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NBA exec, former Delone player battles Parkinson's

Written by Brandon Stoneburg, York Daily Record | Jul 7, 2015 4:00 PM
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Photo by Submitted to York Daily Record

Gabriel, center, was a team captain on Delone Catholic's 1974 state championship team. Twenty-five years later, he was named the best executive in the NBA.

(Undated) -- Four decades ago, a tenacious kid from Hanover saw his Delone Catholic basketball squad on the verge of falling apart. Some of his teammates had quit the team and losses were starting to pile up, but John Gabriel pulled his team together and willed them to a state title.

Twenty years later, that same tenacious kid from Hanover sat in a diner in Orlando, Florida, drawing up the blueprints for a new NBA franchise with his friend Pat Williams. Together, they would tackle the challenge of bringing championship-caliber basketball to football-obsessed Florida. The list of players Gabriel would bring to the Orlando Magic franchise reads like an all-decade team: Shaquille O'Neal, Anferee "Penny" Hardaway, Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady.

Fast forward 20 more years to modern day, and that kid from Hanover, now the director of basketball operations with the New York Knicks, is facing a whole new challenge: Parkinson's disease.

• • •

Gabriel was sitting in an Orlando-area condo reading an article about Michael J. Fox, ironically, when he noticed a quiver in his ring finger.

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Photo by AP Photo / Peter Cosgrove

Former Orlando Magic General Manager John Gabriel fields a question in 2003 about an upcoming draft during a meeting with the press at the Magic training facility in Orlando, Florida.

"It can't be," he thought to himself, not Parkinson's. Not after he had already defeated prostate cancer and survived a scare when he went into a shock after being stung by two wasps. On that occasion, Gabriel passed out in a street and woke up two days later in the hospital.

But tests at several of the top medical facilities on the East Coast confirmed his fear. He gathered the Knicks front office staff together, told them the news and asked them to treat him the same as they always have. He'd still be scouting and doing his job, he said. Nothing would change.

"This was a guy who was so strong and nothing ever seemed to affect him," said Tom Sterner, Gabriel's lifelong friend and teammate on that Delone state title team. "I had never even seen him sick. I asked what I could do to help. I didn't know much about the disease and it bothered me for a while. You can sit there and mourn, but that's not the way to help him."

Tom Conrad, who was also on Delone's title team with Sterner and Gabriel -- or "Gabe," as his friends call him, was shocked by the news.

"But when you see him and he's still competing, you say, 'That's Gabe, that's who he is, and that's why we admire him.'"

• • •

When they were kids back in Hanover, Gabriel would gather Sterner, Conrad and their friends and lead them to Clearview Park to play basketball. If there was snow on the ground, they would shovel it, then play ball. He wasn't going to let snow keep him away from the sport, and he's not going to let Parkinson's keep him from the game he loves now.

He still travels the country, scouting talent in hopes of bringing the right combination of players to the Knicks that would allow one of the most storied franchises in pro basketball to win its first title since 1973.

"The biggest thing you worry about is still providing for your family and I've been able to do that," said Gabriel, who has also helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Parkinson's research in Florida. "The other biggest struggle has been losing and not winning another championship for the Knicks. The sports element still keeps us competitive even in the face of all of this."

He'll deal with the tremors, he said, but winning is his main focus, and it's what has kept him going as one of the hardest workers in the business.

"He's just one of those guys who has competed every day since we were playing high school basketball together," Conrad said. "Every day he competed. He just had to. And it's still going on today, he's just competing with Parkinson's now."

• • •

Gabriel has a game he plays with his three kids -- two daughters in college and one son in high school. Name any job -- waiter, security officer, life guard, landscaper -- and they'll tell you their dad has done it, Gabriel said.

His road to the NBA was not a glamorous one. He worked all of those jobs at one point, and after graduating from Kutztown in the late '70s, Gabriel worked as a landscaper. He pestered the Philadelphia Sixers organization until they eventually offered him a job.

Gabriel didn't have any relatives in the organization, and he wasn't an ex-NBA player like most employees, but he proved his worth. He wrote commercials, sold tickets, scouted games, kept stats and even managed to fold the towels after the game. Whatever they needed Gabriel to do, he would do it, he said.

"There was nothing I was afraid to do," he said. "The days when my plate was the fullest were the happiest of my life."

• • •

In the mid-90s, Sterner was an assistant coach at Franklin & Marshall College, but he had his eyes set on a head coaching job at Carnegie Mellon. He called his old friend, Gabriel, who had worked his way up from jack-of-all-trades in Philadelphia to executive in Orlando, to see if he could make a few calls and put in a good word for him.

"He called me back a few days later and said, 'I don't know about Carnegie Mellon, but do you want a job here with the Orlando Magic?'" Sterner said of his conversation with Gabriel. "It was awesome. How often do you get a chance to work with your best friend? You feel fortunate to have a guy like that as a friend, and you appreciate all the things a guy like that does for you and your family."

In addition to Sterner, who has been in the league for 25 years now, Gabriel helped Conrad secure his first job in the NBA with the Magic, as well. And 10 years after helping start the franchise, Gabriel was named NBA Executive of the Year in 1999.

"There were no uniforms, no name, no arena when I got here (to Orlando)," Gabriel said. "Pat (Williams) needed someone who could do a little bit of everything, and I ended up being his first employee with the franchise."

From clearing snow in Hanover, to landscaping, to folding towels, to being named the best executive in one of the four major sports leagues, Gabriel's best qualities, according to Sterner, is that he's a true leader who treats everyone like family.

"The camaraderie you build and the people you get to meet along the way is the most rewarding part," Gabriel said. "It has been a good living that has allowed me to enjoy life with my wife and three children."

• • •

Despite rubbing elbows with NBA Hall of Famers and winning national awards, Gabriel said he's most proud of his family. He has scouted countless basketball talents across the country, but his favorite player to "scout" is a 6-foot-5 high school freshman in Florida -- John Gabriel II.

"Every time I get to see him play is the highlight of my day and my year," Gabriel said of his son.

Parkinson's has been an eye-opening experience for Gabriel, who admitted he had no idea it affects so many people. Gabriel knows it's a disease he won't be able to completely defeat and he'll have to deal with the tremors, but in the meantime, he's still the same guy. It's still all family and basketball.

"He's still the same guy he's been since we were kids," Conrad said of Gabriel. "Sure it's tough to watch him deal with Parkinson's at times. But he's quite an inspiration to all of us."

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Photo by AP Photo / Phelan M. Ebenhack

Forward Juwan Howard, center, with then-Orlando Magic head coach Doc Rivers, left, and then-general manager John Gabriel, pose with a Magic jersey in Maitland, Florida in July 2003, after Howard signed a contract with the team.

More on Parkinson's

Parkinson's disease is a neurodegenerative brain disorder that progresses slowly in most people. It causes a person's brain to stop producing dopamine, which means the person has less ability to regulate their movements, body and emotion.

Warning signs include shaking, loss of smell and trouble sleeping.

The disease is not fatal, although the complications can be serious.

There is no cure for Parkinson's.

-- The National Parkinson Foundation


This article comes to us through a partnership between the York Daily Record and WITF. 

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