COVER STORY

GOOD FOR GABRIEL

The Thunder’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month continues with the story of Gabriel Deck’s childhood in Argentina and the journey to his NBA dream in Oklahoma City.


Nick Gallo

By Nick Gallo
okcthunder.com
Oct. 8, 2021


As he begins nearly every answer in a media scrum, a translator by his side, Thunder forward Gabriel Deck takes a small breath, tilts his head slightly, grins lightly and utters the same word: Bueno.

It’s common parlance among some Spanish speakers to begin sentences that way – similar to some English speakers who drop in “well” or “okay” at the outset of a response to buy a little time to truly think about their answer. It might just be a verbal crutch, but there’s something poetic about Deck’s usage of the word. Especially given his humble beginnings, his life has turned out more than good.

Laid back and easygoing off the basketball court, Deck clearly has plenty to be thankful for, armed with the perspective of a quarter century of many lives lived, each seemingly barreling headfirst into the next. Whether it was leaving his home at age 13 to start his professional career, playing in Europe with Real Madrid in his young 20’s, competing in the Olympics or joining the Thunder and making it to the NBA, Deck never forgets where he comes from and how much his childhood in Argentina shaped him. Representing his home country wherever he goes and knowing that it inspires his countrymen, has sustained Deck along his road to Oklahoma City.

“It fills me with happiness at all times,” Deck said.

After playing 10 games for the Thunder at the end of the 2020-21 regular season, Deck is attacking his second NBA year with the same confidence and power as one of his forceful drives to the rim. He’s giving no quarter and taking nothing for granted, as he’s done all his life.

The flowering alfalfa plant has been growing in Argentina since the 19th century. It’s currently flourished to over 9.8 million acres – the third-largest crop in South America’s second largest country. In the United States you’re more likely to think of The Little Rascals when you hear the word alfalfa than you are to see it on a plate, but to Deck and his family, the crop was their world.

Produced to feed Argentinian cows that produce milk and are butchered for meat, alfalfa is life-sustaining for many families - including Deck’s - in agricultural areas like the Santiago del Estero province. Starting at 5 a.m., Gabriel and his father would ride out to the fields on a motorcycle and process bales of alfalfa until the late afternoon and sometimes late into the night.

“Childhood was tough work,” Deck said. “That's why I try to work hard every day. I believe that's the key to leading to great things.”

During rare moments of downtime in their childhood, Gabriel kicked the soccer ball around, sometimes until 10 p.m. Gabriel’s brother, Joaquin was glued to the television. Joaquin saw basketball players and was gripped, imitating the moves he saw. One day, one of the guys Joaquin usually played basketball with couldn’t make it, and Gabriel was asked to play. The future basketball prodigy even started to like it.

Slowly, Gabriel joined Joaquin in watching daily news coverage of basketball, then they created their own makeshift court behind their house. The Deck brothers packed down the reddish-brown dirt in the yard by watering it daily until it was firm enough for a basketball to bounce properly.

Then there was just the problem of the hoop.

The rim was too small and got worn out quickly with the boys dunking and hanging on it. Again and again, it needed to be welded. Eventually, Deck’s father found an old tractor steering wheel to serve as the permanent fixture – wide enough for a ball to fit and solid enough to withstand two growing boys and their friends. The hoop still stands to this day.


Colonia Dora, Deck’s hometown, was founded in 1900 as an agricultural stop along a train route, Colonia Dora was a haven for crop production but also has suffered from earthquakes, particularly over the last 40 years. The town has grown in population by nearly 40 percent since 2001 up to a burgeoning total of 3,300 people. Getting discovered by an NBA team wasn’t going to just happen organically for Deck in a hamlet that size.

It took guts for the Deck brothers to move two and a half hours away to play for the Argentinian club Quimsa when Gabriel was just 13 years old. After some tutelage, Deck won the MVP of a 2011 Basketball Without Borders camp held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. That’s when he started popping up on international radar, eventually signing with San Lorenzo in Buenos Aires and then skipping across time zones and hemispheres to Real Madrid in Spain.

“Gaby's an example of a person that's literally self-made every step of the way,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault.


"He understands the game and the game is a universal language.”

–Coach Daigneault


Thunder General Manager Sam Presti has long had an affinity for Argentinian players. During his time in San Antonio he worked closely with Luis Scola, Fabricio Oberto and of course, the most famous Argentinian NBA player of all time, Manu Ginobili.

Presti, when referencing the proud lineage from whence Deck comes, rattled off some other names too – Pepe Sanchez, Pablo Prigioni, Alejandro Montecchia, Federico Kammerichs and Rubén Wolkowyski, who all had prolific international careers professionally and for the Argentinian national team. Unlike the latter three, Deck decided to try his hand at NBA ball, and trusted the Thunder to be his stewards in North America.

“These guys have a spirit to the way they play. They have a commitment to team above all else. They have an inherent toughness and competitiveness,” said Presti. “It's just a great system of player development that they have there.”

Presti and the Thunder staff had their eye on Deck for a long while before signing him away from Real Madrid on April 12, 2021. Due to the American visa process, COVID restrictions and all sorts of logistics, Deck finally suited up for the Thunder on April 29, over two weeks later.

During that intervening time, veteran center Mike Muscala was able to brush up on the Spanish he learned in college at Bucknell and during his first professional season, when he played for Santiago de Compostela, a competitor of Real Madrid in the Spanish ACB league. Théo Maledon busted out the scouting report from his time playing for the French club ASVEL, who clashed against Real Madrid over the years. Forward Darius Bazley even went down a YouTube rabbit hole watching Deck’s highlights to get a feel for his new teammate. Once Deck was finally able to join the team, he was met with ready and open arms.



“I can't say enough words about how I've been treated to this point,” said Deck. “OKC really eased any concerns I may have had about the transition, obviously not knowing the language, but they helped me with the process. This is a hard-working young team. It just seemed like a good fit.”

Including Deck, this preseason the Thunder has eight total countries represented on the roster. That level of international representation is rare, even in a league that is proliferating across the globe at a breakneck pace. In the Thunder locker room, players learn from one another and embrace each other’s differences, creating a bond of brotherhood that spans language and cultural divides.

“Having a diverse locker room is welcoming to other players who come over,” said Daigneault. “He understands the game and the game is a universal language.”


After his whirlwind 10-game stint with the Thunder to end last season, Deck spent time this summer working out in Oklahoma City in addition to once again joining the Argentinian national team. Though Deck and his teammates were knocked out in the first round of medal play at this summer’s Olympics in Japan, he said it is every child’s dream to represent Argentina on the world stage.

Now, back in training camp with the Thunder, Deck is providing the same qualities he always has for teams throughout his journey – a blue collar mentality, hustle, passing and some tenacious defense. His role with the Thunder this year isn’t totally mapped out yet, but just as in his life to this point, he’ll lean on his work ethic and willingness to do the dirty work to continue carving his tracks into the Argentinian path laid before him.

“I'm going to put in maximum effort every day, for the jersey,” said Deck. “I'm grateful for all of those who came before me to pave the way for Argentinians in the NBA. I hope to continue building on that lineage and create opportunities for boys and girls who are looking up to us – to reach the league and have more of a presence moving forward.”

If Deck can forge further, be an example to kids from Colonia Dora and help inspire the next Argentinian basketball star, he’ll be able to look back on his career with one word in mind.

Bueno.



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