May 7, 2018 — DeMar DeRozan walked down the hallway dejected, jersey slung over his shoulder. The Toronto Raptors were down 97-72 to the Cleveland Cavaliers and their top scorer had been ejected for a flagrant foul borne of out of frustration. There was another quarter to be played, but the result was inevitable. Another year of playoff basketball, another unceremonious exit. A change was inevitable. You all know the story. DeRozan was sent south to San Antonio and Kyle Lowry remained as the sole survivor. The future looked murky for both Lowry and the Raptors.
Just one month earlier there was another perennial playoff team that were preparing to gut their core. Like Toronto, the Grizzlies — led by Marc Gasol and his ‘core four’ teammates — were at the tailend of the greatest run of their franchise’s brief history. Seven straight playoff appearances (the second longest streak at the time) and countless memories were created. Yet, after being bludgeoned to death in their final playoff outing by none other than Kawhi Leonard the season prior, it was apparent that they did not have what was required to slither through the Western Conference gauntlet. The foundation immediately crumbled that season; after an early public fallout between Gasol and then coach David Fizdale that caused the latter’s firing, Memphis sat their stars and limped to a 22-60 record. Like Toronto, it was time for a change.
There is some logic to the idea that life is simply a set of random occurrences, things don’t necessarily happen for a reason. But screw logic: cosmic basketball forces were at play to ensure that Gasol and Lowry, two former teammates that shared an eerily similar arc in their professional careers after parting ways, were destined to have their paths intertwine once more.
Although their longevity in Memphis differed, in the brief 49 games they spent together as teammates, Gasol and Lowry possessed analogous traits. Both entered the league with a chip on their shoulder as late-round draft picks, Lowry being selected 24th overall while Gasol fell all the way 48th. They now play their 49th game together as Raptors teammates tonight in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
Neither were expected to survive in the league, let alone earn multiple all-star appearances. Gasol was a scruffy haired rookie who didn’t possess the typical NBA body (to put it politely) and was cast in the massive shadow of his brother Pau, who had recently been traded away from Memphis as the greatest player in franchise history and was a soon-to-be an NBA Champion with the Los Angeles Lakers that year. Likewise, Lowry was a husky, baby-faced point guard that struggled to turn heads and soon fell behind Mike Conley in the depth chart before ultimately being traded to Houston mid-season.
“He was emotional, very emotional. Scrappy, as he is now, and loved to compete every practice and every game,” Gasol said of Lowry during his Grizzlies tenure in his appearance on Inside the Green Room. “It was hard because at that point you have two young point guards and you have to pick one, because one has to develop.”
Within a matter of years, Gasol became the central figure on the beloved ‘Grit n’ Grind’ Grizzlies team and brought them from previous afterthoughts into legitimate playoff contenders. Lowry had to wait his turn.
Neither Gasol nor Lowry possessed the typical athletic talents that turned heads. Lowry wasn’t zooming past defenders to the rim and Gasol was certainly not soaring over other skyscrapers for acrobatic dunks and rebounds. Yet, hidden under their underwhelming physical measurements was an elite level of basketball intelligence that would become the backbone of their future successes.
Lowry had the intelligence and skill to become a star, it just needed to be paired with an opportunity.
“I think with years you learn. Especially now that he [Lowry] has kids, it teaches you some patience and gives you some perspective on life,” said Gasol.
However, in 2012 when Lowry was traded to Toronto he did not yet possess that parental patience, and certainly not for losing. The Raptors brought in Lowry and were seriously considering ‘blowing it up’ just a year later. He would not let that happen, instead sparking one of the most sudden and unexpected turnarounds of any team in the league
The Raptors were winning. More than they ever had before.
Lowry had brought to Toronto the full KLOE experience. He did a little bit of everything; scrapping for loose balls, delivering the hockey assist, drawing charges, screening for others, and scowling at referees. He was the braintrust of the team. These little moments that Lowry would string together didn’t draw the attention of a casual viewer, but amalgamated to ensure that the Raptors won. Blake Murphy calls it KLOE bingo, and if Lowry checks off a line then Toronto were likely to hit the jackpot.
Gasol operated in the same vein. It wasn’t in his nature to control the game as a traditional ball-dominant star, instead often his best games would be the ones in which he managed to fill the stat sheets of those surrounding him. He was the smartest player on the floor; his passing vision and preemptive defensive rotations exemplified Gasol’s ability to process things a little bit faster than everyone else. He also rivalled Lowry for delivering the most demonstrative gestures towards an official he deemed to have made a questionable call.
From a technical standpoint, Gasol and Lowry do not share the same basketball skills. However, they do possess the same traits as a player, a leader, and as a winner.
Fast forward to last summer. Both players were now trimmed versions of their former selves and had spent the better half of the decade resurrecting their previously dormant franchises. But the playoffs wounds had formed scar tissue. Lowry’s body was in tatters after throwing himself tirelessly at the brick wall that was LeBron James, while Gasol could not overcome the hellacious Western Conference. They got the better of some of the best teams of this era — sweeping the Duncan-led Spurs, clawing by the budding Thunder and ‘Lob City’ Clippers — but it was never enough.
Gasol and Lowry were the last remains of their team’s foundation that couldn’t quite make it. Neither were happy about the changing tide after the exit of their teammates and close friends. Time was ticking on two unheralded stars that were crossing past the ominous 30 year-old barrier and into the backend of their prime.
Thankfully, the basketball gods decided it was time to bless them with each other once more.
Transactions in the NBA are never quite as simple as they seem. One the eve of the trade deadline in 2019, it was all but confirmed that Gasol was on his way to Charlotte. His bags were literally packed. However, less than 24 hours later, the deal suddenly fell through and Gasol’s path was redirected to Toronto.
Gasol was learning how to cook an octopus at home the moment he discovered he had been traded. A month later, he was indulging in the equally unique delicacy of cow heart with his Spanish teammate and now fellow Raptor Serge Ibaka on ‘How Hungry are You?’.
Gasol, the man who couldn’t quite lead his homegrown team to the biggest stage of basketball, was reunited with Lowry who was equally focused on exorcising his team’s own playoff demons.
“I got a chance to play with him early in our careers, but neither one of us was at the level we are at now. So it’s going to be very cool,” Lowry said the day after Gasol was traded to Toronto. “We want to win at a high level. We got people to surround him.”
Gasol couldn’t win a championship as the guy in Memphis, but his skillset and experience made him the perfect person to be a guy on a championship contender. Lowry could not deliver a title shouldering a heavy scoring burden but learned that his ultimate role in a championship team was as the steadying hand behind a legitimate superstar in Kawhi Leonard.
They were the heartbeats behind two teams that fought entirely different battles in their quest for basketball supremacy, but shared equally agonizing endings. They were two unheralded stars whose impact was discredited because they didn’t fill a traditional box score. Their teams were dismissed by large U.S. media outlets: nobody took Memphis, the smallest market in the NBA, seriously. Nobody took Toronto, in Canada, seriously. They defied those odds separately but simultaneously.
Now, tonight they have an opportunity to reach the pinnacle of basketball together.