The Rotarian Conversation with Pau Gasol
B etween the end of the 2012 London Olympics and the start of the NBA season, Los Angeles Lakers superstar Pau Gasol has some free time. Instead of resting up, he heads to Chad, a landlocked Central African nation where the natural hazards include, in the words of the CIA World Factbook , “hot, dry, dusty harmattan winds; periodic droughts; locust plagues.”
While there, Gasol, a UNICEF Spain ambassador, visits schools and feeding centers for children suffering from acute malnutrition. “I’m in Chad to remind people that one million children are at risk in the Sahel because of the nutritional crisis, and that it is possible to end malnutrition,” he tells reporters.
When he’s off the basketball court, the 32-year-old spends much of his time fundraising and volunteering for charity, with an emphasis on health and education. Pau’s Project, which he founded in 2010 to support UNICEF and other humanitarian organizations, rebuilt 80 schools in two years. He has also traveled to Angola, Ethiopia, and South Africa for UNICEF, and he regularly visits young patients at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
Recently, Gasol agreed to join Rotary’s This Close public awareness campaign to eradicate polio.
He credits his parents – Marisa, a physician, and Agusti, a nurse, both of whom played second-division basketball in Spain – with inspiring his sports career and his charity work. Gasol almost became a doctor; at 18, he enrolled as a pre-med student at the University of Barcelona but left after a year to play professional basketball in Spain. He joined the Memphis Grizzlies in 2001, finishing the season as NBA Rookie of the Year.
For the past several seasons, Gasol has played forward-center for the Lakers, alongside Kobe Bryant. He is a four-time NBA All-Star and helped lead the Lakers to two NBA championships. Playing for the Spanish national team, he helped win the 2006 FIBA World Championship and earned silver medals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games.
As the Lakers prepare for the 2012-13 season at their training facility at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, Calif., Gasol takes a break from practice to talk with writer (and longtime Lakers fan) Robert Crane. The 7-foot-tall Gasol ducks his head as he enters the Lakers’ front-office conference room, and smiles when he notices a photograph of him high-fiving Bryant during a championship game.
THE ROTARIAN: Why did you decide to join Rotary’s campaign against polio?
GASOL: My family had a close friend who suffered from polio. It was a challenge for him throughout his life. Polio has been around for so long and has taken so many lives. And it is very close to being eradicated.
TR: Rotary’s polio awareness campaign features Bill Gates, Desmond Tutu, and Jane Goodall, among others. What’s a basketball player from Barcelona doing in this group?
GASOL: It’s high-level company, but I’ll continue to be humble. [ smiles ] I am proud to be a part of this initiative with such a great group of people known around the world.
TR: Why have you directed most of your humanitarian work toward health?
GASOL: I’ve always had a great passion for medicine. I value good health over anything in life. Without that, it’s hard to do so many things. We have to emphasize how important it is to be healthy. We must support health care, including preventive measures and treatment.
TR: As a student, why did you choose pre-med?
GASOL: When Magic Johnson learned that he was HIV-positive and announced it publicly, that was a pretty big shock for an 11-year-old growing up in a little town outside Barcelona. I loved basketball. That was the moment I decided I wanted to do something special in medicine. When I was in pre-med, my two areas of interest were pediatrics and research. I turned pro and didn’t finish. But I have close relationships with Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, St. Jude’s in Memphis, and a few hospitals in Barcelona.
TR: Do you ever revisit your first career choice by watching any medical television shows?
GASOL: I love Grey’s Anatomy because of the medical lingo, which I’ve heard at home, with my mom and dad. And I like to see the different patient cases and surgeries.
TR: Which public figure, outside of the sporting world, has most inspired you?
GASOL: Nelson Mandela, because he’s a man of great strength. He’s a role model because his values and thoughts are incredible and worth following. I’d love to talk with Bill Gates – he’s a remarkable human being – but I don’t think he comes to Lakers games. [Gates lives near Seattle.]
TR: You’ve been a UNICEF Spain ambassador since 2003. Recently you visited Chad, one of several countries in the Sahel, where the food crisis has affected 18.7 million people. That’s not an easy trip. Why did you go?
GASOL: The world’s support and contributions can make a huge difference. Our visit attracted a lot of attention and raised a lot of money to give these people a better chance.
TR: Combating poverty and hunger is a Sisyphean task. How do you keep going?
GASOL: You have to believe in the work and understand how important it is, and just take it one step at a time. There are going to be setbacks you can’t control. In Africa, like in many places, a conflict could start at any time and push you back quickly. You have to focus on the people, especially children, who are in danger. They’re worth fighting for. If you or your children were in trouble, you would want somebody to fight for you. I feel fortunate and privileged to have the life I’ve had, the opportunities I’ve had, and to enjoy great health. So, to be able to help others less fortunate than myself provides me great joy.
TR: How should people decide which causes to support?
GASOL: I always encourage people to get information and see how they feel. You shouldn’t give money just because somebody tells you to. You have to feel it. It has to be personal. It has to be something you believe in.
TR: You’ve participated in a Basketball Without Borders camp, which promotes the sport and encourages social change. Why are sports so important for young people?
GASOL: Sports are a powerful tool for educating children. Children can express themselves through sports, and find and develop their own character. It’s a healthy activity that creates good habits, and it’s therapeutic for kids with struggles in their lives, who have gone through difficult situations. All children need role models, mentors, and positive influences.
TR: What did playing sports teach you when you were growing up?
GASOL: Basketball helped me to be the person I am today. I learned about values, dynamics, coordination, and communication.
TR: What have you learned about your teammate of six years, Kobe Bryant?
GASOL: We’ve been through a lot together and have great respect for each other. He’s the ultimate hard worker, competitor, and winner. He wants to be remembered as not just one of the best, but as the best. He’s got that tremendous will, that inner force and power to do it.
TR: And he keeps leading the U.S. men’s basketball team to gold medals in the Olympics. Do you think you’ll ever win a gold with Spain, or will you have to switch to the U.S. team?
GASOL: I don’t think I’d be able to switch teams. But I don’t want to. There still might be a chance for Spain to win in 2016 in Rio. I’d love to be a part of it, because I’m a fighter. But I’m also a person who takes it one day at a time and tries to be as happy as possible on a daily basis. So, maybe it would be good for me to do something else, besides playing basketball.