It all started with an Uber ride a few months ago. And a wallet accidentally left in the car.
Young Trail Blazer forward Wenyen Gabriel realized he’d left his wallet in that car, but when he tried to reach someone who could locate the car or its driver, he had no luck.
“I remember that day,” Gabriel said by phone from his hotel in Orlando, where the bubble-bound Blazers are getting ready to resume a season that's been long postponed by the pandemic. “First of all, we had a nice conversation while I was in the car. He was a real genuine person. I don’t talk to every Uber driver I get, but we had a nice conversation.
“I said bye at the end -- he was really nice to me. And then I realized I forgot my wallet. I kept trying to contact him, but I couldn't get in touch with him. I don’t know what the issue was with Uber, but I just couldn’t get in contact with him.”
Losing a wallet or, these days, a phone is a very unsettling experience. And Gabriel was very unsettled.
“I remember I had a game that day and I was in my bed -- I usually take a pregame nap, but I couldn’t,” he said. “I was just hoping it came back.
“But to no avail. I couldn't do anything.”
The driver of the Uber found the wallet, though. And because he had taken Gabriel home, knew exactly where to take the lost item.
“He came back,” Gabriel said. “I have this long stairway all the way around to get to the door to my apartment complex. He had to walk all the way to the door and up some steps. He is pretty handicapped, so by the time he got to my door, he was breathing heavily.
“He had struggled to get up there."
The Uber driver, Jon Barnard, has a couple of knees wrecked by osteoarthritis, the result, he says, of cross country and basketball in high school and college. “Walking can be difficult for me,” he said.
“I asked him if I could sit for a few minutes and catch my breath and rest my knees,” Barnard said.
While Barnard rested, the men chatted.
“I tried to give him some money, but he just wouldn’t take it,” Gabriel said. “I tried to force him to take it, but he wouldn't. So I had to beg him to take the money.”
Finally, Barnard says he finally relented.
“He gave me $100 for returning his wallet,” Barnard said. "I didn't want to mention the wallet because it's not about me. It's about him."
It was certainly a generous reward. And Gabriel, a 23-year-old rookie from Sudan who played only 17 games for Portland after arriving in a trade Jan. 21, isn’t exactly a wealthy man.
Soon after that Uber ride, the world faced the global pandemic and the NBA stopped. But Gabriel couldn’t get that driver off his mind.
“The coronavirus came after that and I knew he was an at-risk person,” Gabriel said. “He was such a kind person that I believed in him. I didn’t want him driving an Uber anymore.”
Barnard can finish the story.
“The rest of the story is that Wenyen deposited $2,500 in my personal account,” Barnard said. “He was not seeking any publicity. His gift has allowed me to not have to drive. In this time of unrest, I thought it would be a positive story.
“I think the Trail Blazers should know about it.
“What makes it more special to me is that Wenyen is not one of the super-high paid guys on the team. But he still helped me.
"Number 35, I'll be a fan forever."
So Barnard is enjoying some time off to quarantine. And "Number 35" is playing very well in Orlando, according to Portland Coach Terry Stotts.
"He's terrific," Stotts said of the 6-9, 220-pounder. "He's a great young man and from a basketball standpoint, he's got good size, good length, he's very active and athletic. He can hold his own in the paint. He's working on his perimeter game. He's a tireless worker. I've been very impressed with him."
Gabriel was reluctant Monday to talk about his good deed. This is old school, by the way. Two men doing a random act of kindness for the right reasons and not running around bragging to people about it. Not even wanting to reveal the story or get public recognition for it. With athletes, it happens much more often than people might realize. And the stories should be told because they often inspire other acts of kindness.
“There was something that made me want to do that,” Gabriel said, thinking back to that moment. “There is no exact real reason why I did it.”
It was the same reason Barnard brought the wallet back:
Good people do good things.