Pau Gasol wins NBA citizenship award

Pau Gasol probably would have been a doctor if he hadn’t grown up to be 7 feet tall and awfully good at basketball.

The Lakers forward sees his charity work with UNICEF and children’s hospitals as a different way to fulfill the dreams instilled in him by his medically minded Spanish family.

Gasol won the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award on Friday for his extensive charity work as a UNICEF ambassador, winning a vote by members of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

”It’s a great honor for any player to receive,” Gasol said Friday after the Lakers’ shootaround for Game 3 of their second-round playoff series against Oklahoma City. ”It should be an honor for any player to have the opportunity to give back and to make the community better, be a role model to all the other kids and people. I think it’s very important when you have that opportunity, you take advantage of it. You maximize it.”

The four-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion is the second straight Los Angeles player to win the award. Ron Artest was given the Kennedy Award last year for his work in mental health awareness before he changed his name to Metta World Peace.

Gasol has traveled the globe to raise awareness for UNICEF over the past seven years, primarily working on programs involving nutrition, education and health care for children. He also has strong ties to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, where he began his NBA career.

”When you have an opportunity to have a positive impact on somebody’s life, especially for me around kids, it’s worth all the dedication,” Gasol said.

Gasol’s mother was a physician, and his father was a medical administrator. Pau was born at the Barcelona hospital where both of his parents worked. Pau became interested in a career in medicine after Magic Johnson announced he had contracted HIV in 1991, when Gasol was 11.

Gasol took classes in a pre-med program at the University of Barcelona as a teenager, but gave up his studies when his basketball career took off. Gasol’s interest in medicine hasn’t waned, and his charity work has included observing orthopedic surgeries and other medical procedures, sometimes surprising surgeons with knowledgeable questions about their work.

”It fulfills a lot in me as a person, as a human being,” Gasol said. ”To me, that’s above and beyond basketball. Obviously, basketball has allowed me to have these opportunities, and that’s why I feel so fortunate, but to me it’s much stronger, much more powerful than the basketball game.”

Gasol’s mother has volunteered at St. Jude since the family moved to Tennessee along with Pau and then stayed there after his brother, Marc, joined the Grizzlies in the trade that sent Pau to the West Coast. Pau plans to continue his work with St. Jude and UNICEF indefinitely, and he encouraged other NBA players to find charitable causes to support.

”When I have a chance to do something that I feel is important, I do it,” Gasol said.