When Gabe Norwood came to the Philippines in 2006, he had no idea that it would lead to a professional basketball career in his grandmother's home country. Fresh from a run to the NCAA Final Four with George Mason University in his junior year, Norwood joined Athletes in Action, a sports ministry group based in Ohio, for their visit to Manila that summer.
"We were all Division I college players in the States, but I was the only one with Filipino blood, and that was kind of my reason for coming," Norwood said. "I had the option of coming here or to Brazil, and I just wanted to learn more about myself, not even knowing that it was gonna lead to all of this."
A year later, Norwood received an invitation to try out for the Philippine national team in Los Angeles. He impressed the coaches and earned a roster spot in the 2007 FIBA Asia Championship in Tokushima, Japan. He eventually decided to move to Manila and was chosen as the top pick in the 2008 PBA draft. Since then, he has dedicated himself to serving and representing the country.
Norwood has seen the ups and downs of the Philippines' basketball program in the past 12 years. He's traveled to many places with the national team, competed in several international tournaments, and played under different coaches.
"I think it's been great just having the type of influences that we've had," he said. "From my first time in 2007, when we went to Serbia and learning the game on that Euro level ... to Coach Chot [Reyes] coming in and putting in the dribble drive, to Coach Tab [Baldwin] adding a whole new level of experiences in terms of World Cup and Olympics. And now you have Coach Yeng [Guiao], who really has been given a second chance, so he's taken that as a great opportunity to really be at this level once again."
As team captain, Norwood was the glue that held Gilas Pilipinas together during their journey towards the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China. He was the only player who competed in all six windows of the qualifiers. More than that, he was one of the last few members of the team that re-introduced the Philippines to the world five years ago.
"Last time we qualified, we did it at home on our home court with our home fans," he said. "To qualify this time, in Kazakhstan, it was cold, and I think there were maybe a handful of Filipinos there outside of ourselves. It was really just us celebrating at the moment, knowing that the whole country was celebrating with us outside the arena."
The Philippines has come a long way, from breaking the Korean curse in 2013 at home to getting a timely assist from Ricardo Ratliffe and the South Korean team this year, to advance to the World Cup. Throughout the whole ride, Norwood has been there as Gilas' defensive specialist and leader on and off the court.
"The journey itself, how much the team has changed since us beating Korea at home to now -- the coaches, the players, just the program in general -- it's kinda wild to think that I've been a part of it that long. And it's been a blessing," he said.
Overcoming the elephant
A lot of things have changed, not only within the Gilas program but also with the format of the FIBA competitions. From the previous two-week continental tournaments, the World Cup qualifications now occur in a series of home-and-away games over a course of two years.
"It took a while to adjust to, I think, but at the same time, it's fun. There's more opportunity for home fans to see us, they get to watch us play every three or four months" said Norwood. "It's a little bit different in terms of scheduling, especially with the PBA and trying to figure out how much time we need to prepare, who's gonna be available and things like that. But I guess it's a dilemma that the whole world is going through. We can't make excuses."
Nobody can describe the struggles that Gilas underwent to cope with the new format better than Norwood, who experienced everything firsthand. The biggest changes, of course, happened after the infamous brawl with the Australian team last July that resulted in multiple suspensions to players and coaches.
"The elephant in the room is still the Australia situation. Whether it's forgettable or not, what's done is done," said Norwood. "I'd like to think we've grown a lot. We were humbled in that situation. And I think it gave guys the opportunity to really accept the responsibility on Australia's side and on our side. Hopefully, it's something that we can all grow and learn [from]."
Aside from the recurring scheduling conflicts, travel fatigue and lack of preparation time, Gilas had to adjust to the drastic overhaul in the team's system and personnel as Guiao replaced Reyes midway through the campaign.
"Coach Chot kinda sticks with an eight- to nine-guy rotation, while coach Yeng basically throws everybody out there and you have to be ready to play. There are definitely different dynamics to it," said Norwood.
The most challenging part came at the tail-end of the qualifiers, when they approached the last two road games in danger of getting eliminated. They failed to capitalize on their home-court advantage in November, which made them vulnerable three months later in the final window. Luckily, they got the job done against Qatar and Kazakhstan and qualified with some help from other teams.
"I think that was just a situation where you have to accept that it is what it is," said Norwood. "We put ourselves in a tough spot. We just gotta do what we have to do and hope things kinda fall into place. At the end of the day, the goal was made and we're in the World Cup."
Gilas managed to pull off surprises in the last World Cup. The losses do not reflect the kind of tenacity and resilience that the Filipino players displayed. Norwood even provided some of the most highlight-worthy plays as he unleashed a couple of dunks in a single game, putting two Argentinians on separate posters. Their impressive performance proved that they belong and gave them confidence that they can compete with the cream of the crop. But it does not necessarily mean that they will have an easier time in China.
"To say we have better chances, I'm not sure, but at the same time we're gonna take it as that and we're gonna go out and play as hard as we can," said Norwood. "We are world-class. [Whoever] 12 are gonna be on the team, they're there for a reason. You're there because you can play at that level. I think as long as we all believe that in each other, there's no reason why we can't shock some people."
Future looks bright
Looking beyond this year's World Cup, Norwood believes that Philippine basketball will continue to rise, knowing that there's a loaded pool of young players who can lead the team to greater heights in the future.
"If you look at our youth guys, we got Kai [Sotto], AJ Edu, Carl Tamayo, and we still got Thirdy [Ravena], Juan [Gomez de Liaño], Ricci [Rivero] and guys like that," he said. "There are probably many names that I'm not mentioning. The Fil-Am group of guys like Remy Martin can hopefully participate and play. You still got Jordan Clarkson waiting in the wings. The talent level is through the roof and I'm excited to see where the program goes."
"We bring joy to a lot of people's lives, not just our own... It's been an awesome ride. I'm definitely going to enjoy this as much as I can." Gabe Norwood
Former Gilas captain Jimmy Alapag, who passed the torch to Norwood when he retired, says Norwood's leadership is one of the key factors for the national team's current success.
"It's hard to find a guy with better character and better leadership skills than Gabe, so it's great to see him now be the captain of the team," said Alapag. "It's not surprising to see the Gilas program continue to be successful under his leadership because what he stands for and how he plays the game, how he respects the game, and probably most importantly, how much he values the chance to represent our country speaks for itself."
After being a constant force for the national team for more than a decade, the 34-year-old Norwood admits that retiring from international play is just around the corner for him.
"Mentally, you think you can do it forever, but physically, I gotta be realistic. I know my time, my chances are few and far between so I'm gonna enjoy each one, see what happens after that," he said. "At the same time, I just wanna be an asset. As long as I'm not hurting the team, hurting the program, hurting the country. Being there just because I wanna be there, I won't do that."
"I just gotta be honest with myself, and hopefully, everybody will be honest with me if they want me to just go away," Norwood added with a laugh. "I know there's a lot of young talent coming in. The more opportunities, the more chances they have to go out there and prove themselves, the more confidence they'll have in the next World Cup."
For now, Norwood wants to make the most out of his remaining time with Gilas Pilipinas. A huge chunk of his career has been spent fighting for the flag. Making an impact on hoops-crazy Filipinos all over the world, for him, is the best part of it.
"We bring joy to a lot of people's lives, not just our own," he said. "All the way from high school, winning a state championship with my brother as a teammate, making it to NCAA Final Four, representing the country here and playing in two World Cups and winning PBA championships, it's been an awesome ride. I'm definitely going to enjoy this as much as I can."