are no plans to wave a white flag while blaring “Make Em' Say Uh,” and riding a gold No Limit tank through Staples Center.
The sticking point between the Lakers and Cavaliers reportedly came down to Laker demands for a viable asset in addition to Bynum, who would be instantly waived as part of a salary cap dump. When the Cavaliers allegedly refused to offer more than a second round pick, the Lakers refused to the deal the two-time champion, four-time All-Star, and only player in the league to have attended med school (which Gasol did during his first year playing professional basketball in Spain,).
For the last several weeks, Lakers fans and pundits have engaged in a “To Tank or Not to Tank” debate. The idea is that this year's draft class is the strongest in almost a decade and by putting Pau on a Hot Air Balloon, the franchise could save $20 million, avoid paying a Luxury Tax “Repeater” Fine, and increase their odds in the Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes.
From a gelid C.P.A.'s perspective, it makes perfect sense. The team is going nowhere. Might as well stack as many racks and blow as many games as possible to prepare for the future. It's the new NBA way. But it's antithetical to the conception of the Lakers that the franchise has carefully cultivated over the last half-century.
On sports talk radio, I heard one of the hosts compare the Lakers to the Celtics, who are again at square one of a massive rebuilding process. The logic went, if the NBA's other marquee franchise was willing to rip it up and start again, what makes the Lakers think they're any different. What the talking head declined to mention was that the Celtics failed to make the playoffs nine times over the last 20 years – a period in which the Lakers only skipped the playoffs twice. Meanwhile, they accrued five championship trophies to the Celtics lone title.
This organizational Baraka incubated a sense of entitlement among the Laker Nation. Their complaints are seen as the “First World Problems” of sports fandom. But the victories have also bred an inveterate hatred of losing. The idea of tanking is anathema. Rooting to lose is one of those defeatist propositions up there with drinking decaf coffee or listening to a band after they've replaced their lead singer.
No one expects a championship or even a playoff win out of this year's team. But few things are more miserable than watching your team get shellacked night in and night out. Nor is there any real need exaggerate the slide. Their record is 14-21. One man's tanking is another team's losing streak. On Sunday night, the Lakers got whiplash from the Nuggets. Nate Robinson unleashed a taunting series of dunks as though he was a combination of Spud Webb and the electric gremlin. The Lakers were down 24 in the 4th Quarter – at home. On the big screen, a conga of drunken plasticine cougars danced to “Party Rock Anthem.” It felt like rock bottom.
While trade reports swirled, Gasol dropped 25 points, grabbed 10 boards, picked up five assists, and blocked three shots. He's averaged similar numbers over the last three games, which led to his nomination for Western Conference Player of the Week – the first for any Laker this season. Sure, he's lost a step from his championship days, struggles in back-to-back-games and his interior defense can be porous. He'll never be as furious and temperamental as Rasheed Wallace. But he's retained one of the game's softest touches for a big man, a prodigious basketball IQ, and peerless court vision.
Earlier this fall, the Lakers gave a still-rehabbing Kobe Bryant a salary-cap strangling $48.5 million extension. The contract's size was partly due to sentimentality. Consider it a lifetime-achievement contract, a thank you for the rings, and a reflection of how intertwined he's become with the Lakers brand. He is the Lakers. But for the last seven years, so has Pau.
Off the court, he's a fixture at children's hospitals and one of the game's biggest Philanthropists. He's weathered almost non-stop trade rumors over the last three years with poise and dignity. When the report of his “trade” broke, he was at the Lion King with his parents and younger brother. He's dealt with Kobe telling him to be “The Black Swan” and to “put his big boy pants on.” Reporters have savaged his lack of toughness and bloggers spread rumors about his girlfriend leaving him during the playoffs. Mike D' Antoni became the coach and almost immediately benched him for Earl Clark. Yes, Earl Clark. The same Earl Clark who is currently averaging 6 points and three rebounds for the Cavaliers.
Throughout these tribulations, he's played hard, been a model teammate and leader, and won many games for the Lakers. He deserves better than to be cast out of town in the middle of the night for a clear ledger on a balance sheet. Of course, if the Lakers can snag a valuable rebuilding tool for him over the next month, it'd be a difficult offer to refuse. One day, his jersey will hang in the rafters of Staples Center alongside Shaq, Wilt, and Kareem. For now, he's still a Laker until his divine luck sours.