By Steve Keating
TORONTO, April 13 (Reuters) - When the Memphis Grizzlies paid a recent visit to the Toronto Raptors, gracious host Jose Calderon invited Marc Gasol out for dinner.
For the six Spaniards on National Basketball Association (NBA) payrolls this season, dining with the enemy is an act of friendship not treason.
When the Raptors stop by Memphis, it will be Gasol's turn to pick up the tab and the Grizzlies All-Star centre says he has just the spot in mind.
While the menu may differ, the dinner conversation will be the same, as it always is when Spanish NBAers break bread, with talk eventually turning to the national team and the 2012 London Olympics.
"Last night when I had dinner with Jose we talked about it (Olympics)," said Gasol. "We went through the possibilities of what might happen a little bit.
"We know it is going to be a great event. It is one of the biggest things ever you can live, being in the village with other guys from your country fighting for the same thing.
"It's a beautiful experience."
It is also a shared experience for many of the La Furia Roja (the Red Fury), who grew up learning the game together on the Spanish hardwood.
Calderon, Gasol and his Los Angeles Lakers brother Pau, Denver Nuggets swingman Rudy Fernandez and Minnesota Timberwolves flashy point guard Ricky Rubio were all on the Beijing Olympic squad that lost to the United States in the gold medal game.
All, with the exception of Rubio who had his sensational rookie season cut short by a knee injury, are expected to be back challenging for a medal in London.
While the United States will roll out its newest version of the Dream Team, drawing from a bottomless talent pool, Spain will rely on the team chemistry that cannot be developed in 15 days spent in an Olympic pressure cooker.
"We are really good friends. The kind of friends you can call for anything not just about basketball," Calderon told Reuters. "We go to each other's places; we have dinners together with families.
"When you are all together for a month and a half and all together everyday it's nice. It's like a family, a second family. That's why we all want to be on that team.
"You can be less talented or not as good but that good relationship outside the court is going to help any team.
"You know how to talk to your team mate when you are on the court because you know him. It's everything."
That special chemistry, along with equal amounts of skill, has helped transform Spain into a European basketball powerhouse that has claimed back-to-back Eurobasket titles in 2009 and 2011, world championship gold in 2006 and climbed to number two in the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) world rankings.
As the Iberians' success has grown so has the attention paid to a vibrant domestic league that continues to prove Spain can produce more than world class soccer and tennis players and fine sherry.
Over the last decade, basketball players have become a quality Spanish export to the NBA.
Those players have never forgotten their Spanish roots, always mindful of the debt of gratitude owed to the system that helped them realise their hoop dreams as they answer the call to represent their country.
"Olympics are always something different, something special," explained Calderon, who will be playing in his third Summer Games. "Our team has done well lately, so when you go with a chance to do something big it's even better.
"At these Olympics there are only 12 teams, it's not easy but for sure the main thing is to be able to compete to get a medal - it doesn't matter which colour.
Spain has participated in 10 Olympic Games in basketball, taking silver in 1984 and again in 2008. It fully expects to add to its medal haul in London but will face significant challenges after Fernandez and Rubio sustained late season injuries.
Calderon insists Fernandez will be recovered from back surgery and ready for duty, but the team will have to survive without Rubio's slick ball-handling.
Both the Gasol brothers and Oklahoma City Thunder's Serge Ibaka, who was born in the Republic of the Congo and will represent his adopted country at Olympics for the first time after obtaining Spanish citizenship, will put in a little overtime before heading to London with their teams still in the chase for an NBA title.
For Calderon, the Olympics represent a chance to salvage something from another barren NBA season as the Raptors head towards an early exit.
In Rubio's absence, Calderon is likely to play a larger role but it is a workload the Spaniard, with the seemingly permanent smile and two-day growth, is capable of carrying.
"Jose is a winner, his heart is always in the right place," said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. "A lot of teams have been calling wanting him and we're trying to hold on to him and keep him.
"He gives us stability. Watching him this summer he was a steady rock for their team (Spain).
"I don't care what level it is, you need that leadership at your point guard."
Although NBA trade rumours swirl around him, for Spain there is no player they would rather have leading the way.
"All he (Calderon) cares about is making his team mates better and winning," added Marc Gasol. "Those guys are hard to find. Guys who try to play the right way and get everybody involved and not care about anything else but winning." (Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Gene Cherry)