BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Pau Gasol is back in Spain for a third time with an NBA team. This time, he’s in a Lakers jersey as an NBA champion.
Gasol will be the main attraction when the Lakers play his former Spanish club Barcelona in an exhibition game Thursday at the Palau Sant Jordi.
It’s a special homecoming for the 7-foot center, who joined Barcelona when he was 16 and helped the club win two Spanish league titles. Gasol left to play for the Memphis Grizzlies in 2001.
Gasol says “without a doubt it is a dream … that has now become a reality.”
More than 7,000 fans, mainly school children, packed a local arena to watch Gasol and the Lakers practice. Cheers erupted with each made layup, but it was Gasol’s emphatic dunks that drew the biggest applause.
“I see the excitement of the people who are proud and happy for us to be here,” Gasol said.
He returned to Spain with the Grizzlies for 2003 exhibition games in Barcelona and the 2007 games in Madrid and Malaga. He has since won two NBA championships with the Lakers.
With Lakers superstar and NBA finals MVP Kobe Bryant still recovering from knee surgery, Gasol is expected to play a more promiment role on the court.
Bryant played only 6 minutes and went scoreless in a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday in London. That disappointed many of the British fans, who chanted “Kobe, Kobe, Kobe” during the second half.
Bryant is expected to see limited action against Barcelona as well, but said he’s more than happy to cede the spotlight to Gasol. Gasol had an off night in London, scoring only 7 points in 22 minutes in the 111-92 loss.
“I am looking forward to this game and to this challenge. But if anything, I am really, really excited for Pau,” Bryant said. “It must be an amazing experience for him to come back to where it all started for him, as a two-time NBA champion and one of the greatest players in the world. I just want to sit back and watch him have a great time.”
Coach Phil Jackson said he also expects Gasol to become more of a leader on the court, at least until Bryant has fully recovered.
“Right now, he’s going to have to carry the team when Kobe’s not functioning 100 percent,” Jackson said. “So he’s the guy who’ll have to take a leadership role.”
NBA Commissioner David Stern said Gasol’s success highlights the impact of foreign players on the league.
“To have the opportunity for a player like Pau to go back, and his brother Marc played (for Barcelona) as well, it’s just been great for our league,” Stern said. “We’re delighted to go, in effect, with Pau, because the fans love him there. He really has changed the appetite for basketball enormously in Catalunya and Barcelona.”
Gasol has acted a bit as a tour guide, pointing out his home and other sights to his teammates on the bus ride to practice.
Jackson noted a cultural difference between Spanish and American eating habits. He joked that he had told Gasol the whole team would show up at his house at 7:30 p.m., but because “he doesn’t eat dinner till 10, we can just have some hors d’oeuvres.”
Barcelona, the reigning European champion, is eager to show it can compete with the NBA’s best.
Barcelona guard Juan Carlos Navarro, a close friend of Gasol, said the team also wants to avenge a 2008 preseason loss against the Lakers in Los Angeles.
“This time they are playing against the European champs,” the former Memphis guard said. “I already told Pau, half joking and half not, that we would surely win.”
Barcelona has the advantage of starting its regular season, while the Lakers are still trying to shake off the rust from the offseason.
And for Gasol, there are some emotional difficulties to overcome as well.
“It will be difficult for me because I am not accustomed to playing against Barcelona, because it is the team I grew up on,” he said. “It awakens a lot of emotions and it will be a very special game.”