It's been a trying season for Los Angeles Lakers power forward Pau Gasol, from concerns over his role to injury woes to the familiar challenge of being a high-profile teammate of Kobe Bryant. It's been enough to make even the most successful athlete wonder about his place in the league, to get mired in the details of his current poor fortune. Gasol has accomplished a lot in his career, and he can be forgiven for wondering how things turned for the worse so fast.
Yet it's another question altogether to wonder if that line of thinking is productive. It's a little heartening, then, to learn that Pau has started reading up on zen philosophy. From Brian Kamenetzky for Land O' Lakers:
“A little bit. I’m reading books about the Zen philosophy and mindset. Zen’s Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” Gasol said.
After Sunday’s loss, I asked Pau what motivated him to start exploring Zen in more depth (keeping in mind he used to have a coach into that sort of thing). “Well, just by reading other books about leadership and self-organization and to have a happy and fulfilled life,” he said. “All of them pretty much mentioned meditation, self-awareness, live in the present, keeping your mind calm, and emptying your mind.”
The last couple years have been tough for him, I noted.
“True,” he replied. And the study, he believes, has been beneficial.
“It’s helped me,” Gasol said. “It’s helped me, reading these books I think has helped me deal with a lot of stuff that I’ve been through.”
As Kamenetzky notes, it's hard not to think of a Lakers player reading up on zen philosophy without considering the influence of Phil Jackson, a persistent presence in all discussions of the franchise and the coach who guided Gasol through his period of greatest personal and team success. There's no need to indulge in tabloid-ready thoughts regarding Gasol's reading habits as a clear sign that he pines for Jackson to return, but it is possibly true that he turned Pau onto this material, even if indirectly. It's a sign that Jackson continues to affect certain players even after he stops coaching them.
At the same time, this approach does a disservice to who Gasol is as a person. Throughout his career, Gasol has stood out as an athlete with many interests away from the court, including medicine, global aid, and the most positive approach to Twitter imaginable. Pau has performed quite well since returning from injury in late March, and it's possible that his turn towards zen has had some effect on clearing his mind. But claiming that its primary use is for basketball is far too limiting. Pau has never been concerned with only basketball, and it's likely that he's interested in these philosophies for their application to his entire life.
Standard sports discourse conditions us to think of these methods as a sign of weakness, because Pau should be focused on winning and little else. But it's likely that, in this case, the effect on his play on the court was part of a larger project of emotional development, not the point of it.