ORLANDO, Fla. — John Gabriel remembers Jeff Turner bringing out the competitor in both him and Pat Williams before the Orlando Magic even played their first game.
And he can also recall a night when Sam Vincent brought him to his knees while bringing a losing streak to an end several thousand miles away.
Gabriel, Turner and Vincent are the latest guests of honor for the Magic’s season-long 25th anniversary celebration. All three will be part of a ceremony at center court after the first quarter Friday night when the Magic face the Oklahoma City Thunder. Turner currently serves as an analyst for FOX Sports Florida, and Vincent will join him and play-by-play announcer David Steele to start the second quarter.
Gabriel, now 57, was among several employees from the Philadelphia 76ers whom Williams brought to Orlando to help put together a team from scratch. Gabriel’s first season as an assistant coach with the Sixers in 1982-83 saw them capture what remains their last NBA title.
Williams offered him a similar position with the Magic under coach Matt Guokas. But as someone with a passion for scouting players, Gabriel believed he was better suited for that line of work.
”(I) quickly decided I’d rather build the car than drive it,” he said.
While Vincent was chosen by the Magic in the 1989 expansion draft, Turner had spent a year in Italy after playing three seasons for the New Jersey Nets and was a free agent. Gabriel said he heard through an agent that the Minnesota Timberwolves, who were joining the Magic in entering the NBA that year, were on the verge of signing Turner.
Gabriel and Williams would have none of that.
”Pat and I got together and decided the competition starts now,” he said. ”The big lefty was somebody we’d love to have on our team. So we signed him a little earlier than maybe we should have. But it was a great addition to the team. And he ended up playing a very important role in the team that made it to the Finals (in 1995).”
The last of Vincent’s three seasons with the Magic was also their final one before winning the 1992 draft lottery and taking Shaquille O’Neal. Gabriel, their director of scouting at the time and not long from being promoted to director of player personnel, was in a hotel room in Alabama on a scouting assignment that January when Vincent scored a career-high 35 points at Seattle.
The Magic had lost 17 games in a row, and Gabriel was determined not to miss Steele’s call as Vincent finally got them back on the winning track.
”I asked my wife Dorothy to put the phone up to the radio,” he said. ”And I was on the floor of the hotel room on my knees praying and listening on the speaker phone.”
Gabriel succeeded Williams as Magic general manager in April 1996 and maintained that position for the next eight years. He is perhaps best known during that time for making 55 transactions over a two-month span in the summer of 1999 — including the trading of such fixtures as Nick Anderson, Penny Hardaway and Horace Grant — to make way for what became known as the "heart and hustle" team coached by Doc Rivers.
Rivers ended up being honored as Coach of the Year for leading a lightly-regarded collection of players to a 41-41 record, and Gabriel was named NBA Executive of the Year.
”We did a pretty good job in my time here of not having coach after coach after coach,” Gabriel said. ”And we wanted to bring somebody in that we thought would best suit our players, our culture, and he was the choice. I’m happy for him, but I’m only sad that it couldn’t have stayed longer.”
Rivers was fired in November 2003 while the Magic were in the midst of a 19-game losing streak. The Boston Celtics hired him the following summer, and he led them to an NBA title in 2008. He’s now coaching the Los Angeles Clippers.
Gabriel resigned four months after Rivers’ departure. He spent three years as a scout for the Portland Trail Blazers before the New York Knicks hired him in August 2008 as their director of pro scouting.
While he still holds that position, his residence and much of his heart has remained in the Orlando area.
”Some of my closest friends are still on this Magic staff,” he said.
That includes Williams, who has formed a new bond with Gabriel under trying circumstances for both men. Gabriel was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in December 2010, two months before Williams learned he had a form of cancer known as multiple myeloma.
It’s estimated that as many as 6 million people worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s, and complications resulting from it is ranked as the 14th-leading cause of death in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Gabriel will serve as chairman of the first Moving Day being held by the local chapter of the National Parkinson Foundation. The one-mile walk to raise funds and awareness is scheduled for April 5 at Crane’s Roost Park in Altamonte Springs, and he said current Magic chief executive officer Alex Martins has pledged the franchise’s support of the cause.
Gabriel is also on the council for the Center for Movement Disorders and Neurorestoration at the University of Florida, where his doctors are.
”Pat and I now continue to hopefully serve a purpose and be constructive in what we’re doing in suffering from physical ailments that maybe we’ll never totally overcome,” he said.
Being asked to take part in Friday night’s festivities clearly means a lot to Gabriel.
”I’ve been so fortunate to be, in general, around wonderful, giving people that I know I clearly got a lot more from than I was able to give them,” he said.