Gasol can appreciate the moment
LOS ANGELES — There has been much historical talk circulating around this Game 7, and rightly so. Kobe Bryant seems to be the only person unwilling to insert himself into the broad sweep of Celtics-Lakers lore.
“Ain’t got nothing to do with me right now,’’ he grunted when prodded, for what seemed like the thousandth time in these proceedings. “It’s got nothing to do with me.’’
All right, already. It is true that much of that history was made in an entirely different basketball world, one in which there was minimal mixing of basketball cultures at the highest level. But that all changed when FIBA invited the US to send its best players to the major international competitions. Check that. FIBA demanded that the US send its best players. Hence, creation of the One and Only Dream Team, a squad whose impact is still felt in the world of international basketball.
So we now have players with a broad range of international experience competing for America’s biggest basketball prize: the NBA championship. Numbered among the prominent players — no offense, Sasha Vujacic — on the Staples Center floor last night were five stars who know what it’s like to play for this ultimate American prize as well as what it feels like to play for a national team at that elevated level of play.
On this topic, Bryant actually has something useful to offer. He has been a major member of Team USA, and he won a gold medal in Beijing. He was asked to compare the experience of playing against Spain for the gold with playing against the Celtics in a Game 7.
“I mean, they’re similar, because you’re talking about one game,’’ he said. “I think this is a little different because I have way more responsibility with this team than I did on the USA team. But the energy around it is similar.’’
Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen know the feeling. They were members of the 2000 Team USA that brought home gold from Sydney. Paul Pierce has a sadder tale. He was a member of the ill-fated 2002 Team USA in the World Championships. That squad became the first post-Dream Team squad to drop a game in international competition, losing to Argentina. They weren’t through losing, either, finishing a dismal sixth.
But the player in this Game 7 who most personifies the new reality of international basketball competition is Los Angeles’s Pau Gasol, the 29-year-old Barcelona native who has been a mainstay of the successful Spanish team for many years, as well as a member of both the Memphis Grizzlies and Lakers.
He won his first NBA championship last year, thus adding to an international portfolio that includes being named MVP for the victorious Spanish team in the 2006 World Championships held in Tokyo (where the Americans were thumped, you may recall, by Greece).
So dominant was Gasol in that tournament, in fact, that he was named MVP despite sustaining an ankle injury in the semifinal round that prevented him from participating in the championship game.
I think it’s safe to say that Americans do not play internationally with the enormous pressure their NBA teammates do when performing for their countries. Americans now understand that our players are no longer invincible, that the world has caught up dramatically. It would be hard to imagine an NBA without some of the great internationals who have distinguished themselves in NBA play.
But many countries, even those in which another sport takes precedence (as soccer/football does most everywhere), place a great deal of emphasis on national success in basketball, Spain being one. Spain rather likes its stature as a world basketball power, which it most certainly is with the aforementioned gold in Tokyo and the silver in Beijing, both of which put Mr. Gasol front and center.
“It’s different because of how the competition is structured,’’ explained Gasol. “On the national team we prepare for a month and a half to play a two-week tournament.’’
The NBA is something else entirely.
“But the NBA season,’’ he said, “you’ve got to go through the season and make sure you get a good record so you can secure as much home-court advantage as possible, and then you go through the grinding of the playoffs, which are extremely demanding and extremely tough. I mean, it’s really hard.’’
But what about the emotions? Team success vs. national pride. Is there a difference?
“Emotionally, to me, I don’t really know,’’ Gasol said. “I take great pride in accomplishing great things. You know, a gold medal in the Olympics, a gold medal in the World Championships, is very, very special. But it’s hard to compare.
“It’s hard to put one above the other when you talk about an NBA championship. It’s just so hard to win at this level, it really is. And I feel very fortunate that I had a chance to fight for different championships and win different ones, too.’’
One thing doesn’t change in a winner-take-all scenario such as a gold-medal game or an NBA Game 7: effort.
“It’s a game that you want to just give everything you have out there and compete as hard as you’ve ever competed,’’ he declared. “So that’s the way I face it.’’
Only a few can compare the ultimate satisfactions inherent in each experience. Four of them were gracing the floor last night.