Knicks exec is as tough as his team
By speaking up, John Gabriel seeks to inspire others who have Parkinson's
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," Cunningham told him. "Keep that mower on the back of your truck."
Gabriel was Williams' right-hand man when the Magic drafted Shaquille O'Neal in 1992, and was a driving force behind Orlando's decision the following year to trade the No. 1 pick, Chris Webber, to Golden State for the No. 3 pick, Penny Hardaway, and three future first-rounders. "Together," Penny said at the time, "I hope me and Shaq can achieve what Magic and Kareem did."
Together they fell woefully short. The Magic knocked out the returning retiree, Michael Jordan, in the '95 playoffs before getting swept by Houston in the championship round. The following year, after Jordan's Bulls swept Orlando in the conference finals, O'Neal traded Disney for Hollywood.
"The most dejected I've ever seen John in anything, the lowest ever," said Pat Gabriel, "was the day he realized Shaq was going to the Lakers."
Only four years later, Williams' successor as GM had landed his next Shaq, if only for a day or two. Tim Duncan was ready to leave San Antonio for Orlando, ready to team up with another free agent, Grant Hill, after Gabriel had completed 57 transactions over a 15-month period to clear the salary-cap space required to make it happen. If things worked out perfectly, Tracy McGrady might've joined them to create a Big Three, 10 years before Pat Riley landed one to call his own.
Gabriel was coming off an Executive of the Year honor (1999-2000) for fielding a .500 team while dismantling his roster, and for hiring the rookie on the bench, Doc Rivers, the league's Coach of the Year. The GM heard from Lon Babby, who represented Duncan and Hill, that both wanted to sign with the Magic. Gabriel hosted the free agents over a lavish weekend recruiting visit that included a stop at the Isleworth home of Orlando team president Bob Vander Weide, and then a prearranged bump into Isleworth's most famous resident, Tiger Woods, at the 230-yard par-3 fifth.
He has a disease, but John's never going to let that be in the forefront. He's already put it in the background. He brings a lot of value to the Knicks as a tireless worker, and he has tunnel vision in whatever job he's doing. He has a knack with people, he has a tremendous amount of experience evaluating personnel, and no matter what he's dealing with he's just not going to let you know anything's wrong with him.” -- Pat Flaherty
"It was rigged by Gabe," said Sterner, the former Magic assistant who grew up with Gabriel in Hanover, Pa., and won a state championship with him at Delone Catholic. "Bob asked Tiger if he minded hitting a shot, and Tiger puts his six-iron within 4 feet of the pin. I mean, Gabe did everything humanly possible to sign Duncan."
Only when David Robinson returned from his Hawaiian vacation to plead with his frontcourt partner to remain in San Antonio did Duncan decide to stay. The Admiral had holed out on Tiger, and Gabriel was left to acquire McGrady and Hill, who arrived in Orlando with an ankle injury that would force the five-time All-Star to miss 281 out of 328 regular-season games over his first four seasons with the Magic.
"To this day, I'll defend Gabe on the Grant Hill decision," said Sterner, now an assistant with the Raptors. "I was in the room when the doctor said there was a 90 percent chance Hill would recover and be 100 percent. If the doctors said it was 50-50, Gabe wouldn't have done it."
The devastating Hill injury and some unfortunate draft choices got Rivers fired in 2003, four months before his GM was forced out, too. "I had  years there," Gabriel said. "I probably overstayed my welcome a bit."
He did some consulting, some TV work and some scouting for the Trail Blazers. He came close to landing the GM jobs in Seattle and Atlanta, but close wasn't close enough. The Knicks came along and salvaged his career. Team president Donnie Walsh knew he'd have to clear cap space for the summer of 2010, the summer of LeBron, and he knew of an available executive who had done the free-agent teardown thing before.
Gabe was loving his time with the Knicks, loving the time he was spending in his Winter Park, Fla., home with his three children and his wife Dorothy, the former Sixers receptionist who wouldn't put the landscaper's calls through to team executives back when Gabriel was trying to clear a path to the NBA.
And then one day at home in 2009, Gabriel noticed a recurrence of a quivering in his ring finger. Alarmed, he put down his magazine. He'd been reading an article on Michael J. Fox.
With his lean, distance runner's build and George Hamilton tan, John Gabriel never looked like a prostate cancer survivor who had nearly lost his life to a fluke series of wasp bites after he was fired in Orlando. His arm had swelled and he was feeling ice cold on a 95-degree day when he staggered onto a street, opened the passenger-side door to a stranger's pickup truck, and asked the man to take him to the hospital just before he passed out.
Emergency responders had to cut Gabriel out of the truck; his limp body was wedged beneath the dashboard. He woke up two and a half days later, tied down so he wouldn't pull the tubes out of his throat. Gabriel emerged from the death grip of his anaphylactic shock, and offered to buy the stranger who saved him a new truck. The man wouldn't accept the offer. "God wanted me on that street corner for a reason," he told Gabriel.
But there was no Good Samaritan to spare Gabriel from the diagnosis he feared the most in 2010. He'd gone from doctor to doctor, expert to expert, test to test, just waiting for someone or something to tell him he didn't have Parkinson's. Gabriel noticed he had an uncontrollable tremor in his foot, too, and he hoped against hope it was caused by a pinched nerve.
