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Gasol leads by example for club and country

by Ed Odeven

Fact: Kobe Bryant is one of the five most famous athletes on the planet.

His Los Angeles Lakers teammate Pau Gasol, a supremely talented and intelligent big man is instantly recognized almost everywhere he goes, too. This will only increase in time.

Gasol, Spain’s flag bearer, for the Opening Ceremony, is more than the hard-working older brother of standout center Marc. The elder Gasol combines humility and confidence as he leads.

Winning championships with Bryant and playing under Phil Jackson in past years gave Gasol as demanding a foray into what it takes to win at the elite level as one can get.

But don’t forget Spain has excelled in recent years (see: 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan), and Gasol’s steady play in the pivot — doing things that show up in the boxscore and doing the things that coaches point out to their charges (the proper pass that leads to the assist, boxing out, proper positioning to set a screen) — has not gone unnoticed to true hoop enthusiasts.

Embracing the moment was the message Gasol gave during Thursday’s crowded news conference.

Looking ahead to the Spain-China match on Sunday, Gasol said, “It’s the first game of the championship. We want to play well. We are going to have to play hard to start the tournament the way we want to.”

The absence of retired NBA star Yao Ming changes the makeup of the China lineup, but Gasol said Spain cannot overlook its opponent’s ability to pull off an upset.

To return to the grind of basketball after the Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs, Gasol admitted “I’ve been preparing myself and working to get better . . . (to perform) at a high level and then for Los Angeles.”

“The goal is to get back on top as a team,” said Gasol, who has been the subject of countless trade rumors in the past few years.

He plays a finesse game in the low post, but has exhibited toughness in critical stages of monumental games. True hoop experts know his worth to the Lakers and brilliant basketball IQ

“Obviously, our goal is always to fight for the medals,” he blurted out, adding that Russia and Brazil are quality teams in Spain’s group, and the United States, Argentina and France are medal contenders.

Yes, indeed, Gasol towers over most people he meets that don’t have the words “NBA center” on their job resume. But after 11 years as a member of the Spain national team it’s easy for him to explain what his role is, despite a growing legend and excellent pro career that is far from finished.

To his fellow Spanish teammates, “they rely on me very much,” Gasol said. “It’s not just about scoring.”

“My role is definitely different here,” he added. “I’m the guy that everybody counts on and everything kind of revolves around my play and I take a lot of pride in leading this team in different ways.

He’s the big brother, the wise, seasoned veteran, the All-Star, the NBA title-winning role model, and those attributes carry a lot of weight as Spain has continued to develop new standouts to fill spots on the national team.

Gasol said all the right things at the news conference, and in a sports-crazed nation, he is among the elite superstars, including tennis maestro Rafael Nadal.

Now Gasol’s role at the Opening Ceremony puts him in the history books as a true symbol of Spain in the year 2012.

“It’s an amazing honor . . . to carry the flag for our country,” Gasol said.

“It will be emotional and I will enjoy it,” he concluded.

Guys that stand 213 cm will always stand out in the crowd, but it is humility and commitment to the team — Lakers and Spain — that make Gasol the ultimate teammate.