Knicks exec is as tough as his team
Ian O'Connor [ARCHIVE]
December 20, 2012
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Maybe the New York Knicks had already guessed that something was amiss, that their director of pro scouting and free agency, John Gabriel, was not quite the same man they hired in 2008. Maybe they had noticed a twitch or a tremor, or had taken a quick mental snapshot of an otherwise vibrant 50-something executive traveling cautiously down a flight of stairs.

Gabriel's oldest brother, Pat, and his childhood friend and former colleague with the Orlando Magic, Tom Sterner, had long suspected something wasn't right with him, yet they didn't think it was their place to bring it up. Men.

But Gabriel didn't know for sure what his employer did or didn't know. He only knew he'd been charged to help the Knicks acquire the kinds of stars he'd recruited to Orlando -- Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady in the breathless summer of 2000, right after the nearest of near-misses on Tim Duncan -- and now he was about to tell them something that wasn't covered in any front-office playbook.

I have Parkinson's disease.

Gabriel was inside the Knicks' practice facility in Greenburgh, N.Y., before the start of last season, when he asked general manager Glen Grunwald if he could call a meeting of the staff. The former NBA Executive of the Year had been living and working with Parkinson's for more than a full season, and this was his moment of workplace truth, his time to announce he was among the nearly one million Americans trying to beat an unbeaten foe.

Gabriel needed only 15 minutes to tell the basketball operations staff he was suffering from what the Parkinson's Disease Foundation describes as an incurable and degenerative disorder that kills dopamine-producing neurons in the brain, robbing a person of his or her ability to control normal movement. When Gabriel's fellow team officials heard the word Parkinson's, perhaps they defaulted to the images of Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali fighting the disease in very public forums and trying to weather the assaults on their bodies and minds with varying degrees of success.

This wasn't the picture Gabriel wanted framed in the Knicks' offices. He'd survived a private battle with prostate cancer while with the Magic and a life-threatening case of anaphylactic shock (caused by repeated wasp stings in 2004) that left him unconscious in Winter Park (Fla.) Memorial Hospital for two and a half days.

"I felt a little invincible," Gabriel said. "I'd beaten things a couple of times already. So you know, if it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger."

Life made Gabriel strong enough to face Grunwald and his co-workers and reveal that his central nervous system was under siege. "I didn't make it woe-is-me, or that this was the end," he said. "I just didn't want them to hear it from somebody else."

He waited so long to inform the Knicks of his condition because he first wanted to see if he could do the job as he'd done it before. Gabriel couldn't guarantee, in his words, "that things would stay absolutely the same," but he was confident his post-Parkinson's performance would be in the pre-Parkinson's ballpark.

So he told it straight to the team officials, and he immediately saw compassion in their eyes and in their questions as this unwanted presentation drew to a close.

"What can we do for you?" they asked.

"Please just treat me like you always have," he answered.

The people in the room were quick to offer their support, to wrap an arm around his shoulder, and to promise him things would remain as they were. But would they? Would the Knicks continue treating Gabriel as one of Grunwald's most trusted advisers? Or would they quietly come to see him as a damaged asset in a win-or-else business?

Gabriel would find out the answer in due time. He got back on the road to scout pro and college talent. His goal was to help the Knicks win the championship ring he couldn't win in Orlando.

Gabriel had a deep appreciation for the Knicks and the chance they gave him to restore his career. But in the back of his mind, in a place the disease couldn't touch, he also hoped to prove he could be a viable candidate for a future GM opening, and perhaps end up as the first NBA executive durable enough to outlast Parkinson's while outwitting agents and running a team.

His résumé as an executive, and as a working-class kid out of small-town Pennsylvania, suggests he might just be tough enough to pull it off.

In the summer of 1982, John Gabriel pulled up to the Philadelphia 76ers' office with his lawn mower stowed in the back of his Chevy pickup. He was a landscaper who would stop twice a week at the Point Diner in Somers Point, N.J., to call a Sixers personnel guy, John Nash, from a phone booth to ask him for a chance. Gabriel estimated he'd cut about 50 lawns before the Sixers called him back.

A 6-foot-1 ballplayer out of Delone Catholic High School in McSherrystown, Pa., and a hardscrabble guard who often covered the opponent's leading scorer at Kutztown State (now Kutztown University), Gabriel held down all sorts of pay-the-rent jobs to keep alive his dream of an NBA life. He had set up Kutztown's gym in the '70s for the touring rock bands passing through, and he served as something of a stagehand for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on the eve of their release of "Born to Run."

On weekends, Gabriel would jump on a bus to two different racetracks to park cars from 11 a.m. until midnight. The son and younger brother of horse racing officials, Gabriel worked at the Atlantic City Race Track after a short time as a middle school and high school art teacher and basketball coach and as an assistant coach at Kutztown. He would climb poles with his binoculars to judge races, and he'd write commercials to promote giveaway days.

Nash had worked at the track years earlier, and he liked Gabriel's in-house ads. He hired the kid for an opening in the box office, paying him about $1,000 a month, and Gabriel handed off his landscaping business to his brother-in-law. Soon enough Gabriel was writing Sixers commercials and serving as the video guy for the coaches. "We landed Moses Malone and John Gabriel around the same time," Nash said through a laugh. "Productive summer."

The Sixers won it all in '83, and Gabriel earned the trust of coaches Billy Cunningham and Matt Guokas, rising to the positions of scout and assistant coach. Sixers GM Pat Williams would leave for the expansion Magic in Orlando, and Gabriel was his first hire in 1987, when they met in a Church Street Station deli to pick the team logos, team colors, training staff, you name it -- all but writing the franchise blueprint on stained napkins.

Gabriel was on his way, yet Cunningham, then a minority owner of the expansion Miami Heat, had a friendly warning for the former landscaper. "This is a really tough business,"...
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