Monday, June 15, 2009

NBA Finals: Pau sheds the "soft" label

By John McMullen

"Ugly American" is an epithet used to refer to the loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless and ethnocentric behavior of American citizens abroad.

It's a stereotype rooted in reality, but overblown.

While, there are certainly plenty of American citizens that are ignorant of local cultures and judge everything by American standards, there are also plenty that take the time to learn about the place they are visiting and bend over backwards to be polite.

In the sports world, I've noticed a second type of "Ugly American," and it concerns attitudes toward foreign-born players.

With The Finals behind us, the next big date on the NBA calendar is the annual draft.

Pau Gasol used his vaunted skills and fundamentals to score at will on the low blocks.
The league's burgeoning worldwide popularity means more countries are playing the game of basketball at a higher level, and that means more foreign players in the draft.

It's almost comical to see the "scouting reports" for these players.

European big men, for instance, are usually described as fundamentally sound and highly-skilled, but lacking the requisite "toughness" to play NBA basketball.

It's almost like Americans have the trademark on that "toughness" and no one born outside our borders could possibly have the backbone, nerve or spunk to bang with a monster like Dwight Howard

Meet Pau Gasol.

A year ago, the Lakers' power forward was the villain as Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics pushed him and the Lakers around en route to the title. K.G. was the bully on the beach, kicking sand in the face of the new kid.

Instead of buying into the European big man stereotype, turning tail and playing shrinking violet, Gasol learned from his mistakes. When Lakers center Andrew Bynum, inevitably, got into early foul trouble in this year's Finals, the 7-foot Spaniard slid over and tortured Howard with his length.

Gasol also seemed more than comfortable banging with Howard, largely kept the Magic's bruising All-Star off his most comfortable spots and turned him into a pedestrian center for large stretches of time.

On the offensive end, Gasol used his vaunted skills and fundamentals to score at will on the low blocks and was quite the "Robin" to Kobe Bryant's "Batman" as the Lakers summarily dismissed the overmatched Magic in just five games for the franchise's 15th NBA championship.

"It's a dream come true," Gasol said. "The completion of a goal, it feels amazing. It's definitely a victory, it's a triumph that we've been working so hard for, and personally I appreciated so much and I value so much."

ABC sideline reporter Doris Burke grabbed Gasol after the final buzzer and peppered him with "toughness" questions.

It was an embarrassing angle to take after the way Gasol played in all five games.

Pau is never going to be Rick Mahorn but he showed more than enough grit to get the job done...American or not.

"Last year's experience, I think it made us tougher, it made us grow as a team, and we all were hurt by it," Gasol said. "We were very disappointed that we lost against Boston. They showed that they were more ready than we were at the time. But it really made us want it even more than we did last year, and it got us to this point.

"We worked so hard from the beginning as a team and as individuals, too, to be able to be successful in the playoffs at the top level. So it just makes it all the more rewarding, and the way we went through last year, it just makes it so much more worth it."

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