For new coaches, first impressions matter. Lionel Hollins made sure he left one by bringing a metaphor to life.
Taking over a miserable 11-32 Memphis team midseason in 2009, Hollins told his new roster that after losses and disappointments, they had to look at themselves before casting blame around the room. Then he told the players to look inside their lockers: An assistant had given them each compact mirrors, purchased from a local pharmacy, to remind them to hold themselves accountable first.
The tactic registers as a little on-the-nose — a cynic might think it tacky. But one of those players in that locker room was Marc Gasol, then a rookie scrapping for some credibility outside of his brother’s shadow. The lesson stayed with him ever since, even if the mirror hasn’t.
“To this day I do this exercise,” Gasol said in a recent interview with Southern California News Group. “It’s kind of in your DNA and you don’t even have to think about it: It taught me to never blame somebody else for what happens in the game.”
The NBA is so cyclical and insular that reunions are bound to happen given enough time. But how quaint, some 12 years after Hollins grilled that young Grizzlies locker room in search of accountability, that he and Gasol would be reunited again on the Lakers — both seemingly nearing the end of their respective careers.
It’s a reunion that both men hoped for, even though the reunion itself was not the motivating force. In Los Angeles, Gasol saw a contending team that would allow him to play a supporting role. In Gasol, the Lakers saw a versatile, experienced big man who could help them space the floor.
Hollins was on the phone with Gasol the day he signed with the Lakers in free agency. He was not aware that the 35-year-old had already made up his mind.
“I thought I was doing a sales job,” the 67-year-old Lakers assistant chuckled. “But we talked about a lot of things: what we were doing as a team, how he could fit … It’s one thing to hear from a general manager or agent what’s going on, but it’s another thing to hear from someone who’s there on the ground, and I thought it could help him.”
On the surface, Gasol’s production seems low: He’s averaging career lows in points (4.1 ppg) and rebounds (5.9 rpg) and he can go entire halves without attempting a shot. But it’s not as much about what Gasol does in his 13th season, but about what he allows others to do. The spacing created by his 3-point threat (36.4 percent) has helped open up the floor for the Lakers’ offense, which has an offensive rating of 119.8 when he’s on the floor versus 107.2 when he’s off.
Shooting threes is a more recent development for Gasol, who shot three attempts in the 2015-16 season, then shot 268 the following year. But many aspects of his game haven’t changed at all in Hollins’ eyes, particularly his playmaking: In Tuesday’s game in Memphis, Gasol lofted a pass to a cutting LeBron James to backdoor the Grizzlies defense — that vision has always been there.
“Certainly we shoot more threes now, and the technology we use to study the game is modern,” Hollins said. “But Marc fits whatever you’re trying to do. When you have basketball IQ, when you have that competitive spirit, you’re gonna fit.”
Hollins has seen that in Gasol for a long time, although that was not his very first impression. When he was an assistant, he first met a young Marc when he was just Pau’s little brother who was playing in a local high school.
Mused Hollins: “How do I say this? He was a little less than svelte.”
But playing abroad in Spain changed Gasol’s game and his body. By the time Hollins took over in Memphis, he saw Gasol in a new light: young, talented, in shape, hungry to win.
Shortly before coach Marc Iavaroni was fired to make way for Hollins, Gasol had told the Memphis Commerical Appeal of the Grizzlies’ culture: “We run around like chickens with our heads cut off. Youth can be a good thing, but we use it as an excuse. … That’s all some people want to do is make excuses. You’re never going to get anywhere like that.”
One thing with Hollins was for sure: You weren’t going to be making excuses. After taking over, superior conditioning became Memphis’ foundation, won by hard practices. Practices got a lot harder, and Hollins didn’t mince words, either.
“Back then as a coach you were allowed to be honest from the get go,” Gasol said. “He pretty much coached us however he wanted to coach us. He was very tough. He was brutally honest with us and what was expected of ourselves as players. He held us accountable.”
It may seem strange now that Hollins’ first impulse with his young team was to make them a run-and-gun group. But after the Grizzlies added Zach Randolph, they changed their formula to match their strengths in the post to become the Grit-N-Grind Grizzlies, a team that morphed Memphis from a franchise with no appreciable history to competing annually in the playoffs.
They won the organization’s first series in 2011 as an 8-seed over the San Antonio Spurs, and the high point came in 2013 when they reached the Western Conference Finals. While Hollins and the Grizzlies split ways after the season, Hollins and Gasol launched an era of basketball that is still relevant to Memphis fans today.
Walking out of the arena on Sunday, Hollins heard teenagers shouting excitedly at him.
“They said, ‘You’re Lionel Hollins. You a legend!’” Hollins said. “I told them they were too young to remember what we were doing back then. But yeah, people still remember.”
While Hollins’ role is different with the Lakers than it was back then, Gasol said he still serves as a voice of unvarnished honesty in film sessions and practices. You can count on Hollins to play it straight, even if the Lakers aren’t going to run themselves ragged in practice sessions on a veteran team.
The two stayed in touch over the years, reconnecting after Hollins’ tenure in Brooklyn ended in 2016 and he moved back to Memphis. Gasol lives in Spain in the offseason, but remembered the two reconnecting at The Plunge, an annual fundraiser for the Special Olympics held in Memphis. Both men have a two-plus decade history with the city, which is why Sunday was special for the both of them.
For Gasol, it was his first return to FedEx Forum since he was traded in 2019. Where there should have been adoring crowds, standing in appreciative applause for one of the franchise’s best players ever, there was a modest gathering of less than 100 invited guests due to pandemic restrictions. While the Lakers talked among themselves about “winning one for Marc,” the stakes felt a little lower with few to appreciate it.
Gasol said it was “a little less special” without fans. But having Hollins on the bench gave the affair a little more meaning. They talked before tip-off about their memories the now-empty arena had held, how they wondered if Gasol’s jersey would hang above them someday. They talked about the games to come in Memphis, too, and hoped that modern-day stars Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson might bring “The Grindhouse” back to what it once was.
“They’ll be rocking again in no time,” Gasol said. “They’ve got a great present and a bright future there.”
So do the Lakers, of which Gasol is a key part. The mirror may be long lost, but Gasol doesn’t have to look far for the man who taught him the lesson he values the most. When he can’t see his reflection clearly, he knows Hollins will.
“Being reunited with him is special, a big reason I’m here,” he said. “He’s someone I know will be truly honest with me when it comes to it.”