'I seen the struggle': Kevin Durant commends undrafted Pacer Gabe York for perseverance

Gabe York couldn't believe what he was hearing.

The 28-year-old rookie signed with the Pacers for the last two games of the season and made his NBA debut April 9 at Philadelphia. The next day, Indiana wrapped up its season in Brooklyn, the home of superstar Kevin Durant. When the two crossed paths, York didn't expect Durant — named one of the 75 greatest players in NBA history — to speak to him, so York was completely surprised when Durant started a congratulatory conversation.

York went undrafted out of Arizona in 2016 and after playing several years overseas, he was now being commended by a living legend.

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"Getting to the stanchion and getting on the sticky feet (a pad that gives players' shoes extra grip), he's walking over there and I'm thinking, 'Alright, he's gonna push me off this (expletive),'" York said on Tha Chat Podcast, hosted by his longtime friends Dominique Dunning and Isaac Udo-Ema. "He comes up to me talking about, 'Yo, I seen the struggle. I seen the journey that you went through to get here, bro, like for real, congrats. I know it's been work.' And just knowing that KD said that (expletive), I'm really like, 'Wow, bro. People really watched (my journey).'

"Even if I did feel like I was invisible for a time, it really felt like, 'Damn, bro, if KD saw what I was going through, a lot of people watched that ... (and) if I can help someone in their journey in that same aspect like, 'Oh, I have to get it out the mud.' It's not all bright lights and beautiful and a quick, easy way to get there on a yellow brick road."

York played in Germany, Greece, Israel and Italy before starring with Indiana's G League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. When he was called up by the Pacers, York was nervous before his NBA debut and remembers air-balling his first warmup shot at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. But when he subbed in the game, he quickly dazzled the crowd with an and-one left-handed layup for his first NBA field goal.

Indiana's Gabe York stands on the court during his NBA debut as the 76ers host the Pacers at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on April 9, 2022.
Indiana's Gabe York stands on the court during his NBA debut as the 76ers host the Pacers at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on April 9, 2022.

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"My nerves went away instantly and for whatever reason in my brain, in my mind it told itself, 'Nah, you belong here,'" York said. "It felt right. Nothing felt forced. Nothing felt too fast, too nothing. ... When you're in the G League or when you're overseas, you just keep watching TV, keep watching the NBA and you just see stats and you see players, you think they're bigger than what they are. And then once you get on the court with them, you're like, 'I played basketball for 20 years, bro.' You need to guard me, (too)."

York totaled seven points, two assists, one rebound and one block during his 15-minute NBA debut against the Sixers and was gifted the game ball. The 6-3 guard followed that up with one point, two assists, two steals and one rebound in six minutes at Brooklyn.

As he reflected on his two-game NBA stint, York revealed to his friends that those triumphant moments almost didn't happen.

Prior to joining the Pacers, York was called up by the Magic, but he tested positive for COVID-19 and his 10-day contract was voided. It was a devastating setback for York, who nearly quit basketball.

"I was ready to hang it up," York said. "I had my shoes ready to throw in the garbage. I called (my girlfriend), I called my mom and I was like, 'I think I'm done.' Because at that point, seven years of trying to get just that, a 10-day, and not getting that and then being in Orlando for eight days on New Year's ... I didn't get the (money), didn't get the opportunity. Nothing."

York said he ultimately stayed committed because after becoming a professional athlete and competing around the world, his biggest dream was still to play in the NBA. That goal was embedded in his mind ever since he began playing on a makeshift rim his grandpa built for him as a toddler, and when York reached high school, it seemed more tangible than ever.

The California native became an overnight sensation at Orange Lutheran High School after Ballislife made a highlight tape of him, which includes an incredible alley-oop, poster dunk. The video has over 1.2 million views on YouTube and made York gain "50,000 followers" on Instagram in a matter of days, but he said it was too much too soon.

"Having Ballislife headquarters five minutes from where I went to high school was a blessing and a curse, I feel like, because I got so much hype," York said. " ... It was a lot of different trials that I just had to continue to build off of and go through and build my character, build who I am as a person, as a basketball player. I feel like maybe if I would have got to the league early on, maybe I would've been out already and I wouldn't have had the opportunity of having that chance to get there right now."

York is currently on a two-way contract, meaning he'll split time between the G League and the Pacers. However, he hopes to earn a guaranteed deal next season, so that his first time facing Durant and other future Hall of Famers isn't his last.

"Don't let it fool you, though, I'm not there yet," York said. "I got there but I'm not still there, and that's the difference. ... I got to visit, but I need to kick the (expletive) door down."

Follow IndyStar Pacers beat writer James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid. Reach him via email: jboyd1@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Undrafted Pacer Gabe York received high praise from Kevin Durant