Los Angeles Lakers pivotman Pau Gasol was recently in Iraq, serving as a UNICEF ambassador while attempting to draw attention to the lack of drinking water and other basic necessities that Syrian refugees are working through as a result of fleeing the violence in their strife-torn country, and moving to safe haven in a refugee camp in Iraq. Gasol, who for years has made his work with UNICEF a top offseason priority (even during summers where he has been asked to represent his home country of Spain in international play), clearly has great concern about a camp that is housing well over three times the amount of refugees it was built to hold.
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This is probably a good time to make your yearly, typically Pau-inspired donation to UNICEF, a foundation that for decades has done important humanitarian work for those that tend to be looked over in the face of military conflict or third-world strife. Gasol spoke with Joseph Wilson of the Associated Press on Tuesday in an attempt to discuss his most recent revelation since spending time volunteering for the foundation:
''I've made five trips to the field (with UNICEF) and seen all kinds of different things and people suffering a lot of different situations,'' Gasol said. ''Obviously, it puts things in perspective, and all the other things I might deal with my team or with my profession are much less important or meaningful than the lives of people that are on the line every day.''
And, because this is (mostly) a basketball website, we have to move closer toward the hardwood end of things. Like the part in Gasol’s interview with the AP that saw the Laker big man encouraged about a chance to return to the low post, a position that he had to abandon in 2012-13 (and for significant and worrying chunks of 2011-12) while playing out of position as a power forward on offense.
''Now with Dwight gone I am the reference inside and I am more like I was a couple of years back when we made the finals three straight times and won two straight championships,'' he added.
''I have a great motivation,'' he said. ''It's the last year of my contract, so I want to get back to being one of the top players in the league.''
Wilson reported that Gasol underwent surgery in both knees in May, followed by stem cell treatment, and Pau disclosed that after two months of resting those surgically-altered knees he is ready to begin the active part of his rehabilitation.
And, we hope, Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni is ready to begin the active part of his rehabilitation as a man who can do great things with great players. Because despite losing Dwight Howard to the Houston Rockets, and potentially missing Kobe Bryant for the opening month of the season after his Achilles tear, the Lakers do genuinely have enough to make a run to the playoffs. This team was never going to rebuild, and if D’Antoni submits to the strengths of his top players, this could still be a squad that can surprise.
Gasol has to be a focus. The Lakers finished strong in 2012-13, winning 28 of its final 40 games, but Bryant’s Achilles was probably a victim of this blistering turn, and this run came while working with a player in Howard that was slowly rounding into All-Star shape on both ends after an uneasy start. The Los Angeles Lakers, even during Phil Jackson’s final season in 2010-11, have worked out to be a squad that has played worse ball than the sum of the group’s total parts would suggest. Attempting to go through Gasol as an initial option in the low post, opening up room for cutters and shooters, would ease the burden on Bryant and help engage high-post scorer Chris Kaman as suits up in Howard’s absence.
Or, the Lakers could push the ball a lot and ask Kobe to bail them out when the team’s iffy three-point shooting (don’t start talking up Nick Young, please) and limited athleticism doesn’t result in obvious transition hits. It’s their call. Look to run, for sure, but go quickly and surely into a motivated and healthy Gasol once he lines up on the part of the floor that he should have been incessantly featured in during 2012-13.
(Yes, that’s with Howard on board. Dwight Howard was badly underutilized as a cutter and screener off the ball last season, acting as a de facto power forward on offense.)
It starts with healthy knees and an understanding of how desperate and efficient the Lakers will have to be in 2013-14 in order to squeeze out the 45 or so wins that will be necessary to make the postseason bracket again. Some sort of carrot to dangle as it attempts the Grand Rebuild in 2014.
He’s not the team’s most famous player, and when everyone is healthy he’s not their best player. Pau Gasol is the Los Angeles Lakers’ most important player, though. It doesn’t hurt that he does some pretty important things off the court, as well.
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