Q.& A. With a New N.B.A. Champion: Marc Gasol

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And, naturally, I was beaming to have been let in on the secret of the Spaniards’ presence to watch them flinging FIBA’s brown-and-white Molten ball around from such close range. Gasol spotted my glee instantly and clearly found it amusing.

Gasol, mind you, sports a bit of a glow himself these days. It’s far more understandable than mine, frankly, after he helped the Toronto Raptors win the first N.B.A. championship in franchise history in June.

The Raptors may have enjoyed the shortest honeymoon in league history, thanks to Kawhi Leonard’s free-agent defection to the Los Angeles Clippers just 24 days after Toronto won it all, but go ahead and try to bring Gasol down from his championship high.

Not happening.

That should be evident from my conversation with Gasol as he prepares to lead the Spaniards — ranked No. 2 in the world by FIBA — into World Cup play in China starting Saturday.

STEIN: You’ve been an N.B.A. champion for about two months. Is that long enough to feel the difference compared with life before you won it all?

GASOL: You get a little more attention, for sure. You get recognized a lot. I’ve been surprised how many people are genuinely happy about it. Back home, in the States, everywhere — people are telling me, “We’re so happy for you.”

People seem to like you.

I don’t know why, because I’m not out there on social media exposing my life. So I was surprised how many people would actually follow it. I’m pretty secluded. But the championship allowed me to open up a little more.

How is your brother Pau taking it that there are two N.B.A. champions in the family now?

He keeps saying that he has two rings. I just say, “Maybe you have two, but I celebrated mine like it’s five, so I beat you on that one.”

I didn’t know that I cared that much — that it fulfilled me in a way that I didn’t know it could. Instantly you gain so much respect for everyone who has done this. Golden State, going to five straight finals and the rings that they have, I just instantly got so much respect for them. And LeBron going to eight finals in a row. Just doing it once put me beyond the limits I thought I had — physically and mentally. It was great to see, for myself, pushing those limits and leaving everything out there. It was awesome.

But now here you are, two months later, and you have to carry a big load for your country in the World Cup.

If you start analyzing and being very objective and cerebral about it, maybe you should rest. You just played 100-something games. But that’s not the way it works. We’re humans, and we’re moved by emotions. It’s a great feeling to play with these guys, and you only get a few opportunities to do so. To me it’s an honor to lead these guys in every way possible. I cherish every second.

I guess the last thing really missing from the résumé is beating the United States in a major competition. Is that your No. 1 goal now?

You always have something. You always have a challenge. Athletes are moved — human beings are moved — by challenges. When you accomplish something, or you don’t accomplish something, automatically your brain goes to the next challenge. That’s your next focus. And even though we’ve won a lot of medals and golds and so on, beating the U.S. would be really nice, too.

In back-to-back Olympics, Spain was so close.

I know. And those were amazing teams. It was great basketball. The amount of talent that they had, and we had them on the ropes a couple times — they were looking at each other and you could feel it. They had to play. It wasn’t like, “Throw it off the backyard and hee-hee, ha-ha.” They had to get down in a stance. They had to fight.

You knew I was going to ask you about Kawhi. What kind of communication have you had with him since he decided to leave?

I haven’t talked to him. Just a little through group text — that was it. You can’t blame the guy for wanting to go home. You can’t. If you tell me I can go back to Barcelona and make an absurd amount of money and play in the N.B.A. — I understand completely the decision and respect it and wish him the best.

The interview has been condensed and edited.


Point of clarification: There was a report in Australia this week that Gregg Popovich had formally named Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell and Marcus Smart as Team U.S.A. captains. But I am told it is NOT an official thing — Pop merely meant he is leaning on those guys for leadership. Team U.S.A. typically does not take the formal step of naming captains though they are required to designate one before games as a matter of @FIBA protocol …


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But now?

Let’s just say that the national team still has a considerable amount of meshing of its own to do — with a lot less star power than the top West contenders have.

I still haven’t figured out who I’m picking to come out of the West. There are so many variables, whether we’re talking health after the significant injuries last season for the likes of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Paul George, or the fact that even the historically conservative Utah Jazz made big changes.

Although Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic look like slam-dunk fits on paper in Salt Lake City, I expect the Denver Nuggets to be a popular pick to win the West’s regular-season crown, given that they have changed so little.

