Pau Gasol rocked back and forth on his giant feet, smiling, pleasant, distracted.
“You have somewhere else to be?” I said.
“After this interview, yes,” he said.
“Where?” I said.
“The weight room,” he said.
I gasped. I froze. I could not have been more shocked had Pau Gasol told me he was going to a barbershop.
Weights? Him? When?
“Two or three times a week, since the start of training camp,” he said. “I’ve never really done it before, but I’ve got to do it now.”
Oh. So he heard.
He heard last spring’s cries of “Gasoft.” He heard Lakers fans accusing him of disappearing under the weight of Garnett and green. He heard himself being blamed for the NBA Finals loss to the Boston Celtics.
He stopped rocking and stared down at me, his soft eyes quickly turning hard.
“I heard it a lot,” he said, his voice rising. “I heard it too much.”
n n n
A brief chronological synopsis of my Christmas afternoon.
1. Three hours berating Pau Gasol.
2. Three minutes blessing him.
Even today, I’m not quite sure which time was better spent, but I do know that I am not alone in my confusion.
What Lakers fan did not react with disgust as Gasol was bumped and grinded through the first 31/2 quarters against a Celtics team that once again played wicked witch to his scarecrow?
Yet what Lakers fan did not rise from the couch cheering when Gasol finally stiffened, scoring seven consecutive points with two blocked shots in the final 2:47 to bust open a tie game and give the Lakers the victory?
He not only played hard, he celebrated hard, shouting to the skies, flexing his arms in hulk fashion, looking like someone else entirely.
Someone with, you know, muscles.
“It was like a switch went on,” Gasol said.
And now we’re all wondering, will it stay on?
Will this marvelously intelligent finesse player stay tough enough to help the Lakers survive through June?
Will Pau — pronounced “pow” — finally live up to his first name?
“Hey, I’m trying to knock the crap out of them too,” he said.
He didn’t talk like this last season. He said he didn’t know what the Lakers needed last season.
“My style of play, more of a finesse style, I thought it was enough,” he said.
Then, against Boston last June, succumbing to a week’s worth of pile drivers, he realized it wasn’t.
In the Game 6 Celtics clincher, playing with an intimidated style that was typical of the series, Gasol had more turnovers (five) than baskets (four), the Celtics won by 39, and you can guess what happened next.
“They brought an intensity to the series, we couldn’t respond to it, so we got blamed for it,” he said, “No, I got blamed for it.”
He spent the summer trying to figure out how to change. How does a genuinely nice, sophisticated guy from a privileged background suddenly challenge the scowling, cursing, streetwise Kevin Garnett?
“Well, I could never curse like that,” he said.
OK, well, what about the other stuff?
“I’m sure if I had more mean blood in me, more mean motivation, I could act like more of a jerk,” he said. “But I can’t try to be something I’m not.
“It just won’t work.”
The Lakers understand this.
“He’s not going to elbow anybody in the face, get in somebody’s face and yell at them, or outmuscle somebody,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “That’s not who he’s going to be.”
So instead of trying to re-create him into a tough guy, the Lakers and Gasol worked on him being a tougher version of himself.
“Resiliency,” Jackson said. “That’s the thing we kept telling him. You don’t have to outmuscle guys … (but) you still have to have a resiliency.”
Derek Fisher put it another way.
“Toughness is not defined by how you look,” the point guard said. “It’s defined by how you focus, and Pau has found that focus.”
Jackson knows Gasol will never intimidate anyone for an entire game. He’ll settle for moments, the end-of-game moments when everybody is throwing down and nobody is calling fouls and the toughness shows not in punches, but in points.
The weight training is designed for those moments.
“We’re trying to build strength,” Jackson said. “So those rebounds and those loose balls, those little drives to the hoop that end up being a little more physical at the end of games, (those) will be plays that he can make.”
After making those plays Thursday, Gasol spent Friday being paid for them. As he strolled the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, fans showered him with their thanks.
“Fans coming up to me, thanking me for their Christmas gift, telling me that I made their Christmas special, that means so much to me,” said Gasol, who is as sentimental as he is smart.
You can tell he would rather be hanging out at the beach than with the barbells. But you can also tell that, at this point in his career, he no longer feels he has a choice.
“This is not about me, it’s about winning a championship, and whatever it takes, I will do it,” he said.
As Saturday’s interview ended, a Lakers official appeared from behind the weight room door, beckoning Gasol.
“I’m coming!” he said.
I believe he is.