Photograph by Dustin Snipes
Goya would have painted him: Square jaw on a long neck, soulful eyes, the pilgrim’s beard. Even for professional basketball, Laker center Pau Gasol i Sáez is a giant, yet all seven feet of Barcelona’s pride and joy pirouettes with ease, and the arcing hooks and crafty jump shots come from left and right, confounding his defenders. He’s gone from prodigy to diplomat in his nine years with the NBA and has made friends with every Spaniard of note in Los Angeles, among them Plácido Domingo and Antonio Banderas. The Redondo Beach resident is especially close to José Andrés, the celebrity chef at West Hollywood’s the Bazaar and the only person he says has served him real paella since he arrived in L.A. two years ago in a surreal swap that sent brother Marc to Pau’s old team, the Memphis Grizzlies. In English and Spanish, Gasol talks about dreams of a championship repeat, on-court compadre Kobe, and the new girlfriend in his life.
What was it like to win the championship after eight seasons in the NBA?
The happiness and extreme satisfaction that we experienced last season is hard to describe. You go through a year so hard, so demanding, so exhausting both physically and mentally, and you finally get to win the whole thing. You feel a huge relief and a huge amount of happiness going through your body. It stays for a couple of weeks, actually. It’s beautiful.
As you go for consecutive NBA titles, what have you found to be the biggest challenge?
To stay focused as a team. The hunger that we had the year prior, from losing in the finals against Boston and then having that sense of urgency to get back there and win it, is gone. The teams that didn’t win it are hungry like we were.
In December you signed a three-year contract extension for what could amount to $65 million. Any extra pressure?
Not really. I’m just more thankful. The extension gives me much more confidence that the Lakers and the Buss family have deposited trust in me. I want to make sure I do my best to perform and deliver as much as possible, so I can return the investment on my end.
Growing up in Spain, how did you learn to play?
I was very skinny growing up, very weak for my age. My body was late in developing. I didn’t stop growing until I was 21. So I learned to play outside the paint. I played small forward, even point guard. Having that different perspective has helped me, as a big man, develop other skills to compete against bigger guys, stronger guys.
What have you done to change your game?
There’s definitely an adjustment you have to make when you come here because of the talent the players have. They’re the best of the best. You have to play harder, you have to play tougher, you have to play more physical than you are used to. When I got to the league, I weighed 227 pounds. Now I’m almost 260.
How did you bulk up?
I just worked hard. My metabolism also changed, and I worked on my diet, too. You add everything up—that is how I was able to gain weight and develop muscle.
How would you describe Kobe Bryant?
It’s very subjective, but you can say that he’s the best player in the world. He’s got tremendous will and determination. He carries you with his energy. He’s continuously working on his game. He wants to be better. He’s not content with what he’s got already, which is quite a bit.
Do you feel that you know him off the court?
I think I’ve gotten to know him more and more. It’s not like we get to spend a lot of time off the basketball court. He has his family and commitments, and so do I. It’s hard to develop more of a personal relationship, especially in a city like Los Angeles, where distances are pretty big.
You and Kobe are multilingual. Is it your secret weapon?
On certain plays we communicate in Spanish so the opponents won’t know the call.
Several times this season you said that the ball needs to come inside more. Was that a criticism of Kobe and the shoot-first mentality he falls into?
No. The way I see the game, and the way I see our team and the strengths that we have—we have a size advantage against 90 percent of the teams. So we have to utilize that. I’m a big believer of balance in life. In basketball it’s no different. We have to play with a balance between inside and outside. Working the ball inside out, everything becomes easier for everybody else. It’s a fundamental of the game that teams tend to forget.
Now that you’ve settled into L.A., what’s your favorite part about the city?
The best thing about Los Angeles is that it has a wonderful culinary scene. You have a lot of options. I really like Nobu—it’s marvelous. There’s a place in Marina del Rey that I like a lot, Café del Rey. The first six months I was here, I would eat dinner there almost every day. There’s a Manhattan Beach restaurant that I love. It’s Greek, called Petros.
How did you meet José Andrés?
It was at a book presentation for Ferran Adrià [of the famed Spanish restaurant El Bulli] about a year and a half ago. Now we hang out. We’ve gone to a concert together. He’s come over to my house to cook, too. He cooked me a very rich paella.
You haven’t found a good paella here?
Well, no. I haven’t found where to get paellas like what I get in Spain. It’s a question of the water, the rice. I am not a cook, but it’s about the ingredients.
When you go to the Bazaar, what do you order?
They’ll cook me things that are not on the menu. There’s a Spanish tortilla that they make that is spectacular. They have an ample variety of tapas—you know, a little bit of ham with bread and tomato.
But how much foam can a person eat?
There’s a lot of foam, yes. It’s really light. It’s not for everybody, foam. It looks like one thing, but it tastes completely different.
Your friendship with L.A. Opera general director Plácido Domingo seems out of the norm, unless you’ve been an opera fan all along.
He sent a welcome card when I was traded to L.A. and asked if one day I would want to attend the opera. The opera had always interested me, but I had never had the opportunity to go. The first opera I went to was Tosca, which I liked a lot. It encouraged me to see six or seven or eight more in two years.
Domingo is known to be athletic. Do you think he might come to you for basketball tips?
That would be interesting. Like if he were to teach me to sing.
Do you sing?
I’ve liked to since I was little. And piano. With my basketball and studies, I couldn’t continue. But yes, I like to sing.
You seem to be at the center of a Spanish cultural club. Coach Phil Jackson, who hands out books every year, gave you Roberto Bolaño’s 2666.
The author spent a big part of his life in Spain, and a few characters in the book are from Spain. Coach told me that once I was done with it, he wanted to read it. I’m halfway into it, so he’s going to have to wait.
OK—Barcelona versus L.A.?
Barcelona is a more compact city. Los Angeles is sprawling. But both places are on the coast with a lot of cultural variety. Barcelona, of course, has more history.
Your new girlfriend, professional cheerleader Silvia López Castro, is also Spanish, right?
Well, my personal life is a subject that I almost never like to talk about. But it’s true that I’m in something beautiful with a very special person. In my professional sports life it’s very difficult to coordinate and maintain a stable relationship. And well, I hope to with this one. It doesn’t matter how high you get—unless you can share it with someone special, it doesn’t have much significance. And to find that person is very difficult, and difficult under the circumstances to maintain, but when you meet that person, it’s worth it.
You’re obviously a calm person, but at times on the court it appears as if you’re close to the boiling point. It is an emotional game. We challenge people, and we are being challenged every single game. The emotions get going, and that is just the reaction going through your body.
Researcher Ashley Alvarado contributed to this story.