This one has been a long time coming for Marc Gasol.
The Raptors’ defensive conscience left the Memphis Grizzlies just over a year and a half ago to join Toronto and become an integral part of its 2018-19 championship team.
He was supposed to have made his return to Memphis in late March, but the coronavirus changed those plans for everyone.
Instead, he will face his former team for the first time on Sunday inside the NBA bubble in front of virtual fans and, really, just the men playing the game.
The Grizzlies were the only NBA team Gasol had ever known. Memphis, the only city outside of his home country of Spain that he ever considered home.
But the Grizzlies were going young and with his best friend in the game, another Memphis fixture in Mike Conley, already gone to the Utah Jazz, it was Gasol’s turn to make way for the next generation of Grizzlies. Then it was on to Toronto.
Gasol arrived in Memphis along with his mother and father and two brothers when he was 16. Elder brother Pau had been drafted by the Grizzlies and the Gasols moved the entire family to the home of Graceland to make the transition easier for Pau.
In the process, they started a relationship for middle son Marc that would be lasting.
Gasol finished high school in Memphis and led his school to a state championship.
He watched his brother establish himself as an NBA star and then watched as that relationship between the Grizzlies and Gasol soured somewhat.
Pau, it turned out, would play a role in ensuring Marc became a member of the Grizzlies as he was the marquee piece in the trade that brought Marc’s rights, owned by the Lakers, to Memphis.
A handful of years there as a teenager and then a near 11-year stint as a focal part of those Grindhouse-era Grizzlies has made Memphis far more than just a place he played at one point.
It was, and always will be, home.
“I still own my house there,” he said. “My parents and Pau still own the first house they bought out in Germantown. All of our memories are there. You don’t erase all that just because you move and have to work somewhere else.”
Asked about missing out on that opportunity to go back to Memphis this year and see all those people who mean so much to him, Gasol doesn’t sound very broken up about it.
He sounds very much like a man who likes to keep those emotional moments separate from his basketball.
“I don’t think it’s an easy game to play just because there are so many emotions, right?” he pointed out. “I’m somebody that really locks in to play and it’s not easy to say hello to all the ushers and all the people who work around the team and then try to execute the game plan and beat the other team. It’s not as simple as it seems. There are a lot of emotions. I’m very business-like when it comes to playing and I would not like all the (attention) before a game. I like to just go there and play the game, win, and then we can chit chat.”
Even his teammates of just a year and a half know exactly what to expect of Gasol. He will be a pass-first, team-first guy in every sense of the phrase until that moment when his team needs him to be something else.
Fred VanVleet has been Gasol’s teammate since only a year ago February, but he already counts him among those most impactful on his young basketball career.
“He’s just another point guard out there and he doesn’t need the ball and he doesn’t shoot a whole lot and I think it’s just giving me a lot of opportunity to grow,” VanVleet said. “It has given me a lot of easy baskets, layups. He’s one of the best screeners in the league, I get to pick his brain a lot, we communicate a lot, talk about basketball on the court, off the court and he’s done it at a high level for a long time so just being able to learn from him, you know, like I’ve learned from all the other guys that we’ve had over the years and he’s there right there along the way.”
It only takes one conversation with Gasol to understand his approach to the game. In Gasol’s basketball universe, the game is all about team and doing what it takes to win. Sacrifice is not sacrifice if it helps the team win. Gasol doesn’t just speak those words. He lives them.
“The way our team is set up, somebody’s got to get the short end of the stick, whether it’s game to game or month to month and I think Mark is that guy for us and he doesn’t complain about it. He’s not worried about his boxscore and that helps our team a lot,” VanVleet said.
“A big part of our chemistry is being willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team and Mark’s a guy you never have to worry about complaining about, you know, where’s the ball and how many shots he’s getting.”
Right there with Gasol’s selflessness is his defensive acumen and ability to shut an opponent down. Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers can speak first-hand to this, but we’ll let Raptors head coach Nick Nurse explain.
“The first thing that makes him special is his combination of being a great defender in a lot of ways,” Nurse said. “He’s a great individual defender.
“Whenever there’s a big who can score, he’s someone you can rely on to kind of handle his matchup sometime. He’s a great help defender, he’s got that big body underneath the rim that sometimes he’ll protect with. And then his passing, I think, makes him special.”
The Grizzlies, or what is left of the Grizzlies that was there when Gasol was employed by Memphis, will get a reminder on Sunday of just what they gave up when they let him go.
It’s going to be a difficult night, not just for Gasol, but for them too when they see first-hand those same skills now helping someone else.
NURSE UP FOR AWARD
Nurse is a finalist for Coach of the Year honours, along with two-time winner Mike Budenholzer of the Milwaukee Bucks and Oklahoma City Thunder’s Billy Donovan.
The NBA announced the finalists for six major awards on Saturday, including Most Valuable Player hopefuls Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and LeBron James.
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