Three-time medallist hopes to be fit for Tokyo after a year out with a foot injury, and is inspired by healthworkers fighting COVID-19. "It’s like a horror movie, something you can’t even imagine in real life."
Pau Gasol has been one of the mainstays of the Spanish national basketball team for the last two decades.
The 2.16m-tall centre led Spain to its first world title in 2006, silver at the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympic Games, and three Eurobasket crowns before a bronze medal at Rio 2016.
A stress fracture in his left foot has sidelined him for the past year but Gasol, who turns 40 in July, is keen to help his country at Tokyo 2020 which has been postponed by a year.
The six-time NBA All-Star and twice NBA champion, with the LA Lakers in 2009 and 2010 alongside the late Kobe Bryant, missed Spain's World Cup triumph last year in China where Ricky Rubio inspired 'La Roja' to glory.
Now Gasol hopes to regain fitness to stake his claim to a place in the squad and, in an exclusive interview with Olympic Channel, spoke about his recovery and how he's been inspired by healthworkers fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I like to meditate in the afternoon. That is helping me a lot in these times.” - Pau Gasol speaking to Olympic Channel
OC: What has been the toughest part for you of the coronavirus crisis so far?
PG: Seeing the number of people infected, the number of deaths. Hearing about, for example, when a relative dies and people can’t be there. Or not being able to see your grandfather or grandmother or mother or father in hospital in a critical condition, to comfort them or hold their hands.
"This is an extreme situation. It’s like a horror movie, something you can’t even imagine in real life." - Pau Gasol on COVID-19
OC: What do you think will be the most valuable lesson we learn from this?
PG: In the end, I think you have to appreciate things in life. You can’t take things for granted. This is a huge reminder for all of us. We thought that travelling was normal, going to a restaurant was normal, spending time with your friends or going out for a walk was something everyone should be able to do in complete freedom and nothing could stop. But things can happen in our lives that can affect us somehow and can affect us in this way.
Olympic Channel: With the postponement of Tokyo 2020 until next year, would you say that you have more or less chance of being at your fifth Olympics Games?
Pau Gasol: That's a difficult question to answer because, on one side, it gives me more time to heal and recover. I was hoping before everything changed and everything got postponed or cancelled that I was going to have enough time to heal my injury to get in an appropriate shape for more than a year of not being able to compete and play nd still, at 40 years old, play my fifth Olympics this summer in Tokyo.
Now I have more time to recover, but I will have to play competitively in order to get to summer of 2021 at a high level and be able to compete and help my country. Which is not a bad thing. But the truth of it is that, you know, in summer 2021 I'll be 41 which is a challenge. And it's something that might excite me, being a very challenge-driven person and very ambitious always. And it is very much still a desire to be able to play my fifth Olympics and potentially that being my very last tournament.
OC: How would you imagine the perfect ending of your career?
PG: I don't know if there's such a thing as a perfect ending. Obviously winning an Olympic medal, a gold medal would be, I think, the best possible way that you could think of. But life is not perfect. And then you have to kind of deal with how things come and go.
Throughout all this process of rehab, injury, re-injuring, surgery, another surgery, I've come to terms with the fact that if I didn't have a chance to play again, I've had an incredible career so I'll be happy regardless. If I can play some more... that's why I'm working hard to continue to play and continue to enjoy the game that I love a little bit more, a little longer, that'll be great. And that's what I'm doing. That's where my mind is at, that's where my body's at. But we'll see. I don't know still if my foot will be able to heal and really sustain the effort and the load and the stress that professional basketball requires at age 40, pretty much.
OC: How is your recovery going? Is quarantine helping you at all?
PG: Well, I wouldn't say it's helping me because I can't access everything I need to access in order to move with my rehab and recovery as I had planned. I think everything has been delayed and kind of postponed in a way. Even though I'm buying myself more time, there's tests that I can't do because I'm in quarantine. It's just kind of delayed the process a little bit but I'm still trying to control what I can control, continue to do what I can do from home. And then once I'm able to do more, I will. Because I need to see doctors, I need to see a therapist. But right now, I'm not able to see and luckily there's phones and you can send routines and workouts and videos and instructions through the phone or through a computer, but it's not the same.