But I’m hesitant to proclaim anything about the West with certitude except for this: Cracking the top eight will be daunting as usual. This year’s United States national team, as such, would be battling for a spot at the bottom of that ladder in spite of its depth and Gregg Popovich’s coaching. Shooting, playmaking and frontcourt effectiveness have all been spotty in the Americans’ exhibition games. Throw in the fact that so little progress was made on their recent Australian tour and it becomes clear why the Americans are widely regarded as more vulnerable than they’ve been in any competition since the 2004 Olympics.

Harsh but fair.

Loving Llull in my beloved Real Madrid, and Bodiroga was one of my favorite players. But they are quite different. The only thing in common: winning attitude, never backing down — @JaimeP_13 from Twitter

STEIN: This tweet came in response to my own tweeted observation during the recent United States-Spain exhibition game in Anaheim, Calif., that Spain’s Sergio Llull is a “modern day Bodiroga” — referring to the former Yugoslavia and Real Madrid star Dejan Bodiroga.

For the record: I linked the two players purely on the basis of their shared status as European stars of their respective generations who, unlike the bulk of their top-rated compatriots, resisted the lure of the N.B.A. and happily played out their careers in Europe.

I wasn’t trying to suggest that the 6-foot-3 Llull and the 6-foot-9 Bodiroga are comparable in terms of talent and position. Bodiroga was drafted by Sacramento in 1995 and decided to pass on the N.B.A. Llull has maintained the same stance since Denver drafted him in 2009 and sold his draft rights to Houston despite the Rockets’ repeated attempts to persuade him otherwise.

That’s all I was saying.

I think the United States is still a massive favorite in the FIBA World Cup, but here is a question I have always wondered about: Why are the Olympics more important than the world championships in this country? There are fewer teams in the Olympics and the title at stake in China is “best team in the world.” — Igor Milanovic (Baltimore)

STEIN: The FIBA World Cup is simply a tournament that has a virtually nonexistent legacy in North America. It’s not a competition that has ever been heavily publicized — except for the 2002 edition in Indianapolis in which the host Americans finished a humiliating sixth.

The original Dream Team made its debut in the 1992 Olympics. After winning its first FIBA title with N.B.A. players in Toronto in 1994, U.S.A. Basketball couldn’t even use N.B.A. players in the 1998 Worlds in Greece because of a lockout that summer.

It certainly didn’t help that the United States, in its first tournament under Mike Krzyzewski, followed up the Indy debacle with a third-place finish in Japan and the only loss for Krzyzewski in his decade in charge.

All of those factors have conspired to render the FIBA event as the sort of tournament that makes headlines on our shores only when the United States loses. As you rightly note, there are 32 teams in the World Cup compared with 12 in the Olympic basketball tournament — but an Olympic gold medal resonates with Americans like a World Cup crown never can.

Basketball’s World Cup, after all, is not on a par with soccer’s. That’s just, as the kids would say, #facts.

Two crowds in excess of 50,000 people in Melbourne for the United States’ recent two-game exhibition split with Australia got me curious: What’s the biggest recorded audience in N.B.A. history? In terms of regular-season and playoff games, nothing tops Chicago at Atlanta in March 1998 at the Georgia Dome. The game, which featured Michael Jordan, attracted a crowd of 62,046. The Hawks were temporarily playing in the Falcons’ stadium, as the Omni had been demolished and the team was awaiting the completion of Philips Arena.

If we expand the discussion to All-Star Games, that record rises to the announced crowd of 108,713 at the N.B.A. All-Star Game in 2010 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Tex.

Five North American sports franchises have been sold for at least $2 billion — three of them from the N.B.A. Joseph Tsai, co-founder of the Chinese internet giant Alibaba, just purchased the remaining 51 percent of the Nets that he didn’t own, giving the franchise a record $2.35 billion valuation. Tilman Fertitta’s acquired the Houston Rockets for $2.2 billion in 2017, and Steve Ballmer purchased the Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion in 2014. The other two North American sports franchises in the $2 Billion Club are the N.F.L.’s Carolina Panthers ($2.2 billion) and Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers ($2 billion).

Dwight Howard’s looming return to the Lakers after a tumultuous one-season stint in 2012-13 will put him on his sixth team in four seasons — two of which (Memphis and the Nets) acquired Howard and let him go without playing the former All-Star center in a single game.

One follow-up note to our recent All-Lefty Team compilation: I remain utterly amazed that, according to Basketball-Reference, only 277 players in the league’s 73-season history have been identified as left-handed shooters.

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