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''Gilas Gabe'' recalls FIBA Asia Cup experiences from rookie hazing to block vs Korea
MANILA (Philippines) - Gabe Norwood, a FIBA Asia Cup veteran, took the time to sit down and talk with FIBA Asia Cup on Instagram about his time playing in the Asia Cup as well as the bright future for the Philippines basketball among other topics.
To re-watch the entire session, head over to @FIBAAsiaCup IGTV.
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Norwood went into detail about his lengthy playing days in the Asia Cup dating from 2007 up until the most recent edition in 2017. He's already played in 40 Asia Cup games for averages of 5.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per contest. Norwood was one of the youngest debutants ever for the Philippines in the Asia Cup, making his first appearance at 22 years old in 2007.
Playing in that tournament was "pretty wild" since he was only a few months removed from playing in the NCAA tournament with George Mason, but it gave him an opportunity to learn more about his roots.
Being one of the younger players on the team led to a funny story Norwood recalled between him and senior teammate, Mick Pennisi.
"[He's] a Filipino and Australian. One of the best teammates ever," Norwood recalled. "He was my roommate for most of the trip and, man, Mick was an ultimate prankster."
"He took sharpies and - I was considered to look like Barack Obama - so he wrote 'Obama' like super big on my shoes! I was a young kid out to college and I didn't really have much money, so if you look back I wasn't buying new shoes. If you look back at the old pictures I think you could still see there's like 'Obama' like written on the tongue of my shoes."
"I try to get him back. I try to cut holes - he wore long socks - I tried to cut like snowflakes into the back of his socks but he caught me in the middle of it, so it didn't really work."
Norwood also insisted that this was still one of the best Philippines national teams in the Asia Cup ever on paper. They had high-level names on the roster from Jimmy Alapag, Mark Caguioa, JJ Helterbrand, and Eric Menk as well as other up-and-coming young guys.
"We didn't have a naturalized player, but we really went out and competed and played hard and I think we were fun to watch."
However, the Philippines were only able to finish at 9th place that year. Norwood explained that the team had "ran into some tough luck" being grouped with Iran, Jordan, and China from the start. Their losses in the Group phase to Iran and Jordan were the only two defeats they suffered before ending up with a 5-2 record. Norwood even recalled how close they were against eventual champions Iran, leaving the fans to wonder what might have happened if the script was flipped.
"Our opening game with Iran was back and forth. I remember we cut the lead to maybe one or two points and we ended up getting a technical foul with like a minute left. Like it was a bench celebration technical foul that gave them two shots and the ball. That was basically it and it was uphill battle from there."
Norwood and the Philippines fared batter in a historic tournament 6 years later in Manila for Asia Cup 2013. The home team rallied behind their rowdy fans to overcome a long-time rival, Korea, in the Semi-Finals for a long-awaited ticket to World Cup 2014.
Fans are quick to recall "The Shot" made by Jimmy Alapag in that game, but not to be forgotten was Norwood’s block on Kim Min-goo in the following moments after.
"That last-minute it felt like it took forever! We were making big shots, making big plays. Korea is always tough with their system and how they get their shooters open."
"It just so happened that before the block, I think I hit a couple of screens before and he knocked some big shots for them. My thing was I was just trying to do my job. I had to find a way to get it back."
"It just so happened that I was able to fight over a staggered screen and really just contest and just get enough of my hand on the ball to kind of deflect it."
Norwood described the following moments and electric and something that he would always remember. He easily describes what he recalled seeing at the moment the buzzer sounded.
"Grown men crying."
"I was looking for my wife and my kids but as I'm panning, I just seeing straight tears of joy. I was able to lock eyes with my wife and she's crying. I turn around and I'm looking for teammates. I think there's a great picture of me and Marc Pingris just hugging. Marc was my roommate for most of that time."
"The blood, sweat, and tears, everything, that went into that moment. We still had another game the next day but it felt like everything. There was a release that we did it and we got to share with the country playing at home."
Playing for over a decade in that "Gilas" jersey through those memorable moments also earned Norwood a cool nickname in "Gilas Gabe". Though he admits the nickname might have been a bit of a "double-edged sword" in terms of comparing his performance with the national team and his performance with his professional club, he takes it as a sense of pride for how he's proved himself is stepping up when the flag calls for duty.
As "Gilas Gabe", Norwood has enjoyed encountering many unique teams all over Asia. He mentions the regret of not being able to play China more at their full strength. More than that, Norwood also mentioned a specific country he really enjoyed playing in.
"I think the underrated and probably one of my favorite places to play was at the past [World Cup] Qualifiers [in Japan]. The atmosphere was awesome. I had never experienced that. We played in tournaments there before but this last window, I think they did a great job of hosting and creating a cool atmosphere."
He also listed Iran and Lebanon as two teams he personally looked forward to in terms of approaching the game because of his matchups with Fadi El Khatib and Samad Nikkahbahrami.
Those two legends, who Norwood says are "two of the best players to ever come through Asia", are listed on his All-Time Asia Cup Starting Five. Norwood had initially selected a team a couple of years back but decided to make some revisions.
"If I could, I'd probably go with a straight Gilas lineup but I'll change it in terms of not putting any Gilas members on," Norwood explained. "I'll go straight as a competitor."
"Definitely, Fadi and Nikkah are on there, hands down. Haddadi's on there."
"[Mahdi] Kamrani was good but in terms of games that I like, I was a fan of [Makoto] Hiejima from Japan. I think he's a really good player and somebody that I think is underrated in terms of in Asia."
"One more, I'll go with [Zaid] Abbas from Jordan. I think he could still dunk from the free-throw line right now. I don't know how old he is but he's just a special talent, super athletic, and ultimate competitor. He came out and played every night."
Aside from discussing his days playing in the Asia Cup, Norwood also shared his opinions on the future ahead for Philippines basketball from Thirdy Ravena and Kai Sotto getting to play abroad in Japan and the US, respectively, to the anticipation of hosting the World Cup in 2023.
"That's a huge opportunity, just in terms of expanding the game. You're really getting exposure from players all through Asia," Norwood said of the Asian Player Quota rule in Japan's B.League which opened up Ravena's opportunity. "I think it opens a lot of doors. Thirdy is a great representative of that for the country. He's a young talent, a guy who's been with us in the window when we played and played in in Qatar. He put on a show."
"I think anybody, in terms of FIBA Asia. that was blessed and lucky enough to come here in 2013 or for the FIBA OQT [in 2016] that we hosted or during the windows knows how special the game is [for us] and to host an event like the World Cup is going to be huge for the country and for basketball fans. I'm just super excited to see how it all plays out, especially with what's going on the world right now."
"Who knows? This might be the first tournament that really welcomes everybody back to the game and what a better way to do it than being here in the country of the Philippines."
Can the fans expect to see Norwood playing at World Cup 2023?
"I don't know!" Norwood laughed. "Unless they're having a reunion and they call us back, maybe!"
Catch the full talk that covered more topics for more details at the @FIBAAsiaCup IGTV.