I'm just trying to focus on the positives, try to focus on what I can control and try to do the best I can. And then when I'm able to do the other things, I will do them. And hopefully it's helping me. It's just giving me a little more time for the bone to heal and get strong.
OC: Tell us about your memories of the Olympic Games. Of course, there was the Dream Team at Barcelona in 1992.
PG: Well, I was a 12-year-old in Barcelona. I was playing basketball, I loved the game. And that team, the Dream Team, the original Dream Team, really changed the sport of basketball inspired and touched a lot of kids and teenagers, especially my generation. It really touched us in a way that it opened our eyes and it made us dream bigger. Like, "Wow, these guys are incredible. This is what the NBA or the best league in the world looks like." So it made you dream. I was like, "Wow. One day maybe I could play in the NBA. Maybe, you know, if I work hard, I can play with those guys."
I think it inspired a generation of players throughout the world. And that's why basketball is so global now, the NBA is so global now. There are so many international stars. Now the international competitions, including the Olympics obviously, are so much fun to watch. And even though the U.S. usually has a better chance to win it and they are the favorites, it's not an easy path. It's not an easy road for them. And it's made the game so much more exciting.
OC: What is your best memory from the Olympic Games you have competed in?
PG: There's so many great memories. There's some tough ones too. But at the end to win three medals in the four Olympics that we've played has been, I think, one of my highlights of my career.
Obviously, I would have liked for one at least of those medals to be a gold. But we ran into some really strong teams and we were close, we competed, we had a chance. But at the end they pulled away from us, them being the United States. But I love our team spirit. I'm just so proud of our national team. We've been able to kind of put together and share for so many years, so many championships, we call it a family. We are a family and we go as as far as family values, we work together, we respect each other. Everybody has his own role, and we try to fulfill it and have fun, you know, and don't take it for granted. So those are my memories, playing cards with the guys in the Olympic Village, sharing moments with other athletes from other sports, going to different events, going to the Opening Ceremony, competing in two Olympic finals and giving everything we had to try to win the gold. Those moments are forever.
OC: You've played in two Olympic finals and the bronze medal match at Rio 2016 was a really tough match too. What are your memories of that match against Australia?
PG: It was a tough battle. I guess if you have to like one better, even though it's a bronze medal game, I like to win. So the two Olympic finals we lost, even though they were fantastic games and we went against potentially what you would call another Dream Team because those were extremely loaded teams of high, high, high talent, Hall of Famers. But obviously winning the bronze medal in Rio was very, very meaningful because it was a hard fought game. It came down to the wire. Australia played very hard, but we pulled through and we found a way to win and that's what it takes sometimes - that type of effort, that desire of winning, of not giving up of being relentless and believing in yourself and fighting until the last very second.
OC: That's part of your spirit always, no? Fighting until the end...
PG: That's right. Oh, yeah. When there's a little bit of breath in you, you still have a chance to fight. You still have a chance to win.
OC: What do you think about being an inspiration to so many?
PG: Well, I think it's a wonderful gift to be able to inspire people. I don't think it's even been pressure for me. I've taken it as an opportunity. And to a certain degree, a responsibility. I feel like when you're inspired, when someone or something touches you, now it's up to you to inspire others and touch others in a similar way.
"I think that that's kind of part of the journey of life. We gain knowledge, we gain experience, we grow as people. And then we share and we give back." - Pau Gasol on inspiring the next generation
"We share our knowledge, we share experience, we inspire others. And that's how your knowledge in your life kind of carries on into the next generation when your life is over.
I've been very lucky to have a wonderful life so far, a wonderful career, to do something that I really love to do, to do something that has been able to touch others and inspire others and make people happy. But now it's also good to transfer all that into the next generation, into the younger generation. You know, it's beautiful.
OC: And who is your inspiration? You inspire so many people, but who inspires you right now?
PG: I think there's a lot of people that inspire me right now. You know, the care workers, the first responders, the nurses and doctors that are working extremely hard right now through the crisis of the coronavirus are extremely inspiring. People that work around the clock putting themselves at risk for the better of their their peers and society and their countries and their communities. Those people are inspiring. People that are trying to figure out a way, whether it's from the medical field, from the scientific world, from the government, from everyone's position.
If you do everything that you can in order to contribute something bigger than yourself, that's inspiring to me. So all those things are inspiring. And we just got to really do that in order to get out of this crisis the best way we can.