Why Marc Gasol remains the heart of the Grizzlies

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Before every season, Memphis Grizzlies officials offer Marc Gasol the chance to move his family four seats closer to the court. Never, he tells them. For as long as this franchise has played in the FedEx Forum, those seats have belonged to the Gasol brothers. Marc Gasol has always told his wife, his mother and father: Never come late to the game, never let him walk to the center jump without his eyes meeting theirs, without the serenity that comes from familiar faces in the familiarity of the Forum.

Marc Gasol helped turn Memphis into a contender. (AP)
Marc Gasol helped turn Memphis into a contender. (AP)

History matters to him, nostalgia forever filling his heart and mind. Perhaps this was the reason he was standing inside the arena’s family lounge a season ago, jabbing his finger toward the framed Grizzlies wide-lensed, game-night photo on the wall.

“Right there, do you see?” Gasol asked. “Those are my four seats, and they’ll always be our seats here.” Before every season, the Grizzlies offer Gasol the chance to reshoot the photos in the four family identification badges. “I will never change the pictures,” Gasol said. This way, his parents and younger brother stay forever young.

Gasol is one of the greatest success stories in the NBA, and perhaps few, if any, made as dramatic of a transformation to become a first-team All-NBA player. As a teenager in Memphis, Marc had been a 330-pound high school player, out of shape, out of sorts, lost in the shadow of his old brother, Pau. On his way to the best season of his career a year ago – on maybe the best Grizzlies team in history – extracting Marc Gasol from Memphis in July free agency became the biggest waste of recruiting time in the NBA.

In the end, Gasol signed a five-year, $110 million contract extension in July. Memphis wanted to turn that tough Western Conference semifinals series loss to Golden State into a leap of something bigger, and better. And now, this: Gasol fractures his right foot.

For now, Grizzlies officials stop short of completely ruling Gasol out for the season, but the possibility is admittedly bleak for a playoff push in April that’ll include him on the court. Doctors are evaluating the need for surgery, which would include the insertion of a pin that moves the rehabilitation and recovery process well into the summer.

The Grizzlies’ loss of Gasol is devastating, but the organization doesn’t believe it has to cost them a postseason berth. Memphis is 30-22, holding onto fifth in the Western Conference and reaching the playoffs holds a deeper importance this year.

Missing the playoffs costs the Grizzlies the lottery protection on a 2016 first-round pick that deposed executive Jason Levien sent out in a salary dump three years ago. With or without Gasol, Memphis’ mandate will be unchanged: make the playoffs. They are working to keep Conley in summer free agency, with Memphis planning to be one more contender with two stars that will try to persuade Kevin Durant to make it a Big Three, league sources said. Durant’s the longest of long shots in summer, but the short-term trade deadline directives are unchanged: The Grizzlies are determined to use the trade deadline to better the roster for a playoff push.

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For the Grizzlies, everything centers upon Gasol. This hadn’t been the season everyone envisioned for him, but make no mistake: The Grizzlies’ identity in Memphis is wrapped with Marc Gasol. He’s been a two-time All-Star, the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, and a first-team All-NBA player. Gasol is the best reason and best chance the Grizzlies have to re-sign Conley this summer and the reason for five consecutive trips to the playoffs.

“If Marc isn’t Marc, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now – I’d be gone,” Memphis general manager Chris Wallace told me over a plate of fried chicken and baked beans inside Gus’s in downtown Memphis last season. “Listen, we were left for dead on the side of the NBA road, and he played an enormous role in turning this around.”

When Wallace was hired as the Grizzlies’ general manager in 2007, he had one immediate job: Persuade Pau Gasol that he had a future with the Grizzlies. Wallace signed Pau’s best friend and Spanish national teammate, Juan Carlos Navarro, but by Christmas it was clear that Gasol wanted out. The Grizzlies were lousy, fans had stopped caring and the basketball culture of the city had become enraptured with John Calipari, Derrick Rose and the University of Memphis Tigers.

