MANCHESTER, NH – Los Angeles Lakers player Wenyen Gabriel may have been born in Southern Sudan but he was raised for many of his formative years in Manchester.
“It was the place my family found refuge,” said Gabriel of the Queen City. “You know, I’m a former refugee, and after going through the process, coming through Cairo, Egypt, and then New York, this is where we were placed, and this city welcomed my family with open arms. All the opportunity here has been a blessing to me and the city embraced me and helped provide me the opportunity to get to where I am now, so I’m super grateful for that.”
Friday, Gabriel had an opportunity to express his gratitude in action, hosting a free basketball camp for local 9- to 17-year-old aspiring basketball players at Southern New Hampshire University.
“It’s my first camp back in the city since I left … so now here we are, at Southern New Hampshire University with the help of (Manchester Central High School head coach) Sudi Lett and a lot of the people I grew up with around here, my support base, doing something for the community, so it’s just a really positive event,” he said. “I just want (the kids) to understand I’m the same as them and basketball has brought so many different things to me, but also the importance of character and how that’s made me who I am today.”
Many of the young players in attendance, such as 12-year-old Xavier Rodriguez of Manchester, said that simply being able to meet Gabriel and hear his story served as an inspiration.
“This camp meant a lot to me because I love basketball, and I love playing the sport,” said Rodriguez. “And I love the Lakers, so just to see and have one of the Lakers players coaching me and to be able to get stuff signed from him, it’s just amazing.”
Though Gabriel plays for the Lakers as a professional, he admits that growing up, he wasn’t necessarily a fan of any specific team, though watching and rooting for Lakers’ great Kobe Bryant and current teammate LeBron James both helped drive Gabriel’s interest in the sport.
“I just love basketball and talent, and being able to go to L.A. and be able to play for a brand like that is something I’ve embraced and I’m super grateful for, especially seeing the sport’s impact throughout the world, not just the United States.”
In addition to sharing his story of growing up in Manchester and playing for Trinity High School before moving on to the University of Kentucky and eventually the NBA, Gabriel spent much of the afternoon interacting with the 250 young players in attendance. He even challenged many of those same area youth to try to score on him.
After blocking dozens of shots heaved up by those brave enough to try, including one from this reporter’s 14-year-old son (he also dunked on my 12-year-old), he shared many laughs, signed many balls, towels and shoes, and took hundreds of pictures.
“It’s pretty cool to see him give back to the community and provide this opportunity for the young kids,” said Megan Giampetruzzi, whose step son play with Gabriel at Trinity. “It’s been an awesome day. What a great turnout.”
Lett, who organized the camp, said the turnout made things a bit difficult logistically but noted that the day turned out to be a positive experience despite the challenges.
“I think it went well. I mean, we had about 250 kids there with six hoops, so that was super challenging, but everyone had a great attitude,” he said. “It really ended up being a meet-and-greet masked as a basketball camp. You know, we only had a certain amount of hours so there was only so much we could do, but again, the kids were great. They had great enthusiasm, great energy, were super active and Wenyen and the coaches, staff, volunteers and helpers were all great and really made it happen.”