The NBA wishes LA Lakers’ Wenyen Gabriel a happy birthday – and so do his hometown fans

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“Effort pays off, repeatedly!”

MANCHESTER, NH – If you’re an NBA fan here in New Hampshire, then you are likely rooting for the Boston Celtics right now, who currently hold the No. 2 position in NBA’s Eastern Conference with 51 wins and 23 losses, right behind No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks (53-21).

And, if you’re an NBA fan you also may be watching what’s happening in the Western Conference, going into the playoffs.

You know the LA Lakers are fighting to hang in there, currently No. 8 in the standings – but they are also on a three-game hot streak, and power forward Wenyen Gabriel – who held his first basketball as a kid here in Manchester – has been doing some extraordinary ball-handling for them of late.

I met Wenyen Gabriel for the first time in 2017. He showed up for Coach Sudi Lett’s Midnight Madness, a late-night open run clinic that provided a chance for local kids to see what’s possible. I didn’t realize at the time just how young Wenyen was then. But since today is his 26th birthday, that means that the gracious and thoughtful young man with the megawatt smile who indulged me in a quick interview was just 20.

When I reached out to Lett for this story, he happened to be on vacation – in LA, where he attended two of the last Lakers games and caught up with Gabriel over dinner. On Sunday Lett was on his way back east, with a layover in Chicago that will last long enough for him to see Gabriel when they play the Bulls again on March 29.

“It just so happened that my vacation ended up falling right in that week of his birthday so we had a chance to get dinner while I was in LA, and when he gets to Chicago Wednesday I’ll see him again and give him a little birthday gift,” Lett said.

From left, Coach Sudi Lett, Wenyen Gabriel, and coach Terry Mann, during 2017 Midnight Madness. Photo/Carol Robidoux

When asked how it feels to see Gabriel in the spotlight, Lett said it’s gratifying.

“He’s been able to live by the words players talk about, which is ‘stay ready,’ even when your number isn’t called, so when your number gets called you’re ready. He was in rotation, they made some trades, he was out of rotation, then back in and now he’s been able to produce,” Lett said.

“The biggest thing I see from afar with him – and with the team – is they’re just playing with more joy. Anything you do with life is better when joy is in it and you’re able to smile through it,” Lett said. “Every situation has challenges, whether it’s your job or school or trying to win games in the NBA. It’s been really good to see the joy he’s been playing with and see him be able to smile through all the challenges, because there have been challenges.”

Through it all Lett recognizes something in Gabriel that might just be the secret sauce of success: his gratitude.

“I believe his gratitude is incredibly important. It’s not just our relationship – he’s close to a lot of his past coaches.  There are a ton of coaches I could name off the top of my head Wenyen has a similar relationship with; ours may just be more public. He doesn’t forget that and he honors that through his play and interactions,” Lett said.

Sudi Lett, right, courtside with LA Lakers’ Wenyen Gabriel. The two were able to catch up last week while Lett was traveling. Courtesy Photo

“I was telling my fiancee that there are some kids you coach despite what they do basketball-wise, and now that I have a son I am thinking he could be just like Wenyen – yes, maybe he’ll play basketball, but what I really mean is that my hope is for him to be a good person,” Lett said. “Not many people will argue this point: Wenyen’s a good player, but an even better person.”

Lett has always known that Gabriel had the magic touch, that combination of work ethic, focus and talent.

Now the whole world can see how NBA players are made, through Gabriel’s incredible journey.

The magic comes through perseverance and practice. Gabriel, who has been playing with the LA Lakers since 2021, is having his best season yet since going pro. He’s come off the bench to score 60 points this season, and gotten even more opportunities to find his rhythm on the court with the Lakers’ star, LeBron James, on the injured list.

If things continue as they’ve been going, expect to see Gabriel in action for the Lakers in today’s game against the Chicago Bulls, which starts at 3:30 p.m. You can root for him and then get back to rooting for the Celtics, who play the San Antonio Spurs at 6 p.m., on their quest to make it to the NBA finals.

Below is a quick interview I did with Gabriel and Lett back in 2019 when Gabriel was a rookie with the Sacramento Kings.

Gabriel was “home” again here in Manchester last summer at Pulaski Park. He came for ROSS (Republic of South Sudan) Leaders back-to-school Summer Shootout, and had just returned from a trip back to South Sudan, where he was born – the first time he’d been there since his family was forced to flee when he was just an infant.

Right now South Sudan continues to be a flashpoint of humanitarian crisis. A recent report from the United Nations projects 1.4 million children under age 5 will likely suffer from acute malnutrition in 2023 there, and that “humanitarian food assistance must be scaled up immediately to save lives and prevent a total collapse of livelihoods.”

It’s the biggest humanitarian crisis no one is talking about, Gabriel told me at the time.

Gabriel explained that South Sudan was established in 2011 following the civil war that drove his family out. Until a peace treaty was signed in 2018, it wasn’t safe to travel there, he said.  Because he has been “so blessed” with success in the NBA, Gabriel felt the time was right to start giving back and being a voice for change for those suffering in his home country.

He organized a basketball camp there last summer – he’s from the Dinka tribe, known as some of the tallest people in the world. And yet, when Gabriel arrived in Manchester as a refugee, he had never held a basketball in his hands before.

From left, Majak Wenyin of So Elite, Nyankoor Timothy of ROSS Leaders Nebraska, Christina Bol of ROSS Leaders Manchester, LA Lakers Wenyen Gabriel, Samy Abdalla of So Elite and Jacob Idra of ROSS Leaders Nebraska. File Photo/Carol Robidoux

His trip home last summer fortified his desire to do all he can to support and rebuild his home country. He wants to be a role model for other young men and women by giving them the same opportunities he found through his experience growing up right here in Manchester – with mentors like Lett and others, who saw his potential and helped guide him.

UNHCR supporter, former South Sudanese refugee and LA Lakers player, Wenyen Gabriel, meets with the two local football teams formed by displaced youth in Mangalla IDP camp in the summer of 2022.  File Photo/Rohan Ali, UNHCR

The interview below from this January underscores how hard Gabriel is working and how every appearance on the court is one he regards as a chance to learn and grow as a player.

Anyway, as I said at the beginning: Today is Wenyen Gabriel’s 26th birthday. So far it’s been quite a ride!

Since the LA Lakers and the NBA made it Twitter official today with these birthday Tweets…

…I thought the hometown fans should step it up, too. If you’re on Twitter, please wish him a happy birthday here and share this story.

Or just give him a shout-out in the comments section below! I’m sure he’ll see them!

Me first: Happy Birthday, Wenyen.


About this Author

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!