HE was a lanky teenager at the time whose surname could hardly be pronounced right or spelled correctly.
Somehow, Gabe Norwood, the longtime Gilas Pilipinas stalwart, immediately recognized that Giannis Antetokounmpo was special the first time he had a glimpse of him in the 2014 FIBA World Cup.
The then 19-year-old Greek had just finished his rookie season with the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA and was playing for the Hellas basketball team for the very first time when they played Gilas Pilipinas in Seville.
“I just remember there’s a coach or somebody from the Bucks who’s basically with him 24/7 around the hotel and things like that,” recalled Norwood. “So I think the organization saw the potential in him and what he could be.”
The Bucks were right all along.
Five years after, the 24-year-old Antetokounmpo is a certified NBA star who steered the Bucks to their first Eastern Conference finals appearance in 18 years and became the first Milwaukee player to become MVP after the great Kareem Abdul Jabbar in 1974.
Norwood, the Rain or Shine veteran guard, admitted he didn't expect Antetokounmpo to become an NBA MVP, although his physical attributes suggested otherwise.
“We just knew that physically, there’s not a lot of guys who are built that way. 6-foot-10, super long arms, super athletic,” said the Fil-AM guard of the man they called the ‘Greek Freak.’
Norwood was Antetokounmpo's primary defender when Gilas played the Hellas five years ago in a tournament where Norwood made a memorable one-hand dunk against Argentina’s Luis Scola.
The Filipinos lost to the Hellas, 82-70, although Antetokounmpo hardly registered in the Gilas Pilipinas radar, scoring three points - all on free throws.
Norwood remembered guarding the reigning NBA MVP in a few instances during the course of the game.
"They had a good, veteran-laden squad at the time. I remember [Antetokounmpo] in spots being on the court, but most of their offense was going through other guys on the team,” said Norwood.
He added, “I think everybody knew who he was. So we knew him in terms of potential. But at the end of the day, you’ve got an 18-year, 19-year old kid at the time trying to earn his spot (in the team). So that’s just how the world of basketball works.”
Antetokounmpo just declared the other day that he will be suiting up for Greece in the coming FIBA World Cup in China this August.
And while Gilas Pilipinas is not bracketed with the Hellas this time (Greece is in Group F with Brazil, New Zealand, and Montenegro), the 34-year-old Norwood is looking forward to reconnecting with the Greek superstar, who he personally met when he visited the Philippines two years ago as part of an NBA promotional tour.
Norwood described the Greek as ‘really down to earth, who he wants his kid to emulate with ‘the way he carries himself.’
“Just to see him grow as a player is kind of cool,” he said.
So how does he sees himself faring against Antetokounmpo this time had Gilas Pilipinas been bracketed to face the Hellas?
“I think we got lucky we caught the young version of Giannis,” said Norwood in between laughs as he remembered the times the Filipinos battled the Greeks five years ago.
“Like anything, you just try to make guys work as hard as you can and you lived with that at the end of the day as long as you’re not giving up easy basketball all the time, and just try to make them work and make them earn every point they get.
“But at the end of the day, that’s the MVP in the best league in the world, and you got to give credit where credit is due, and he worked hard to get that.”
Norwood could only hope Antetokounmpo would win an NBA championship someday after falling a win short of advancing in the finals when the Bucks lost to eventual champion Toronto Raptors in the East finals.
“Winning stuff at any level. Championship is hard whether it’s in the PBA, whether it’s in college, high school, men’s league, barangay. Championship is tough. Until its’ done, it’s done,” said Norwood.
“Hopefully, he gets one. I mean he’s a great guy and somebody you want to see win.”
Hopefully, too, Antetokounmpo gets to stay at Milwaukee, said Norwood.
“I hope so. Just being an old-school fan that I am, I would like to see guys stay, stay as long as they can with the organization that’s really investing a lot in it,” said Norwood, who has played his entire PBA career with Rain or Shine, the team that selected him No. 1 overall in the 2008 rookie draft.
“I think that’s the type of person he is to me. So hopefully he gets to stay, and hopefully they win a championship at Milwaukee.”