“No matter what, don’t bring the ball below your head!”
I’ll never forget that echoing throughout the gyms of my childhood. I loved playing basketball - it was something my dad had done, and my grandpa had done, and my uncles and on and on. There was something about the smell of a gym, the sound of the bouncing balls on the hardwood, growing up around my coach of a grandfather as he blew his whistle on a Saturday morning...it was comforting. And basketball was my first love. I was never the best player on my team, but I was always one of the biggest, and was able to use my size to my advantage. A middle school Shaquille O’Neal...
“Joe, get the ball back above your head!”
That was always the key, keeping it up high. You see, while I was 6’2” at 13, I was never much of a jumper. So my grandpa and dad would always emphasize keeping the ball as high as I could, so that the smaller, scrappier players wouldn’t take it from me after I got one of my many rebounds. (Shaq, remember?) Same thing on the offensive end - not much of a jump shot, so I learned a Karl Malone Mailman-esque shot, starting with the ball above my head at the release and getting arc in the flick of the wrist and a bit of knee bend. My dad also tried to teach me a hook shot, another way of using my size, acknowledging I wasn’t going to be taller forever.
They drove me hard, especially my dad. But it made me better, and taught me life lessons. Discipline. The value of commitment, practice, and hard work. The importance of angles, whether it be a shot or as a defender getting a hand in the face of a shooter. I look back fondly on the time we had together playing a game we all loved. When I go to the gym and shoot around now, I still practice the shots they taught me, my dad and grandpa. The hook, the drop step, the flick of the wrist on the “jumper”. And always keeping the ball above my head.
If I close my eyes, I still hear them coaching me.
They’re some of my most favorite memories.
Marc Gasol didn’t sign up for this.
NBA center? Sure.
All-Star caliber production? The contract says that’s a reasonable expectation.
Teacher? Not in the job description.
Yet here he is, talking to Dillon Brooks about making an extra pass on an offensive possession against the Nets. And there he is again, this time chatting with Deyonta Davis about a missed rotation against the Lakers at home. Time and again, you see him chatting with the young Grizzlies, coaching on the floor as a season of the end of his prime goes to “waste”.
For a player whose leadership has been called into question (especially by this writer), this may be Gasol’s Sistine Chapel in that department.
In a season of chaos, Gasol has been the steadying force on a roster that has been anything but steady. Marc has been tasked with being the on-the-floor teacher of a young roster similar to himself in that most of them were unheralded draft picks and prospects coming to the NBA. Big Spain, by the numbers (and probably your eyes), is having the worst season of his career - his -5 net rating, 103 offensive rating, and -0.75 win shares per 48 minutes are all career lows. But he has been asked to do more with less in this season in Memphis than in any other that he’s been a part of. His stats, and the team’s record, show that.
Yet he continues to play hard. And coach hard. And get frustrated at times. That’s coaching, though, and it must be tough for Gasol. Something that Marc gets at this stage better than most in the NBA - playing the “right way” - is not so easy for his young teammates. Head Coach J.B. Bickerstaff has said that he emphasizes classroom time and teaching with the players more than has been the norm in the past, and Gasol is an extension of that on the floor.
J.B. on the young guys: "We spend a ton more time with the young guys. We have classroom sessions where we bring the young guys in and watch a ton of film with them then take them on the court... They've had to do extra work."— Grizzly Bear Blues (@sbnGrizzlies) March 24, 2018
What Bickerstaff implements in a film session, Marc tries to help put into action on the floor. Putting mental understanding into physical action isn’t that simple, however, and not every great player can be a great coach. For some, it’s just easier for them to do it physically than most others, and they can’t explain the how. That’s what Marc is tasked with - to take what has become second nature to him on the hardwood and pass it on to these younger players.
It’s even bigger than that, though. Marc is the last member standing (for this season at least) of a “Core Four” who brought unprecedented success to this franchise. They didn’t do it because of their elite talent, though. They were all, in one way or another, castoffs. Misfits. It came together through indomitable will and real grit. Not the catchy phrase on a towel. The real character trait that those who reach the levels of that Grizzlies era possess.
That, to an extent, needs to be taught as well. Marc is the institution still standing to send along that wisdom.
How to be a pro. How to take care of your body, put in the time outside of practice and film sessions. How to balance all the demands of professional sports and find a way to maximize your talent. Deyonta Davis has far more athletic ability than Marc, but is nowhere near the basketball player. Maybe he never will be. But Gasol is taking it upon himself to try to model the right behaviors for Deyonta and others, so that they see what must be done on and off the floor to be successful in the future.
"10 day or 10 year vet... competing and playing as hard as you can every time you wear the jersey is non-negotiable. Anybody that doesn't do that as long as I'm here, you're going to have a tough time" -- Marc Gasol on 4Q of effort— Grizzly Bear Blues (@sbnGrizzlies) March 25, 2018
Marc forged those skills in the proverbial fire with his Grit and Grind brothers. The lessons he learned, the traits he developed, the meaning of being a “pro”...he now tries to impart that wisdom on the next generation of Grizzlies. Some of these players will not be on the roster next season, but some of them will. If Gasol is still here next season, a strong likelihood at this stage, he will need those who return to be ready to compete. That can be learned now, even in a lost season.
The education the game passes down, regardless of level, can be taught both in wins and losses. In some ways, the real lesson comes in defeat.
I daydream sometimes about what’s to come, as we all do. As a father myself now, I think of the future for my daughter, what kind of lessons I can pass on to her that I have learned along the way. It is humbling - we as parents have such a responsibility to prepare the next generation to hopefully be better than us. To be better workers, better thinkers...better people.
So much of that for me comes from sports.
In my dream, I open up the doors to a familiar sight and smell, and I turn on the lights. I breathe in the air of the empty gym, and all of a sudden I am taken back to a place and time where life was simpler. Where I was the student, watching and absorbing what men I looked to as heroes were trying to pass on to me. The bouncing ball echoing in my memory, the whistle sounding and the sweat, the satisfaction of knowing I was doing something I loved and just how lucky I was to share it with people I loved.
I pass the ball to my daughter, and begin the day’s session.
“No matter what, don’t bring the ball below your head”.