Q&A with Pau Gasol: The NBA All-Star's Health Advocacy Off-the-Court

Apr 20, 2015, 9:29 AM, Posted by Merlin Chowkwanyun

It may be NBA playoffs season, but the Gasol brothers are committed to promoting child health year round. RWJF Health & Society Scholar Merlin Chowkwanyun recently sat down with the Chicago Bulls' center to learn about his passion for health advocacy and how he's working to build a Culture of Health in the U.S. and abroad.

Gasol brothers greet each other on the basketball court. Image credit: Joe Murphy (NBAE/Getty)

Since moving to the Chicago Bulls last summer, NBA star Pau Gasol has been having one of the most sensational seasons of his basketball career. A two-time champion with the Los Angeles Lakers, the new Bulls starting center is entering the playoffs as the league leader in double doubles, averaging about 18 points and 12 rebounds per game. In February, he and his younger brother Marc Gasol (of the Memphis Grizzlies) made NBA history as the first siblings to start in the annual All-Star Game: Pau for the East team, Marc for the West.

The two have been equally active off the court. In 2013, after years of work with various philanthropic associations, Pau and Marc formed the Gasol Foundation. It focuses on child health and works towards "a world where all children will enter adulthood physically and mentally equipped to live successful, healthy and productive lives." The Foundation recently launched outreach projects in two areas with severe socioeconomic disadvantage. Vida! Health & Wellness in Boyle Heights (Los Angeles) provides parents and children with instruction in physical activity, physiology, and fitness; healthy cooking and eating; and psychological wellness. L'Esport Suma in South Badalona (Catalonia, Spain) uses sports to promote human development and social cohesion among participants. It is run in conjunction with Casal dels Infants, a long-standing NGO in the region.

Pau has always been a very visible 7-foot presence—literally and figuratively—in Memphis, Los Angeles, and now Chicago, the three cities where he has played. Among other things, that included visiting patients and working with the Children's Hospital Los Angeles and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and around the world, raising awareness of refugees' plight as a UNICEF ambassador. In 2012, the NBA recognized these and many other efforts with its J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, given to only one player a season. He recently was named one of ten finalists for the NBA's Community Assist Award, and fans can vote for him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram by typing #NBACommunityAssist and #PauGasol. 

Each year, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's site complete a "'knowledge exchange" project designed to foster communication among the general public, academic researchers, and population health practitioners. As someone who grew up in Los Angeles, I cheered for Pau during his seven seasons with the Lakers but admired him just as much for what he did beyond the game. For my project this year, I wanted to interview Pau about his and Marc's plans because it seemed the Gasol Foundation's goals dovetailed with those of RWJF's Culture of Health initiative in many respects.

First, both emphasize the importance of early childhood health, the improvement of which researchers have increasingly found, pays huge dividends in subsequent stages of one's life. The Gasols have made childhood obesity one of their foundation's initial priorities, while RWJF has committed more than $1 billion in investments towards the issue since 2007. Second, the two organizations stress the importance in human development of one's positive assets and traits—and how to cultivate them—rather than just focusing on an individual's deficits. Work on positive youth development by researchers like my fellow Health & Society cohort member Lindsay Till Hoyt is one example of this broader trend in health research. Finally, in highlighting the struggles disadvantaged populations face, the Gasol Foundation and RWJF's Culture of Health each underscore the influence of both medical and non-medical social determinants of health.

During his career, Pau has developed a reputation for exuding a highly positive general disposition. (To see, just visit his twitter feed or check out Life * Vida, a collection of meditations and photographs.) It was an honor speaking to him about how he has constructively used his public profile in professional sports for health promotion.

Portions of this conversation were edited for clarity.

Paul Gasol visits students in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. Pau Gasol with youth during Gasol Foundation activities.

CHOWKWANYUN: You were a medical student in Spain before you started your NBA career, but it seems like you’ve always thought about health and medicine with contributions to the larger world in mind. Where did that instinct come from?

GASOL: It all started with both of my parents being in the medical field and growing up listening to their stories about patients that they took care of. Also, the way they took care of us at home. We barely ever had to go to the hospital unless it was something major. And just the empathy I always had towards people. Once I realized that I actually was in a position to contribute to the greater good in a big way, that really pushed me over the top. I always had that desire to help.

Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV positive was an interesting moment because as an 11 year old, one of your basketball idols announces that he will have to retire. And at the time, as a kid, I thought that if you had HIV, you were going to die pretty soon. That’s what my understanding was. It was very shocking. I wished I could help one day, help people, or find a cure for the disease. That was my dream when I was a kid.

How did you and Marc decide to make childhood obesity and health a central issue?

Well, our central issue and our priority is children’s health and children’s future. Obesity, nowadays, it’s at a level that is very alarming. And it’s threatening children’s health and children’s futures. That’s why we made it one of our focuses, because we wanted to empower children to live healthier lives, to have a fulfilled life, to be productive and healthy adults. Right now, children are exposed to a lot of distractions, to a lot of information. Technology has made great progress, but there's also a downside to it. We just want to provide children and their families a way to stay healthy and become healthy adults.

What made you two decide that it was time to form an organization, a foundation that’s more permanent?

We collaborated with different organizations in a philanthropic way, but I think we wanted to have something of our own, something that would give us more autonomy and freedom to actually create programs and get involved with programs and initiatives with total independence. That's the way we kind of started.

