Gasol’s drive to regain All-Star form

February 22, 2017

NEW ORLEANS – Perhaps it was only fitting that Marc Gasol provided his own transportation to and from the Big Easy for his third career appearance in the NBA All-Star game over the weekend.

No word better describes Gasol’s state of mind this season than ‘driven.’

“They are all special to me, but this one felt a little different because of all of the things I had to do in order to get back to this point in my career,” the Grizzlies’ franchise anchor said before he left the Smoothie King Center. “You realize that nothing is guaranteed. So to come back from the surgery on my foot like this, and to walk into that locker room with all the other All-Star players – the only way to put it is that it’s been a very special feeling for me.”

The impact of Gasol’s weekend in New Orleans alongside the league’s elite stars extends well beyond the near triple-double he provided with 10 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in 21 minutes to contribute to the West’s 192-182 victory over the East in the NBA’s 66th All-Star game.

This time, the moment for Gasol was about redemption. It was about resilience. It was about reflection.

That’s because this time exactly a year ago, the 32-year-old center was being wheeled from a hospital wearing a medical walking boot after having season-ending surgery on his right foot to repair a fractured navicular bone. Gasol commemorated the one-year anniversary of that surgery late Monday night with a message to his one million Twitter followers that included two photos.

The first shot was a year-old selfie Gasol took of the oversized cast on his right foot after he returned home from surgery. Directly beside that was a photo of Gasol shooting a jumper during the Sunday All-Star game as the Golden State Warriors’ coaching staff looked on in the background.

“A year ago I had my foot surgery,” Gasol wrote in the accompanying message. “(Sunday) night, I enjoyed representing everyone that believed in me through all this time. Thank you!”

Gasol’s first All-Star appearance in 2012 was special because, well, it was his first. And that milestone would set off a three-year stretch in which Gasol was named NBA Defensive Player of the Year and would make two All-NBA teams. That game in Orlando remains memorable for Gasol because he got to play with MVPs and fellow international superstars Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki.

Gasol’s second All-Star berth in 2015 was iconic because he opened the game matched up against older brother Pau, marking the first time in NBA history that a set of siblings started opposite one another in the February classic. That game in New York was about family and cemented the Gasols’ NBA legacy.

This year’s All-Star game was about family, too. But in a different, yet just as deep way. Because his wife, Cristina, is eight months pregnant with their second child and couldn’t travel by plane, Gasol drove his family the 800-mile roundtrip from Memphis to New Orleans.

The transportation aspect alone offered plenty of time to reflect and cherish.

“The traffic was pretty good, the drive was easy and it was good times,” Gasol said. “Now, it’s just about getting back into our routine.”

That routine is scheduled to resume with a Tuesday night workout with several Grizzlies’ teammates who are returning to Memphis from the mid-season break. The Grizzlies are scheduled to officially get back to work on the court for Wednesday’s practice in preparation for a weekend trip to play the Pacers on Friday and the Nuggets on Sunday. Despite being in separate locations the past week, the Grizzlies seemed to remain a connected group.

While Gasol was in New Orleans, Mike Conley and Tony Allenposted photos and videos of their workouts. Conley, who was bypassed by West coaches for a reserve spot despite having a career season, posted a hashtag that suggested he’s targeting a spot in next year’s All-Star game in Los Angeles. Chandler Parsons, who spent his time off in Cancun – which he renamed ‘ChanCun’ – indicated he had a trainer/nutritionist with him on the trip. And after watching Rockets’ reserve Eric Gordon win the 3-Point Contest on Saturday night, Troy Daniels launched his social media campaign to secure an invite to next year’s contest.

The more immediate collective goal is to regroup and push toward securing a top-four seed in the West to land home-court advantage in a potential first-round playoff series. The Grizzlies (34-24) are currently sixth in the standings, two games behind the fourth-place Los Angeles Clippers with 24 games remaining.

Memphis got to this point during an injury-riddled start largely because of Gasol’s durability amid the most productive offensive season of his nine-year career. He entered the break having posted peak numbers in scoring (20.6), assists (4.3) and both three-point makes (77) and attempts (200). But his most meaningful number entering All-Star weekend was 55 - the amount of games he’s played, having missed only three for planned nights off for recovery and rest.

Now that the team returns from the break as healthy as its been in two years, it’s time for the Grizzlies to hit their stride and reach their promising potential. Getting back to this point certainly was neither promised nor easy for Gasol, who knows all too well the history of struggles for NBA big men who endured foot injuries throughout their careers. He quickly rattled off the names of Sam Bowie, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Yao Ming and Joel Embiidamong players Gasol said he studied or monitored as he was pushing through his own recovery process over the past 12 months.

“You just can’t take anything for granted, because you never know how it will turn out,” Gasol said. “Some of those guys were able to make it back. Some guys could never really get (careers) started the way they wanted it to go. Some of them were never the same player again after the foot injuries. All you can do is take care of your body and put the work into it, do everything you can to get yourself back.”

Not only is Gasol back, he’s better than ever.

“He’s added some elements to his game - shooting the three-ball and really stretching and putting pressure on your defense – that maybe was always there, but he’s using it as a weapon,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who guided the West All-Stars. “He’s really been their MVP with the way he’s played.”

But Kerr was more impressed with another side of Gasol he saw over the weekend, the side that showed the world how much progress Gasol made physically and how at peace he is psychologically. Gasol shared laughs alongside Rockets’ star James Harden as they made water color paintings during a visit for NBA Cares to an elderly care center in New Orleans. That joy also resonated in the Sunday game when Gasol made his first shot and later tossed a lob for a highlight dunk by OKC’s Russell Westbrook.

“It’s really been a humbling process for me,” Gasol said. “You learn a lot about yourself and others when you go through something like this. You look around at the other guys on your (All-Star) team, and realize you’re the oldest one around. Then you understand you must be doing something right.”

Being in an All-Star leadership role for the West team didn’t necessarily involve brokering a peace agreement between Westbrook and Kevin Durant, whose strained relationship dominated the weekend until it was overshadowed by Sunday night’s blockbuster trade that sent DeMarcus Cousins to the Pelicans.

“I tried to enjoy myself,” Gasol said with a laugh when asked if he noticed any friction behind the scenes between Westbrook and Durant. “I don’t look for that stuff. I don’t have a problem with either of them. I talked to one, and then talked to the other. It’s not my business if they don’t talk to each other.”

A year ago, Gasol wasn’t certain if he’d ever regain his footing as an elite NBA player. A year later, the 7-foot-1 giant emerged from New Orleans standing as tall as ever. How did Gasol get from one point to the other? Easy. The same way he got from Memphis to his latest All-Star assignment.

His drive.