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2012-05-02Updated on May, 4th, 2012, 10:24
Pau Gasol was 12 years old and a little over 1.90m tall when he experimented with his first movements as a Basketball guard at school as the US dream team left the world in awe at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, his home town. That was the first Olympic edition with authorised participation of the NBA players, the professional US Basketball league, where names such as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson gathered more admirers than contenders in the Basketball court. Outside the court, millions watched astounding performances which represented a turning point to Basketball. Gasol was responsible for one of them.
After being recognised in his home country wearing the Barcelona T-shirt nine years later, the Spanish Basketball athlete was playing his first NBA season when he first faced Michael Jordan. To his fans’ delight, the star had returned from retirement for two more years of action. The thrill was in the air, Gasol can’t deny it. But those were other times. The interchange had increased significantly, as more foreigners had joined the North-American league and the US was participating in international competitions. All of that made the formerly opponents' fascination with North-American team turn into the idea that, one day, the USA uniform would be no longer be unbeatable.
In 2002, Pau Gasol was 22 and 2,13m tall when he took the position of forward centre of the Spanish team at the World Basketball Championship in Indianapolis. Even with some of the best NBA Basketball players and before its supporters, the US was defeated by the extraordinary performance of Iugoslavia, future champions, at the quarter-final. Ten years after Barcelona 1992, it was the first time the North-American pros did not climb the podium in a championship. Competing for fifth place, Spain suffered an 81-75 defeat. Four years later, the Spaniards became champions and Gasol was the best player in the competition.
“It’s always an honour to be with my team, my country, striving for the medals. This is such a special moment in the lives of all athletes. All you want to do is be there and set up your game. We won the 2006 FIBA World Basketball Championship in Japan and were close to winning gold at Beijing 2008. We excelled in the championship and I have to say I am very proud of our performance then”, says the Spanish idol.
Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant are Los Angeles Lakers teammates (Photo: ©Getty Images/Jed Jacobsohn)
Seeking Olympic gold
Pau Gasol epitomises an era that saw a dramatic reduction in the disparity between the US Basketball team and men’s Basketball players from elsewhere. Gasol himself became an NBA star. After six seasons with Memphis Grizzlies, he was transferred to the traditional Los Angeles Lakers, where he won in two out of the four full seasons he took part in. He was elected best 2002 rookie and participated four times in the All-Star Game, match with fanfare and festivities among NBA’s best players elected via fan ballot and by a vote among the head coaches.
With the Spanish team, Pau Gasol competed at the two last editions of the Olympic Games after European qualifiers. At Athens 2004, he returned home after reaching seventh place and beating the US at the quarter-final. At Beijing 2006, he led the team to the silver medal, reaching the best score in Spanish history until then, when the team was second place at Los Angeles 1984. His final 118-107 defeat, once again by his greatest rivals over the last years, is still annoying.
“We’ve got to try and keep trying. At London 2012, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to try again. But it’s one match at a time. We’ve got to play our best to beat them one by one. There’s no other way. Our goal is the gold medal”, Gasol ponders. Spain comes second in the world ranking, following the US, and its place at London 2012 is the result of its 2011 European title, the second one in a row.
The 32-year old idol has only one more step to take in his career. His legacy, however, has been consolidated. Twenty years ago, putting on a uniform and walking into the court for a head-to-head competition with a Basketball team from anywhere in the globe was the dream of a schoolboy who would watch the Olympic Games on TV. Today that is for real. And it is a pleasure. “Walking into the court and showing your best to the world is what matters, whether at London 2012 or at Rio 2016™. I would love to take part in this again for as long as my body helps and allows me to. It would be an honour and a privilege to be in Rio, where I’ve never been. If everything goes well and my team makes it there, it will be a beautiful challenge”.