“They were covered in stardust, and we were just terrible,” Wallace told The Vertical. “There would be back-to-back games and the contrast was so stark and depressing. There would be nobody at our games. Horrendous atmosphere. We were like a junior high prelim game.

“I went to [former owner Michael] Heisley and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something. No one cares.’ We can’t bring the best out in [Pau]. He doesn’t want to be here anymore. Even if we do the wrong thing, we’ve got to do something.”

Wallace didn’t want to take back extended contracts, but wanted expiring deals, prospects and draft picks. He wanted to cleanse the Grizzlies’ salary cap, start over again and the Los Angeles Lakers’ offer most appealed to him. Trading All-Star Pau Gasol to the Lakers for the Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, the rights to Marc Gasol and two first-round picks was met with derision. Memphis basketball fans were unfamiliar with Marc Gasol, the burgeoning, svelte Most Valuable Player of the prestigious Spanish ACB League. From years earlier, they remembered the fat kid out of Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis.

Gasol is the key to Memphis keeping and attracting free agents. (AP)
Gasol is the key to Memphis keeping and attracting free agents. (AP)

Around the NBA, Wallace was vilified. Few trades had ever been meet with such a response. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich ridiculed the deal – to him, it felt like the Lakers had been gift-wrapped an NBA title – and his public criticisms lent credibility to everyone else jumping Wallace, too.

“Piling on like you’ve never seen,” Wallace said.

Wallace had to move fast, and understood that he needed to get Gasol out of his Spanish deal and into the NBA for the 2008-09 season. In late 2007, Wallace traveled to Spain to meet with the Gasol family and Marc’s European agent. First, Wallace had to lay out the reasons he had traded Pau away. The Gasol family liked living in Memphis and weren’t thrilled with the timing of the deal. And then, Wallace had to convince the family why it made perfect sense for Marc to come replace his All-Star brother with the Grizzlies.

And so, almost immediately, Wallace had two separate sets of negotiations under way. Marc had been the 48th pick in the 2007 NBA draft, but Wallace had to persuade Heisley to pay Marc like the fifth overall pick to get him to join the Grizzlies for the 2008-09 season. The Gasols were unaware that Wallace didn’t have the authorization to make the offers he was making them, but what choice did the GM have? In his mind, he’d find a way.

Eventually, Pau made a call to Heisley that changed everything for Wallace: “Marc has a chance to be better than me,” Pau told Heisley, and that’s all he needed to hear.

“I’ve got to convince the owner to pay the 48th pick, and everyone in this city is telling him, ‘The kid can’t play.’ I must have heard 500 times: He couldn’t play at [Lausanne Collegiate School]. Mr. Heisley is hearing that morning, noon and night. So the thing with Pau crystalized it in a way that [Heisley] could relate to, and that opened it up to get a deal done.

“Until then, I was having nightmares that I would not get out of Spain alive.”

Marc Gasol found his way to Memphis, and his older brother was probably right: Marc became the better player. Thirteen months ago, the possibilities of chasing a championship with these Grizzlies were still so real and you could see it in Gasol’s eyes, hear it in his words. Here he was, sitting inside a family room at the FedEx Forum, talking about a unique group of players in Memphis, a unique bond. He was talking about the job of a franchise player, the responsibility and how it mattered to him there.

“In the frenzy, roller coaster of the season, you can play up and play down,” Gasol told me. “But if you’re strong enough, you can change those habits and tendencies and make them into championship-type habits and tendencies. That doesn’t guarantee you that you’re going to win, but it gives you the best chance. That’s all I can ask for. That’s all I want.

“Nothing guarantees a championship. Nothing. Not having the best players, not practicing the most. Your best chance is if you do the right thing every day. That’s all I can ask for, from top to bottom.

“If everybody’s on the same page, we can all go, sit down, have a bottle of red wine and look each other in the eye, shake hands and care about each other because we know that we fought, and we believed in the same thing.”

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