Seeing aging stars inevitably coming down from their peak is one of the most tragic parts of following sports. Occasionally though, a player comes along that holds off that process for longer than anyone expects.
That's what happening for Pau Gasol, the 35-year-old Spanish star who just scored 40 points in an 80-75 overtime win against France in the EuroBasket 2015 semifinals. He scored exactly half of Spain's points to guarantee his country a spot in the 2016 Olympics.
Three years ago, we thought we had seen Gasol at his peak for the last time. The Los Angeles Lakers, seemingly retooled for another run with Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, couldn't get out of their own way in a season that turned into a train wreck in slow motion. Gasol's shooting fell to a career low, as he played just 49 games while struggling with knee tendinitis, plantar fasciitis and a concussion suffered in January. That's just what happens to older players, though. Their abilities erode and their bodies betray them.
Amazingly, that's turned into a blip. Gasol escaped L.A. to go to Chicago, where he was good enough to be an All-Star starter last season. Injuries certainly played a part in his brief Lakers demise, but they haven't lingered: Gasol averaged more than 34 minutes for the Bulls last year while missing just six games in the regular season and playoffs combined.
Not even in the movies do the main characters fake their death so convincingly before saving the day. The latest act, of course, was Gasol heroically leading his home country over France to win a spot in the Olympics. In overtime, too.
Spain is missing most of their core in EuroBasket 2015, including Gasol's brother Marc, but Pau has come to the rescue by easily being the best player in the entire tournament. He's averaged 26 points on 59 percent shooting in the eight games.
Against Poland, Gasol put on a dazzling shooting display by hitting six triples in seven attempts behind the shorter European arc. It was a rare addition to Gasol's dependable game, which has basically remained the same since he entered the NBA with the Grizzlies in 2001.
In his 40-point EuroBasket magnum opus, Gasol went back to his roots: the running hook shot, the turnaround jump shot in the lane, the two-handed dunks that Gasol always preferred over the cockier one-hander, the caveman-esque yell after scoring a crucial bucket. Though he had only had one assist, Gasol made it count.
As he gets older and his feet grow slower, there are viable concerns about Gasol's defense. He's not the same elite stopper like before and his frequent blocks may overrate his actual impact on that end. But the Bulls played miserably without Gasol in the lineup last season, most notably losing their 2-1 lead over the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals after Gasol went down with a bad hamstring. Seeing Gasol challenge France on plays like the one below is incredible nevertheless for a 35-year-old center, who has barely missed a beat since that injury-plagued 2012-13 campaign.
We briefly thought we had seen Gasol step down from his peak three years ago, yet here he is, still playing like nothing has changed, still using the same moves he's relied on his entire career. For each game and every milestone Gasol passes, his magnificent career grows just a little more impressive.
The Bulls enter a new regime this season, with Fred Hoiberg taking over for Tom Thibodeau. Things will change in Chicago, particularly on offense, but Pau Gasol won't. Fifteen years into his professional basketball career, he still hasn't.
And when Gasol does finally decide to step down from his peak, we know how it will happen: with the guttural yell into space that summarizes all his career accomplishments in one swift sound.