Gasolina: A celebration of Pau Gasol as one of basketball’s All Time great international players
What was supposed to be the perfect moment for Pau Gasol and the Spanish national basketball team turned out to be a nightmare. Playing at home and featuring a full-strength, experienced team primed to defeat the mighty Americans, Spain were even considered slight favourites by many to lift the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. But one bad match hampered all their best-laid plans: France stunned Spain with a virtuoso defensive performance in the Quarter-Final, and suddenly, the dream was over. Spain was out, and the golden generation of La Roja ended with a whimper.
But there was a silver lining to the dark clouds over Spanish basketball: the man who had ushered in their golden generation – Pau Gasol – finished the tournament with his head held up high. Gasol was a dominant force throughout the tournament, and in my opinion, the best player at the World Cup outside of the USA. While the rest of his teammates struggled against France, Gasol battled till the very end with a game-high 17 points and eight rebounds in the Quarter-Final. He averaged 20 points per game at the World Cup, was an early-tournament MVP favourite, and was eventually named to the All-Tournament Team.
After 16 years of service to Spain – starting from the under-18 squad in 1998 and being the lynchpin for the senior national team from 2001 – some believe that the loss to France could be the 34-year-old’s last appearance for his national team. If he does retire from Spain, the team will have enough talent in his younger brother Marc Gasol, naturalized Congolese Serge Ibaka, and others to replace him. But they will never be able to replace the influence and dominance of Pau over the past decade and a half, of a player who helped reignite a national squad from an underachieving European side to the best basketball team in the world outside of the USA.
Spain had had moderate success before the Pau-era, winning a silver medal at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and a handful of podium finishes – without the gold – at the EuroBasket. While the likes of Juan Antonio Corbalan, Fernando Martin, Emiliano Rodriguez, Juan Antonio San Epifanio (Epi), Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Solozabal, and Jordi Villacampa will be remembered as some of the most accomplished players for Spain, it wasn’t until Gasol joined the national ranks that Spain began to turn their unfulfilled potential into regular success.
While blossoming as a teenage star at Barcelona, Gasol helped lead Spain’s junior teams to a gold medal at the FIBA Europe U18 Championship in 1998, a gold medal at the FIBA World U19 Championship in 1999, and a bronze at FIBA Europe U20 Championship in 2000. He made his national team debut at the 2001 EuroBasket, where the young leader helped Spain to a bronze medal. The same year, Gasol ended up winning the Spanish League and Spanish King’s Cup, with an MVP trophy in the Spanish League Final.
Since then, Gasol and Spain began to dominate basketball in Europe and taste success at the global level too, coinciding particularly with the drop in Team USA’s performances from 2002-2006. In 2003 – months after being named the NBA’s rookie of the year – Gasol was the leading scorer at the EuroBasket in Sweden, where Spain won a silver medal and Pau was named in the All-Tournament team. A year later, Gasol was the highest scoring player in the world at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
The World’s Greatest
Gasol and Spain’s high-point came in the 2006 FIBA World Championship (which is now called the World Cup) in Japan. Gasol was the centrepiece of a talented roster which also featured Juan Carlos Navarro, Jorge Garbajosa, Jose Calderon, Rudy Fernandez, and more. Spain strolled undefeated through the tournament to secure the gold medal. Gasol injured himself in Spain’s closest game – a semi-final win over Argentina – but the team won the gold without him in the Final and Gasol was named the tournament’s MVP.
While he was a respectable and All-Star level big in the NBA, Gasol continued to be stellar and unstoppable at the international level. The Spaniards finished at the podium in the next three EuroBaskets, winning silver in 2007 and gold in 2009 and 2011. Gasol was in the All Tournament Team in all three events and was MVP in 2009.
In 2008, Gasol led Spain to the Beijing Olympics and as the team became the closest competition to the reloaded USA ‘Redeem Team’. Featuring Calderon, Fernandez, Garbajosa, Navarro as well as rising stars Ricky Rubio, Pau’s brother Marc Gasol, and Felipe Reyes, Spain’s only losses at the Olympics came to the USA, once in the group stage and once in the Final. The Final turned out to be a classic contest which took heroic performances by Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant for USA to survive the Spaniards. Pau finished with 21 points in the final, completely outplaying the US biggies in the process.
This period coincided with Gasol’s most successful phase at club level, as he helped the Lakers reach three consecutive NBA Finals and win back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.
While a resting Gasol watched from the sidelines, Spain failed to defend their title at the 2010 FIBA World Championship and were ousted in the Semi-Finals in Turkey. USA won the gold, but two years later, Gasol would get another shot at the Americans.
With USA and Spain locked in as the world’s top and second-best basketball teams for years, the 2012 Olympics would be another chance for Spain to finally defeat their toughest foes. Gasol was the flag-bearer for his nation, and despite struggling at the club level, he was once again at the top of his game for his national side. While Spain only won three of their five preliminary round games, they defeated France and Russia in the knockouts to set up a Final rematch with USA. Once again, Gasol was in electrifying form, dominating the Americans inside with 24 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists. But 30 points by Kevin Durant and a huge clutch performance by Chris Paul helped USA secure a close win and the gold medal. Gasol and Spain had to settle for the silver once again.
World Cup Disappointment
Gasol rested last year at the EuroBasket, and predictably, without him, Spain were defeated at the Semi-Final stage. He joined the national team again for the World Cup this summer, claiming that it would be a dream come true to win the championship in front of his home fans. Through the group stage and the Round of 16, it seemed that nobody – not even the Americans – would be able to stop Gasol and Spain’s mission. With Gasol at the helm, Spain won all five of their group games by an average of over 25 points each; Gasol exploded for 33 against Iran, 26 and 9 vs. Brazil, and 20 against Serbia. In the 89-56 win over Senegal in the Round of 16, Gasol scored a game-high 17 points.
Even though the tournament ended with an abrupt shock to France a few days later, Gasol ended up with the World Cup’s fourth-highest scoring average, and second-highest Efficiency rating. He didn’t get to go fulfil his dream for gold at home, but no one could begrudge him for carrying his squad as far he individually could.
Hall of Fame?
This summer is one of great shifting scenarios for the legendary Spaniard. Gasol will be joining the Chicago Bulls when the NBA season starts and his future with the national side is still unclear. At 34, it is almost assured that, although he’ll remain an important contributor, we may never see him play at a superstar level for club or country again.
When he eventually retires, NBA fans and critics will debate whether his club-level credentials will be good enough for the Basketball Hall of Fame. But his success at the international level, for turning Spain into the only team that the redeemed USA ever had to truly worry about, and for becoming one of the most successful and decorated individual performers in FIBA competitions or the Olympics gives us a much clearer answer. Few international players have had his measure of success in the modern era, and for that, Pau Gasol should be a Hall of Famer.