MANCHESTER, N.H. – The NBA playoffs are playing out inside Walt Disney World’s Wide World of Sports bubble, and one participant with Manchester roots is making his presence felt there and back here at home.
Wenyen Gabriel was born in Sudan, but the now 23-year-old began his basketball journey here in New Hampshire. After time spent playing for Trinity High School, Gabriel earned a role at the University of Kentucky and eventually made his way into a reserve role with the Sacramento Kings. Traded to the Portland Trailblazers in January, Gabriel has slowly become an integral force off the bench, putting in double-digit minute outings in two of Portland’s three playoff games so far against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Manchester Central Head Coach Sudi Lett coached Gabriel at Bishop Elite, an award-winning AAU program with deep ties to the community.
Lett remembers Gabriel as a younger player and saw his potential early on, even as he learned to adapt through adolescence, describing Gabriel as a player with guard-level ballhandling capabilities and strong perimeter defense in a 6”9 frame. However, for Lett, Gabriel’s biggest attribute is his positive attitude.
“He’s always had a real work ethic, that’s his best skill,” says Lett. “Everyone in the NBA is talented, but work ethic is what can separate you, and fortunately work ethic is in his DNA.”
Between his rise to the NBA and the instant fame surrounding his recent good deed with an Uber driver, Gabriel has come to inspire a new generation of young Manchester basketball players, especially among those within the city’s African immigrant community.
Majak Wenyin, a friend of the Gabriel family, has seen this phenomenon first hand. After three years on Manchester Memorial’s program in the early 2010s, Wenyin played junior college ball before a brief stint at Harvard.
Wenyin says their shared name, which comes from the Dinka word for “wipe your tears” is a traditional name often given by South Sudanese families when a baby is born during times of hardship in the hopes of better times to come.
Gabriel has tried to live up to the promise of that name according to Wenyin, constantly bouncing back from adversity during his development on the court to improve and grow.
“Just seeing his development is amazing, to see people doubting him to where he is now, all the work he’s put in to get where he is now, it’s just amazing. He was in positions where it looked like nothing would happen and he transformed them into positions where things did happen,” says Wenyin. “He’s one of those people who always figures out tough situations.”
Like Lett, Wenyin now works in youth basketball development and share’s Lett’s optimism about the state of New Hampshire’s basketball future, going as far to say that Lett helped spark the upcoming generation of Granite State basketball talent.
Between Akok Akok at Connecticut, Kaleb Joseph at Syracuse and later Creighton, Wenyen’s brother Gob committing to Monmouth or even Kur Teng at Manchester West, who Wenyin sees as a younger version of Gabriel, both men feel that it’s only a matter of time before another Manchester player reaches the NBA.
“I think (Gabriel’s) lit up a fire in this community, and there are more kids of his caliber that can make it,” said Wenyin, “I’ll take the top ten players in New Hampshire against anybody, I think we’re going to compete.”