Toronto

How a migrant rescue at sea ended with tickets to see the Raptors, courtesy of Marc Gasol

Marc Gasol and Savvas Kourepinis met last summer aboard a migrant rescue ship in the Mediterranean Sea, where they shared an experience that will forever bond the towering Spaniard and the Greek activist.

Raptors centre flew his friend and fellow activist from Spain to watch Game 1 at Scotiabank Arena

NBA centre Marc Gasol, centre, helps a team from Proactiva Open Arms lift a Cameroonian woman rescued at sea onto a ship for medical attention. (Juan Medina/Reuters)

Raptors centre Marc Gasol will have a special fan cheering for him tonight during Game 2 of the NBA Finals in Toronto. 

Gasol flew his friend, Savvas Kourepinis, in from Barcelona last week and hooked him up with two highly coveted tickets for last Thursday night's game against the Golden State Warriors.

But it wasn't basketball that brought the two together. 

Gasol, 34, and Kourepinis, 35, met last summer aboard a migrant rescue ship in the Mediterranean Sea, where they shared an experience that will forever bond the towering Spaniard and the Greek activist.

"Marc Gasol is one amazing guy," said Kourepinis in an interview with CBC News Network.

Gasol was still playing for the Memphis Grizzlies at the time. He was traded to Toronto in February this year. 

Kourepinis is a chief engineer for Proactiva Open Arms, a Spanish non-profit organization that specializes in search and rescue missions at sea. The group has spent years helping to rescue migrants making the perilous journey from locations in North Africa to Europe on the Mediterranean Sea. 

In August last year, the NBA star joined Open Arms for a 10-day mission at sea in waters near the coast of Libya. The ship left from Malta, and it wasn't long until the team encountered a wrecked ship. 

Floating nearby were the bodies of a woman and child. Another woman, barely alive but still holding on, was discovered among the debris.

Gasol helped rescuers pull her from the water.

Savvas Kourepinis, chief engineer for the non-profit organization Proactiva Open Arms embraces a woman rescued in the central Mediterranean Sea in August 2018. (Juan Medina/Reuters)

According to a report in The Guardian, the woman — Josefa — had fled Cameroon and was making her way to Europe. The report says she spent two days clinging to a piece of wood before Gasol and Kourepinis happened upon her.

"There were pieces of wood and clothes floating in the water," Gasol told The Guardian.

"Then there was that woman, with her elbows resting on a wooden beam. Her eyes were lost in the void. She was weak and in shock. She had been clinging to that piece of wood with her last bit of strength and had remained that way for 48 hours. I thought of this woman, of her strength. And I felt anger."

Marc Gasol, now a centre for the Toronto Raptors, watches on as a doctor provides medical care to a woman he helped rescue near the coast of Libya last summer. (Juan Medina/Reuters)

Kourepinis said Gasol played a critical role in saving Josefa from a near-certain death. He also credits Gasol with using his celebrity — particularly in Spain, where he is considered a national icon — to help draw attention to the ongoing migrant crisis.

"I don't have word to explain," Kourepinis said as he struggled to articulate his gratitude. 

The United Nations estimates that 2,262 migrants drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2018; more than 3,000 the year before.

Kourepinis has been with Open Arms for about three years. He says the realities of the work have taken their toll.

"Every night I close my eyes and I see these kinds of things," he said, recalling the sight of the dead woman and child.

Kourepinis was thrilled to get the news that Gasol would fly him from Spain to Toronto to take in some of the playoff action at Scotiabank Arena. Each Raptors player only gets two tickets per game.

The two reconnected before Game 1, he said.

"I'm one of the few people in a room who know Marc Gasol in two parts of his life: personal and as one amazing fighter in the stadium," Kourepinis reflected.

Marc Gasol, who hails from Spain, has become a dominant force on the court for the Toronto Raptors during their historic playoff run this season. (John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports)

While he doesn't have tickets to Game 2 tonight, he will be cheering Gasol on from the city. Kourepinis doesn't depart for Spain until Monday.

He says he's had a wonderful trip so far to Toronto, and that the excitement over the Raptors historic playoff run is palpable.

"The people here are amazing," he said. "Big energy."

With files from Christine Birak, CBC News Network and Lucas Powers

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