The name Pau Gasol resonates more with basketball fans than those marking World AIDS Day on December 1, but in fact the Lakers star is making a name for himself as an advocate for people with AIDS and those who care for them. And his life as an AIDS activist is based in his life as a basketball player. Growing up in Spain, Gasol first became aware of AIDS at the age of 11 when the Lakers' Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV positive. Says Gasol, "We now have a much better concept of HIV today, but in 1991 it was considered pretty much a death sentence."
Almost 20 years later, Gasol is a seven-footer, a three time NBA All Star and is playing for Lakers' minority team owner Magic Johnson. And, when he isn't playing basketball, he's traveling the world to eradicate the stigma and pain of having HIV/AIDS and to push for prevention. He met with the organization UNICEF in 2003 because, he says, "I wanted to be personally involved with an organization that helped children. They asked me what I was most touched by and I said it had to be HIV and kids. Many of them get infected by their parents and later become orphans."
Gasol's first trip was to South Africa where it is estimated that there are 1.9 million AIDS orphans who have lost either one or both parents. "I visited families infected with HIV and also foster homes for AIDS orphans. I met a woman who fostered three or four kids who were doing homework when I walked in. They were impressed by my height," recalls Pau Gasol. They undoubtedly were also impressed by his warmth and compassion as he stepped in to help the children with their homework. The son of medical professionals, Gasol likely would have chosen a profession related to medicine if he hadn't been such a talented athlete. "I have always had an interest in science and life," he says.
In addition to his work with UNICEF, Pau Gasol is a strong supporter of Children's Hospital of Los Angeles and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis where he once played for the Grizzlies. Unmarried and without children -- and having successfully avoided the scandals and pitfalls that many highly paid athletes encounter -- Gasol is committed to his AIDS activism. "A lot of progress has been made in the past decade," he says, "But there's a lot more to be done. World AIDS Days is a time to remember how many people have been affected. We also have to remember that it's treatable and preventable."
In support of World AIDS Day, Gasol is joining other NBA players in a new series of television and radio public service announcements through a partnership between the Greater Than AIDS campaign and NBA Cares. The PSAs, which will air beginning on December 1, are designed to increase awareness of HIV/AIDS and reduce the stigma surrounding the disease. Additionally, NBA players, teams and coaches will wear special red-and-white apparel on court and will host community events and special in-arena nights throughout the month as part of the AIDS awareness campaign.