The Pau of Los Angeles

Danny Chau —  October 29, 2012

I’d like to welcome Danny Chau as a contributor to FB&G. He’ll be joining us from time to time to write on the Lakers, basketball in general and, if we’re lucky, what he ate for lunch and where he got it. Danny brings a unique and incredibly thoughtful writing voice to the game we love and his L.A. roots make him well versed on what the Lakers mean to the city and the league at large. We’re lucky to have him. You can find more of Danny’s work at Hardwood Paroxysm and you can follow him on twitter here. His first effort is on Pau Gasol. Enjoy.

A nationally broadcasted Lakers game wouldn’t be complete without the panned-out shot of the ubiquitous Hollywood sign, standing tall and inert as it has been for almost 90 years. Hollywood is the spiritual home of the Los Angeles Lakers, a team with a history of blockbusters and A-list celebrities — and that doesn’t count the stars who attend home games. The team is one of the most recognizable in all of sports, and the idea of Hollywood is one of America’s most important and enduring cultural exports. It’s a symbiotic relationship that begets continued dominance.

With the introduction of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, the Lakers have their highest-profile team in almost a decade. The team, if the Hollywood spirit is still alive and well, will be among championship favorites just from the breadth of their star power. And in one fell swoop, Pau Gasol, once the team’s unquestioned second option, becomes the fourth player mentioned in any Lakers conversation. Naturally, he takes it in stride. After all, after a couple years of dealing with serious trade rumors and internal strife, it’s probably a blessing just to be standing as a Laker.

But Gasol’s relationship with dominance—and with those who expect him to dominate—has been tenuous at best, nonexistent at worst. Three consecutive trips to the Finals (with each one incrementally better than the last) as Kobe Bryant’s right hand man can do wonders for a player’s image, but Gasol has found out how soon the heaps of praise can wither when expectations are stacked too high. In four years time, he shed the “soft” label and then, once again, emerged as one of the softest players in the league. This is no small feat given the timeframe.

However, it seems most can agree that Gasol’s role in on this season’s team will be a positive for all parties involved. But if Kobe, Dwight, and Steve keep the team Hollywood as Hell, where does that leave Pau? I suppose with the rest of Los Angeles — a county that doesn’t always have the luster of its internationally-recognized focal point, but one with a compelling collective narrative all its own.

Los Angeles is a sprawl — as iconic as New York but nowhere near as condensed.  It’s a result of centuries of various ethnic migrations and subsequent white flight. Good, bad, or neither, it’s how the county became the cultural jigsaw it is today. Each city is its own archive; many of which are part of a grander story of how the underrepresented can still cultivate vibrant communities in spite of external forces. It’s a collection of compartmentalized clusters loosely sutured together by the freeway system.

Navigating through the county is a lifelong endeavor, and there are many who have made it their life’s work to map out as much of L.A’s everchanging landscape as humanly possible. Of course, food is a convenient way to experience much of L.A.’s cultural diversity. But it’ll take a drive. In the day time, head to the Harvard Heights district for a pupusa; at night, have as many tacos as you can handle from the taco tables that line Pico Blvd. Less than five miles away is Langer’s, where you will get some of the best pastrami anywhere on earth. Neighboring cities Gardena and Torrance are about 20 miles south, home to many stellar mom-and-pop ramen shops. A few miles east is Bludso’s BBQ in Compton, where I would suggest the Texas Sampler (bring a friend, or five) and the mac and cheese.  And I’d be thoughtless to neglect the San Gabriel Valley, my home, which in my unbiased opinion has the best regional Chinese and Taiwanese fare in America.

(Oh, and one of the best burritos I’ve ever eaten was from a small little shack in La Puente, an almost exclusively Latino community. It’s a family business owned and operated by a Korean father and son, obviously.)

It’s all worth taking in. It just requires time and patience and gas.

Pau is reading The Taoof Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. Actually, he’s probably finished it by now. He’s not exactly taking up Daoist teachings from the source, but it’s a start. The core beliefs of Daoism center on the idea of flow and wu-wei, the way of being natural, of uncontrived action. Phil Jacksonsaid Gasol is the oil that makes the machine run. Kobe has said similar things in the past. Despite being lower on the chain of command, Gasol is the only player of the without a rigid set of objectives in the system. We have a good idea of what Dwight will bring to the team, and we know that Kobe, regardless of system, won’t be deviating far from what has made him the player he is. Nash’s historic shooting and pick and roll ability will both be viable at the beginning of any possession and as safety blankets when options begin to crumble. In an offense that won’t key in on strict sets and a defense with the most intimidating stopper in the league, Gasol will need to fluidly switch in and out of his many compartments to keep the Lakers steady. That means being a dual threat from the high post, defending the opposition’s best big man to give Howard the freedom to make plays elsewhere, and remaining aggressive on scoring opportunities.

A Gasol that can and does do everything on the court isn’t beyond the realm of possibility — he’s done it before. His game is understated; as understated as it can be when he’s basically good at everything. It’s easy to focus on Gasol’s startling passivity last year and how his role as a facilitator seemed to overshadow the rest of his game (never mind that Gasol averaged more shots a game than in any previous season as a Laker). With Andrew Bynum’s emergence over the last two seasons, Gasol adapted to the shift in focus in a sensible manner. Compartmentalizing his game allowed Bynum to blossom, but in sealing off portions of his game for the sake of continuity, he ceased to be the player the team needed. And when you’re playing alongside an obsessive maniac, dips in assertiveness are magnified. It’s baffling to consider Gasol the “glue guy” on this team when he is still among the league’s top talents, but he is. He’s the freeway system that can connect the team’s newfound diversity.

Pau is entering his fifth full season as a Laker, but there still seems to be a disconnect between the player he is and the player fans are expecting. In the new offense, perhaps Gasol’s freer role can serve as a reminder of why Gasol has been so integral to the Lakers’ success. With Howard and Nash soaking up a larger portion of the spotlight, it’s a good season to stop and appreciate the nuance of Gasol’s vision and footwork and balance. The team’s new look promises Michael Bay-esque explosions on screen. Gasol should ensure that the dialogue won’t be half bad either.

That Hollywood sign is why many come to Los Angeles, but you stay for the rest of it. Los Angeles is dense, but it rewards your effort. So take a drive. Maybe put on the new Kendrick Lamar album. The world of Los Angeles can’t be taken in all at once. There’s just too much there hidden from plain sight and so much left undiscovered. Absorb the experience in bits and pieces, and live without ever expecting to complete the jigsaw. If that sounds like an endeavor worth undertaking, then there’s one reason why Pau Gasol is worth rooting for.

Danny Chau

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