John Gabriel joined the Orlando Magic's front office prior to their expansion season and eventually became their general manager. During his tenure in that post, he oversaw a dramatic rebuilding project in which he gutted the team in order to clear salary-cap space to sign two of the three top-flight free agents in the summer of 2000. He came away with Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, two swingmen who might have restored Orlando to NBA prominence with a stronger supporting cast and a healthier Hill.
As part of its 25th anniversary celebration, Orlando honored Gabriel--along with Sam Vincent and Jeff Turner, two players on that expansion team--during Friday's stunning win against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Gabriel met with the media before the game and discussed several topics, including the build-up to his twin, max-dollar signings. Almost 14 years later, he still recalls the precise number of transactions required to clear all that cap room.
"The funnest part of that whole thing, besides putting together one of the more unique clubs in the league and almost making the playoffs in the rebuilding state, was the collaboration of the DeVoses; Scott Herring, my assistant general manager, and really everybody in the league that trusted us enough to make 57 transactions in 18 months," Gabriel said. "A lot of players we didn't even bring in; we just moved on to the next thing. We really pushed the limits on the Collective Bargaining Agreement at that time, taking bigger pieces and breaking them into little pieces, and then moving them on inevitably to make [cap] room."
Almost by accident, Gabriel put together a competitive team: the "Heart and Hustle" squad--so called because of its scrappy style and underdog spirit--which preceded the signings of Hill and McGrady finished with a .500 record and only missed the playoffs because the Milwaukee Bucks, another .500 team, owned the tiebreaker for the East's final playoff seed. Gabriel credited first-year coach Doc Rivers and team captain Darrell Armstrong for much of that team's success.
The Magic now, as then, find themselves rebuilding. Gabriel doesn't think the approach he used to land Hill and McGrady would work in today's league.
"Whether or not you can do it now is a tremendous question. I don't think you can," Gabriel said. "The league has done a tremendous job of keeping their eye on the ball with the concept of helping teams keep their own players and creating identitites with these players." The former Orlando general manager thinks the league's changes to the CBA are ultimately for the best.
Though he's said hello a few times, Gabriel hasn't had a chance to talk extensively with Rob Hennigan, Orlando's current general manager, who's already put his stamp on the franchise by trading Dwight Howard, its all-time leading scorer, and building around a core of versatile youngsters, not all of whom adhere to traditional positional nomenclature. The rebuild is slow-going: Orlando has the league's worst overall record since Hennigan took over. As a member of Orlando's front office in its earliest seasons, before it landed Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway in back-to-back Drafts, Gabriel knows from losing.
"It's tough, there's no doubt about it," Gabriel said. "I remember going out in the expansion years when we were getting hammered every night and whispering under my breath the Rocky song just to keep my motivation up a little bit as you headed out to the next destination to scout, knowing htat your team was in trouble."
But Gabriel has no doubt that Hennigan's the right man to rebuild the Magic. "I resepct what he's doing," said Gabriel of Orlando's current general manager. "I think everyone can rest assured that he's gonna do it right."
Gabriel currently serves as the New York Knicks' Director of Basketball Operations. He's also fighting Parkinson's disease, which ailment he's fought for "two or three years." He splits his time between his Knicks duties and "raising money and raising awareness" for Parkinson's charities.