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The Tao of Pau

A trip to the Barcelona roots of Pau Gasol reveals a man who knew early in life what he wanted -- to play in the NBA -- and would let nothing change his mind

February 10, 2008|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

BARCELONA, Spain -- Not that we tread in some sort of fable with Pau Gasol's life story here, but you really should see the hospital where he joined the world on July 6, 1980, just seven weeks after Magic scored 42 at Philadelphia.

Really now, how many hospitals do you know that look like some cross between Shangri-La and the Hotel del Coronado? How many caress the eyes with murals, mosaics, sculptures or the two soaring palms that tower out front at L'Hospital Sant Pau? How many boast one of the most enchanting views on Earth, back down the avenue to the Sagrada Familia, plus a striking courtyard with tourists filing through snapping photographs?

At how many hospitals do people seem to want to, you know, hang out?

"One of my friends was working there" as an obstetrician, said Gasol's mother, Marisa, herself a doctor of internal medicine, "and I went to him to take my boy. It's such a beautiful hospital."

And not that we're witnessing some charmed tale here -- a ton of toil fed Gasol's ascent -- but here's an afternoon metro, clean and energetic. It sails underground out of Barcelona through this optimistic, in-the-moment country (and when did you last see one of those?), and when it bobs out of the ground nine stops from town, it's all Catalonian sunshine and distant brown mountains and Sant Boi de Llobregat.

That's the fairy-tale name of the industrial, 80,000-strong suburb where Gasol's hands began their two-decade love affair with the basketball. That's where the fenced-in schoolyard of his childhood sits in a back corner of town, beyond the streets with local shops and the bus stops with "Juno" ads.

And that's close to a gloriously eccentric basketball objet d'art that strides the middle of an intersection and bears Gasol's name, and just across the street from the colossal Complex Esportiu Municipal Pau Gasol, dedicated by the city council after the giant's rookie season.

How idyllic, this childhood? As the eldest of three sons of a doctor (Marisa) and a nursing administrator (Agusti), Gasol would walk to Escola Llor, the envied private school with the metal front gate and the muscular sports program. It'd take five minutes, if that. He might pass through a becoming neighborhood with orange trees and palms and hedges, tight streets and nonconformist houses, where a single straggler can rouse half a dozen dog barks.

He would see life from 6 feet 4 by 15, sprout again toward his avowed 7 feet at 18 and 19 and, with the junior national team, help portend Spain's rise to global multi-sport bigwig with eminence in soccer, tennis, golf, Olympics, motorsports, basketball and what-all. He would learn piano and tackle Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Swans" and go to medical school for a year before basketball shooed all else, and you mean to say that now the whole Catalonian daydream shifts to . . . Los Angeles, global capital of pixie dust?

It's another dollop of sensation for a stylish, onrushing country, and even in a sleepy suburb, it has kept a few people up at night. Tuesday night, no, Wednesday morning, Irish tavern, only place in Sant Boi showing Lakers-Nets from New Jersey, your basic 1:30 a.m. tipoff, four middle-aged men who knew Gasol back then, only customers in the pub. Even though his 6:30 wake-up beckoned, Ricard Farres, the director of the immense sports program at Escola Llor, joined three friends to scrutinize a game Farres found almost surreal because Kobe Bryant seemed to defer to his former pupil Gasol.

Then halftime came, and the bar had to close.

Keeping track of the local boy making good

"It is hard to follow" because of the curvature of the Earth, Farres said, and it usually appears only on a pay channel, but the country's renowned sports dailies do follow. A major one even put Gasol on page 26, just after 25 pages of soccer, quite the feat here. Another, called Sport, put Gasol on the cover. Another vowed to expand NBA pages now that Gasol mines Los Angeles rather than Memphis.

Here they are, Gasol with a team Farres has loved since "Lakers contra Celtics" of the 1980s, a team everyone recognizes because of Showtime (older people) or Bryant (younger), and all this just two heady decades-and-change after Pau turned up at Llor at age 6.

"He was a very normal student, a very normal boy," Farres began through an interpreter, Sergi Borras, who teaches English at Llor. "He wasn't very tall, probably, as we say here, three fingers taller than the others, but not much. While he was an introverted guy, we could see he was more mature than the rest of the students. The way he spoke. He seemed like an older boy. His reasoning. Not totally his words, but his reasoning."

His parents stood 6 feet 3 (father) and 6-1 (mother). Both played basketball in organized leagues. "I grew up the first few years of my life watching my dad play with the veteran-tier team," Gasol said this past week. "I started seeing my dad doing it. He's always been a real role model for me."

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