AUBURN, Ala. — When the Israel-Palestinian conflict flared once again in November, former Auburn basketball standout Kenny Gabriel began waging his own personal, emotional war.
Just five games into his professional career with Maccabi Ashdod, situated on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea halfway between Tel Aviv and the Gaza Strip, Gabriel witnessed firsthand how religious violence has become a way of life for his Israeli teammates and their countrymen.
Originally, Gabriel waited it out. The last thing he wanted to do was renege on his first professional contract.
But every time a missile alarm bellowed, or CNN broadcast raids, invasions and explosions within striking distance of Gabriel’s apartment, the 23-year-old living by himself in a foreign country couldn’t stop thinking of his family, young and old.
“It stressed me out, knowing it was stressing them out because they knew how close I was to Gaza,” Gabriel said recently. “I told them …”
His deep, raspy voice trails off.
“I just wanted to let them know I was OK. But it came to a point in time where I felt like I had to leave.”
Another pause. Kenny stares into space, standing in Auburn Arena, picturing little Kenny.
“That’s why I’m here now. I didn’t want to put my son in jeopardy, of me possibly being killed over there. It was time to come on home.”
“I could say that I have been in danger but nothing has happened to me though. Just hearing sirens go off you don’t know if the Israel Defense Force is going to shoot the missile down or if its going to land next to your apartment building.”
Kenny Gabriel email to the Ledger-Enquirer, Nov. 19
“You could see the streaks in the air”
Gabriel started all 31 games for Auburn his senior year, averaging 12.2 points and a team-best 7.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 2011-12. He was named the Tigers’ team MVP in March.
After a knee injury hampered his short stay with the Sacramento Kings’ summer league squad, Gabriel retreated home to Charlotte to work out and evaluate his options. He had never given serious thought to continuing his career overseas.
His agent found him a landing spot in Israel, which accommodated Gabriel’s interest in warm weather and nice people. He arrived in Ashdod on Aug. 28, with the Israeli Basketball Super League season beginning in mid-October.
Gabriel averaged a respectable 8.4 points and 5.6 rebounds in 27.0 minutes over five games. He got along well with his teammates, a mix of culture from Israel and the United States.
Then, reality of the Middle East intervened.
Over eight days of warfare followed by a ceasefire brokered in part by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an estimated 175 soldiers and civilians were left dead, the product of more than a thousand rockets launched.
It was the most vivid, frightening period of Gabriel’s life.
“I heard two missiles collide. That was really tough,” Gabriel said. “You could see the streaks in the air. It was pretty crazy.”
“I am every bit of 30-40 minutes from Gaza so anything that could happen to a random civilian in Ashdod or other smaller southern cities could also happen to me. Being in Tel Aviv now is a little safer but I’ve still heard a few missile alarms go off.”
Kenny Gabriel email, Nov. 19
“Life is more valuable than a contract”
Back in North Carolina, Kevin Gabriel trembled every time he watched the news.
A US Airways manager at Charlotte Douglas International Airport the past five years, his heart tugged while staying supportive of his son’s courage to remain loyal to the 1-year commitment he inked with Maccabi Ashdod.
It wasn’t fair, that Kenny had overall enjoyed his Israel experience, that Kevin and his new wife had made plans to visit Kenny and tour Jerusalem in January, that ultimately the Gabriels felt only one choice was clear.
“He didn’t want to burn any bridges,” Kevin Gabriel said. “He wanted to honor his contract, but he knew life is more valuable than a contract.”
Kenny Gabriel cut ties with Maccabi Ashdod on Nov. 21, a week after the bombings commenced.
During the uncertain time, Gabriel was competing with hordes of travelers trying to return to the United States. Kevin used those airport resources to find him a flight on one of the few available seats.
Gabriel made it home for Thanksgiving, where he was showered with personal relief but expressed his professional worries based on the way he departed Ashdod.
“His main concern was he wanted his good name, his good character still out there,” Kevin said. “He wanted to make sure people weren’t looking at him as a bad guy because he had to leave. He didn’t want to be judged by what happened in Israel as far as him leaving.”
Kevin imparted optimism on his son — there will be another opportunity. As it is, Gabriel’s agent is zeroing in on sending Kenny to Europe, working on potential deals in Greece, Belarus and Bulgaria.
“I met and took some pictures with a few soldiers and one of my teammates wife is in the army. Being in Israel let me know that it is very different because in the states you don’t have to worry about anything like this happening.”
Kenny Gabriel email, Nov. 19
“He strives to be a good dad”
Kenny Gabriel Jr. — or “KJ” for short — was born Jan. 24, 2011, two weeks after Auburn’s football national championship and in the thick of Kenny Gabriel’s junior season.
“His baby pictures look exactly like Ken’s baby pictures,” Kevin said. “So it’s pretty cool to see another generation.”
KJ lives with his mother in Dallas. Whether he’s halfway across the country or halfway across the world, Kenny hasn’t distanced himself from his infant son — in fact, he strengthens the relationship any chance he gets.
That’s a lesson taught by his own father.
“He strives to be a good dad. I instilled in him early, you don’t want to be one of these guys with children all over the place,” Kevin said. “If you have a child, it’s on you to be a man, step up and protect your children. Teach your little boy how to grow up and work for what they want.”
Kevin is hosting the holidays in Charlotte with his 1-year-old son and 101-year-old grandfather, as well as his own father and Kenny.
That’s right — five generations of Gabriels wolfing down turkey on Christmas. Doesn’t get better than that.
Behold the bright side to Kenny’s hoops career being put on hold, even via dangerous circumstances.
“Aw, man, every time a missile alarm went off, I thought about (KJ). I just didn’t want my son to grow up without a dad,” Kenny said.
“That was one of the main reasons I came back home, to be with him, to see him smile, to see him cry, to see him run around and be a little kid.”
Kenny Gabriel tweet, Dec. 24