Finally, after Gabriel inquired about a new piece of equipment and yet another MRI, Dr. Robert Hauser of the University of South Florida's Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute told him it wouldn't matter. "Whatever the results are," Hauser said, "I'm telling you that you have it."
Gabriel had to relay the same message to his wife and daughters and son. Dorothy is South Philly strong; she took it well. "I had to reassure the kids that dad is going to be fine," Gabriel said. "I told them I'm going to dance at their weddings."
He threw himself into his work, scouting dozens of games in Orlando and beyond and spending week after week with colleagues in New York. Gabriel would take a cocktail of medicines, including Sinemet three times a day, and he would attend seminars featuring Michael J. Fox and keep appointments with Irene Malaty, his doctor at the Center for Movement Disorders & Neurorestoration at the University of Florida's Shands Hospital.
"If I tremor more one day than another, my kids will ask me questions," Gabriel said. "I have a little tremor in my left arm that probably isn't very noticeable, and sometimes I keep it under the table. I've got a bit of a bop in my leg, and in my foot, like anyone else, I'm tapping. Sometimes I can make the tapping stop, but I can't keep it that way for very long."
Gabriel finds himself being more careful on the stairs, and he feels more at ease standing than sitting. Malaty said Parkinson's can cause fatigue and loss of energy, leaving the stricken with cramps, a slower and stiffer gait, and unpredictable mood swings. Gabriel tries to manage the vile effects of the disease through exercise, rest and work. Sometimes he has good days, and sometimes he doesn't.
"This past summer, in the draft room," Sterner said, "Gabe told me his leg would start to shake under the table and he couldn't stop it. Before he told me about the diagnosis, I could tell something was different, that he moved a little slower and that there was a lower pitch in his voice. But I didn't see the tremors when I was around him."
Pat Gabriel noticed some tremors and foot-tapping a few months before his brother's diagnosis, when a few friends mentioned they thought John didn't look quite right. John Gabriel ultimately knew word would get out. He knew he had to tell those who needed to know, including the people signing his checks.
So Gabriel had his big sit-down with the Knicks when he felt the time was right, "when I knew I wasn't any less a person or a scout for having this disease," he said. Grunwald and the rest told him they supported him, and Gabriel waited to see if anything would change. He waited to see if the Knicks would baby him, patronize him or marginalize him.
None of that happened. Grunwald kept throwing assignments at Gabriel, kept sending him on the road, kept trusting his personnel opinions as much as any the GM solicited within the organization.
"I'd be lying if I said that wasn't a big relief," Gabriel said. Parkinson's is a progressive disorder, meaning its impact grows more unforgiving over time. Gabriel once had needles full of Botox plunged into his foot and leg to prevent curling in his toes.
I had to reassure the kids that dad is going to be fine. I told them I'm going to dance at their weddings.” -- John Gabriel
Well-meaning people have asked him how long he has to live, and Gabriel, 56, tells them he hopes to live for a very long time. "Some doctors say, 'People like yourself live maybe five or 10 years shorter than they would have,'" Gabriel said. "But I don't want to know how bad this could be if it gets really bad. I'm just hoping what I'm dealing with now is the end of it."
Truth is, he'd be perfectly happy to finish his front-office career with the Knicks, to remain part of a management team that's put a big winner on the floor. Gabriel calls Grunwald "as sharp of a GM as I've ever been around."
But Gabriel also believes he's fit enough for a second crack at the big job, a chance some league observers are stunned he never got. Gabriel chose to speak publicly about his illness in the Orlando Sentinel last spring, and in a series of recent conversations with ESPNNewYork.com, his only interview with a New York outlet since he joined the Knicks more than four years ago.
He talked because he wants to help in the war on Parkinson's, but he knows speaking for the record about his disease "probably diminishes my chances of being picked up in a higher position later on. But I'm honored to do what I'm doing with the Knicks, and without sounding romantic about it, there comes a time in your life when you need to take the next step and help a greater cause than basketball."
And yet his case does present a couple of interesting basketball-related questions. Would an NBA owner consider hiring a successful and driven man with Parkinson's to run his team? And does John Gabriel have the nerve and fortitude to be that man?
"There's no question about it," said Pat Flaherty, the New York Giants' offensive line coach and a lifelong friend of Gabriel's dating back to their days on the St. Vincent's elementary school basketball team.
Like Tom Sterner, Flaherty grew up with Gabriel among the Hanover-area factories that produced shoes and pretzels and Utz potato chips. As a colon cancer survivor (the disease was detected during his first Giants physical in 2004) and as one of the NFL's most respected assistants, Flaherty is a tough guy who's been around a lot of tough guys. Just none tougher than Gabriel.
"He has a disease, but John's never going to let that be in the forefront," Flaherty said. "He's already put it in the background. He brings a lot of value to the Knicks as a tireless worker, and he has tunnel vision in whatever job he's doing. He has a knack with people, he has a tremendous amount of experience evaluating personnel, and no matter what he's dealing with he's just not going to let you know anything's wrong with him."
For now, Gabriel wants two things in life: (1) to show people you can carry on as a husband, father and employee while managing Parkinson's, and (2) to help the New York Knicks win their first NBA title since 1973.
Looks like he has a legitimate shot at going 2-for-2. As it turns out, these Knicks are a tough team. John Gabriel tough.
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