George Mason sixth man Gabe Norwood remembers when his father, Brian, played football for Hawaii.
Norwood’s new ohana winds up at Final Four
George Mason’s sixth man has deep roots in Hawaii
The tattoo on Gabe Norwood's left leg says it all.
All times Hawaii time
» George Mason (27-7) vs. Florida (31-6), 2:07 p.m.
» LSU (27-8) vs. UCLA (31-6), 3:47 p.m.
A lot of people ask if it's his girlfriend's name.
"Or some people think it has something to do with 'Lilo and Stitch,' " Norwood says, laughing.
"But anyone with any real Hawaii connection, they know exactly what it means," says Brian Norwood, father of George Mason's junior sixth man.
So do Gabe's teammates. They might not be able to pronounce it, but they understand completely the concept of ohana. How else could an 11th-seeded team make it to the Final Four other than by sticking together like a family?
"When my brother (Jordan) and I got the tattoos last January, I let it be known what it was about. It's what we're about, too, as a team," Gabe said in a phone interview yesterday from Indianapolis, site of GMU's semifinal game against Florida tomorrow.
"And even though our family doesn't get home to Hawaii as often as we'd like, we feel surrounded by the spirit of aloha all the time."
Brian Norwood, an assistant football coach at Penn State, was a multi-sport star at Radford who went on to play football at the University of Hawaii. The family of his wife, Tiffiney, has lived in Hawaii five generations, her great grandmother migrating to Maui from the Philippines.
Brian, a member of an Air Force family, didn't get to Hawaii until ninth grade. But he quickly adapted to the local lifestyle and says he hopes to either retire here or maybe someday get a job coaching at UH.
Brian and Tiffiney married while Brian was still in college. Gabe and Jordan spent their hanabata days flying kites at Pearl Harbor Park and play-wrestling with 100 uncles at UH football practices.
"I remember some of it," Gabe says. "I remember Dad's senior-day game, him walking around the stadium, carrying me and Jordan."
Brian's phone rang all week as old teammates realized the Gabe Norwood who plays for George Mason is the same Gabe Norwood they knew as a toddler. The Gabe Norwood whose first exposure to sports was at UH.
"Lots and lots of calls and e-mails," Brian says. "Richard Higa, the Kafentzis brothers, Brian Derby, Coach Lumpkin, Junior Lopati. I watched the Dayton regional games with William Bell, he lives in Cincinnati."
Diana Jessie, his friend from the Wahine volleyball team, called, too.
"George Mason?! That's your son?!"
And Tiffiney's brother, Damien Hardy, the former UH volleyball player. He and the rest of the firefighters at the Waimanalo station were whooping it up last weekend watching the Patriots chalk up two more upsets.
Gabe chose to go to George Mason on a basketball scholarship because of family, what else. The Fairfax, Va., college is located near many of Brian's relatives.
And the Norwoods all felt at home when they met coach Jim Larranaga and the rest of the Patriots on a recruiting visit three years ago.
"They really made Gabriel feel like he was wanted there, and not just for basketball," says Brian.
This is the second big postseason event for the Norwoods this school year. Jordan, a freshman receiver at Penn State, and Brian participated in the Orange Bowl.
Now, Gabe in the Final Four.
He almost ended up there, anyway -- as a birthday present from his mom.
"I thought about getting him tickets to the Final Four," Tiffiney says. "Then I saw how much the tickets are, and you can't send him by himself, you have to get two. Then I had a passing thought they could get in it themselves."
Gabe Norwood's attachment to the islands is more than skin deep. In addition to his ohana tattoo, he carries in his heart the legacy of a significant piece of Hawaii sports lore.
George Mason's ascent is about as unlikely as that of Radford High School's football team 25 years ago (a year before Chaminade shocked Virginia, with assistant coach Jim Larranaga on the Cavaliers' bench). A slim young cornerback and receiver named Brian Norwood helped the Rams scrap their way to a 14-2 Prep Bowl victory over Saint Louis, just a week after the death of Radford's coach, John Velasco.
"Oh yes," Gabe says from Indianapolis. "I hear about the legacy of the Radford Rams all the time. I've heard the story, from my dad and (Brian's Radford teammate) Kenny Niumatalolo. I've seen a tape about it, and it's an incredible story."