When we did things with different organizations, it was always kind of dependent on how they did things and their politics and their protocol. Now we have built our own. We built a great team. We have great people on board, committed, passionate. And that’s kind of the way we wanted it to be. It took a while. It’s a process, , but I think we’re very happy with how things are going right now. I think we’re moving towards the right direction, and we’ve created something really special that hopefully will last beyond our lifetimes.

You two are also known for not just doing charitable work at a distance, from afar, but really going out into the places where you lived. How does actually interacting face to face with children make a difference?

We love interacting with children. I think that we are very passionate about children. We are, again, in a privileged position to have a great impact on children, and so we just utilize the opportunity that we have to help and be a positive influence. Marc and I are very thankful for the opportunity that we’ve been given, to be able to do what you love and be highly rewarded for it. It’s very fortunate. We are very lucky in that way, and we want to give back to the communities and the teams that have given us the opportunity to play for them. It’s also a way for us to kind of give back to the communities that have embraced us.

I feel like a smile or a hug or a thank you from a child or their parents is what is most meaningful.  To be able to make their day and get a smile out of a kid that hasn’t smiled for a week, for instance, that’s very powerful. That’s some of the impact that we are able to have. There’s nothing probably more rewarding than that.

Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies plays with kids during a pep rally. Marc Gasol poses with participants in a Gasol Foundation event.

You and Marc have already launched two programs. Can you tell us a little bit about those?

Vida! is a program we have in Boyle Heights. It’s a great program that our team has created. Alongside Partnership for LA Schools, we’re just trying to empower children to live healthier lives. We’re just designing a program—it’s still in its first year—but I think we’re very excited about it. It’s been welcomed and very appreciated at the school and at the community centers. Vida! has been really good, and we’re just going to try to improve it and make it better and also get it to more schools and more communities.

The program in Badalona: it's a program that we’ve done with an organization there that already had its program in place, and we just tried to add to the work that’s being done. It’s in a community center with kids in economically challenging conditions. We mostly emphasize exercise, being active, and healthy nutrition. We’re just trying to give them tools to grow into healthier adults and be healthy kids.

I’m a person where I feel like the sky is the limit. I never put limits on myself in my career. I’ve been able to accomplish so much beyond my dreams. I feel like it’s going to be able to reach or grow as much as our team grows. If the quality and the desire of our team are huge, and the drive is huge, I think we’ll be able to grow into a one of a kind organization that does a lot of good for this world.

I was wondering what you think can be done to further a Culture of Health? Particularly with children, because as you said, they are very busy, there’s all these distractions.

You proactively try to give new tools and information for them to make the right choices. And you also try to reach their parents, their families, which have grown up in a different time and have faced different challenges then their children are facing today. It’s making people more aware and educating them and proactively putting yourself in a position to help them.

It’s really easy these days to get cynical or only focus on negative things, but you are known for having a very positive and upbeat personality. Where did your approach to both the off-the-court work but also just life in general come from?

I’m just thankful for the opportunities that I’ve received in my life. I try to be a positive influence and have a positive impact on people. I feel like being positive and sharing and having a positive attitude about things creates a chain reaction. Just like being negative, right? You have a choice: how do you want to affect people? So I want to do it in a positive way. I think it’s just as easy, takes just as much effort to do it the other way around, but I feel like you have to have a positive mindset and understand the impact that you not only have on yourself but on others. I'm in a position to have a huge impact on others as well. I look beyond myself. But again, it’s just an outlook that I have on life. Life is a wonderful experience, it’s a wonderful opportunity. You should take advantage of it, you should enjoy, you should cherish it. And you only live once, so might as well make the best out of it.

You and Marc do work not just in the United States but abroad as well. I guess you are a "global citizen." How does seeing people in all sorts of different settings change how you approach your work?

I’ve been able to travel around the world and have multiple experiences, and I think it’s given me a perspective of how big the world is and the amazing beautiful places there are out there. I think great communities and great people are in different parts of the world. But also, in my trips especially with UNICEF, I’ve seen a lot of people who are not having the same opportunities, do not have the same luck as a lot of people in other parts of the world, and are suffering and need the help of people that are more fortunate than they are, just by the fact of being born in a single part of the world. It gives you a sense of perspective, a sense of globality.

And to me it’s just been great and fortunate to have had those opportunities. A lot of people don’t get the opportunity to travel and get to know and have those experiences. I just try to share my experiences, my emotions for people to be able to get a glimpse of what it’s like in certain places.

The most emotional memories for me are the ones that touch my humanity and my sensitivity, which are my trips with UNICEF, where I’ve seen people and children in extreme conditions fighting for their lives. Those are the ones that you probably never forget and stick with you: children fighting malnutrition with their bellies completely bloated, with a lot of edema in their legs. They cannot hold much food in, they have to be under treatment, they're fighting for their lives. It’s difficult. Also, children who are born with HIV because their parents have HIV and maybe their parents already died or they're orphans.

Those are experiences that stay with you and make you want to help because the children are always innocent with so much ahead of them. You want to help the ones who are vulnerable to hopefully have a bright future ahead of them.

Merlin Chowkwanyun is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He writes on environmental health, health policy, and race. Beginning Fall 2015, he will be an Assistant Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is now accepting applications for the RWJF Sports Award recognizing sports leaders working to improve community health. Apply today >