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Magic Johnson inspired Lakers' Pau Gasol in more ways than one

Long before he became an NBA star, Gasol wanted to be a doctor. He was 11, and Johnson had just announced he had the AIDS virus. Though basketball is his life, Gasol's interest in medicine hasn't waned.

November 05, 2011|By Ben Bolch
  • Lakers forward Pau Gasol observes a surgery by Dr. David Skaggs at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.
Lakers forward Pau Gasol observes a surgery by Dr. David Skaggs at Children's… (Lori Shepler )

Like millions of other children around the world, the 11-year-old boy watched the television in horror as Magic Johnson announced he had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Unlike most others his age, the boy vowed to do something about it. He would become a doctor and seek a cure.

His name was Pau Gasol.

Saving others was what his family did. His mother was a surgeon in Spain, his father a nurse administrator.

It didn't matter to the boy that Johnson, the married Lakers star, announced on Nov. 7, 1991, that he had a virus associated with unsafe sex and intravenous drug use.

"My perception didn't change when I heard the news," Gasol said of his childhood hero in an email recently from Barcelona. "It was just sad to hear that he was retiring from basketball and that his life was in serious risk."

Ultimately, Gasol would help rescue the Lakers on the court instead of in the lab as a power forward on back-to-back NBA championship teams in 2009 and 2010. But his life veered in a direction it might not otherwise have without Johnson's announcement of 20 years ago.

At 18, Gasol enrolled in medical school at the University of Barcelona, where classes and basketball took up his days and studying his nights.

The 7-footer soon realized he would have to decide whether his massive hands were better served dissecting cadavers or dunking basketballs. He opted to follow his hoop dreams with a Spanish club team and was later drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies before being traded to the Lakers.

But his interest in medicine continues to resonate. Gasol has traded in purple and gold for blue medical scrubs several times the last few years to observe spinal surgeries at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, where he also boosts spirits by signing autographs and shaking hands.

"He has the intellectual curiosity of a first-year medical student who just can't learn enough," said Dr. David Skaggs, chief of orthopedic surgery. "The OR team loves it when he's around because he keeps us on our 'A' game."

Gasol has also developed a special relationship with Johnson, who greeted him with his famous smile in February 2008 when Gasol first reported to the Lakers' El Segundo practice facility upon joining the team.

"I admire him now for a lot more than basketball," Gasol said. "We haven't had the chance to really speak about HIV/AIDS the times that we've met, but it would be very interesting for me to talk about it with him."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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