BEIJING – Pau Gasol sat courtside with his feet dunked in a bucket of ice as the irony of ironies unfolded around him.
The Los Angeles Lakers center had just finished training Wednesday at the Beijing Language and Culture University, where students from around the world gather to learn Mandarin and promote international understanding.
Four days into the most global of events, and surrounded by buildings which foster social harmony across all colors and creeds, Gasol had to apologize for the actions of a Spanish men's basketball team that made Asian "slant eyes" at the camera for a sponsor's advertisement and thinks it's OK.
Around him, his teammates and coaches reacted to the criticism homing in on them from around the world with a mixture of embarrassment, confusion and some mild defiance. The ad in question was for a Spanish courier company, Seur, but the Spanish team also counts the athletic shoe and apparel company owned by Li Ning – the former Chinese Olympian who lit the torch at this summer’s Games – among its sponsors.
Jose Calderon of the Toronto Raptors has spent the last three years in North America, but he didn't get it. He could still not understand how an action with such deep racial undertones had generated so much attention. In his mind a non-story became a story only when it was blown out of proportion by journalists with a mind for mischief.
"We did it because we thought it was going to be something nice, something with no problem," Calderon told Yahoo! Sports. "But somebody wants to talk about it. It is too much of a big deal with you guys (the media) and everybody talking about that."
Head coach Aíto García Reneses didn't get it, either. Reneses comes from an older generation of Spanish society, one which has little time for the politically correct niceties of the modern world.
"If I go to play with a taller team and I put here (raising up on the tips of his toes) it is not an offense," Reneses said. "I can't understand anything more."
But Gasol got it. He didn't get it when the Spanish courier company persuaded the players to pose with their index fingers stretching their eyes to a thin slit at a team media day, but he sure as heck gets it now.
"Some of us didn't feel comfortable doing it just because to me it was a little clownish for our part to be doing that," Gasol said. "But the sponsors insisted and insisted. I think it is just a bad idea I guess to do that, but it was never intended to be offensive or racist against anybody.
"I didn't find it very funny. I didn't find it offensive, either. I guess some guys didn't mind. To me I don't want to be that way, I guess, to be doing that stuff.
"If anybody feels offended by it we totally apologize for it. We never meant anything offensive by it."
The advertisement has regularly run as a full page in Spanish sports daily Marca soon after the picture was taken on July 1. However, it only came to prominence after it reached the attention of the Guardian newspaper in London this week.
Spanish sports is no stranger to racial controversy.
Luis Aragones, the head coach of Spain's men's soccer team, was overheard telling his player Jose Antonio Reyes to "tell that black (expletive) you are better than him" at a training session in 2004. Aragones was referring to Thierry Henry, a black player from France who was then a teammate of Reyes at English Premier League club Arsenal.
Aragones also struggled to understand what all the fuss was about, even as anti-racism groups seethed and soccer's power brokers held their heads.
At a Formula One motor racing testing session this year, a group of Spanish fans believed to be supporting home driver Fernando Alonso were pictured with their faces covered with black paint. They wore T-shirts with the slogan "Hamilton's Family," a reference to Alonso's world title rival Lewis Hamilton, a black Englishman.
Moreover, at an exhibition match in Madrid in 2004, several black members of the England men's soccer team were subjected to monkey chants and whistles whenever they touched the ball.
Back in Spain, there has been no criticism of the advertisement, just support for a group of players who shoulders the hopes of a nation. Members of the Spanish media who spoke to Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday could not grasp why the issue had garnered so much publicity.
And while Gasol, in many ways the public face of Spain's basketball team, sensed the photo was not a great idea, he refused to back down from his assertion that no harm was intended.
"If you put it in the wrong context and put it with the wrong people or a different kind of people, you could take it that way," he said. "But not with our group and not with our people. I would find that a wrong read."