Taj Gibson didn’t average in double figures scoring in his eight seasons with the Bulls. He usually wasn’t a starter, his third year with the Bulls never starting a game. Several times when he was a starter, the Bulls found someone else to replace him, first Carlos Boozer and later Pau Gasol and even Nikola Mirotic. But Friday night when the Bulls welcomed back three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler and one time Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau and the Minnesota Timberwolves, it was the return of Gibson that perhaps represented what was best about the Bulls during the last decade.
Not necessarily in results on the court, like when the team won 62 games and went to the conference finals in 2011-12 and not with the individual honors, like Derrick Rose being MVP, Joakim Noah Defensive Player of the year and Butler becoming an Olympic gold medal winner and all-NBA player.
A team needs those kinds of players to reach the highest level; but a team also needs the glue and characters of people like Gibson. It’s why even with young stars like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins and the addition of Butler in the big trade with the Bulls, Thibodeau reached out to free agent Gibson for the 34-23 Timberwolves.
Because players like Gibson will be there to provide strength, perspective and commitment.
Fans love to talk about the celebrity players; the people like Gibson make them feel good about their team.
“I always looked at the bright side,” Gibson said pregame when asked about his attitude amidst all the changes in his eight seasons with the Bulls. “We get to play in the NBA. We have the three letters on our chest. It’s so hard to get here and when you finally get here you have to take every day like it’s your last; you have to enjoy every single moment and that’s the way I look at it. I had a great time with every single team I played with. Never any animosity, never any hatred toward anybody. Being the best professional I could be because you never know; any day it could end and I want to have the best memories ever so I can say I went out there and played as hard as I can and left it on the court. I don’t want to have any regrets. That was my main goal.”
Gibson came to the Bulls sort of as an afterthought in the 2009 draft, perhaps the oldest freshman basketball player in the NBA at 21 at USC and then 24 as a Bulls rookie. The Bulls selected James Johnson with their No. 16 pick in that draft. He’s finally doing well, though with his seventh team that includes one from the G-league. The Bulls had a second pick from a previous trade and selected Gibson 26th.
He was thrust into a starting role immediately as the Bulls experimented with power forwards like Tyrus Thomas, Hakim Warrick and even Johnson. Then came Boozer after that 41-41 season and Gibson was a backup. At least after Boozer recovered from a preseason accident.
Gibson had his travails, particularly off the court from his tough adolescence in Brooklyn. Friends were murdered, a six-year old nephew was stabbed to death in an elevator. Gibson endured, especially on the court, never complaining, never pouting or objecting to his uncertain status as a reserve or starter.
Mirotic came in and became a starter until Gibson played so well to move ahead.
The 6-9 Gibson had a breakout 2013-14 season when he was runner up for Most Improved Player, averaging 13 points and 6.8 rebounds in fewer than 30 minutes per game. He developed a bit of a jump shot, but he mostly was everyone’s favorite teammate, every media member’s bail out when no one else would cooperate because of mood, injuries or setbacks.
Gibson always was there for everyone; just because, well, that’s the way you should be.
“I was doing my job,” Gibson recounted about his time with the Bulls. “Great to have a guy like John (Paxson) in my corner. I tried to lead the right way, tried to lead by example, play hard, leave it on the court each and every night and try to play for the city. (I remember) John telling me not to spend my money and telling me to tell people ‘no’ all the time, Joakim constantly picking on me every other day (who can forget those ‘Taj-a-woo’ calls), good fun times with Derrick when he won the MVP, the list goes on, so many great memories here.”
Gibson said he didn’t plan to watch the video tribute the Bulls planned for him; he might get too emotional. And then he said, you know Thibs, he’d start yelling in the huddle. Maybe watch it on social media later, Gibson said.
“I’m going to try to not watch it because it will being back so many strong memories, so many good times you feel in your heart you can’t ever get back,” said Gibson. “It’s going to make me… might tear up. It’s one of those times in the past you thought it would never end. I had a great time here.”
Gibson says he often watches Bulls games and retains a fondness for friends with the organization and the team.
“I just hope it’s some good cheers because when I was here I tried to play for the crowd, play the right way and leave everything on the court,” Gibson said.
“I just look at the bright side,” said Gibson, who was traded to Oklahoma City with Doug McDermott last February. “I was able to play for a top tier organization. I was a late draft pick. I was able to play in some big games. I was able to play for one team for a long time, able to get extensions, do what’s right for myself and my family. I just wanted to play basketball the right way, have no regrets when I left the court. You have one life to live; just go out there and play and have fun.
“Being in the NBA every day is tough,” said Gibson. “You never know what will happen. Every year you have to hear the trade rumors, every year you have to go with what’s going on with the team. You’re playing for a top tier team, a popular NBA team. So I became numb. The city of Chicago is a tough place to play and I think it made me grow as a human and grow as a player as far as being tough and ready to withstand anything coming my way.
“It’s another game,” Gibson insisted about Friday. “We’re trying to get another win. It’s not anything personal. We had some great times here. We just moved on. We’re having a great situation in Minnesota. We have a great young team, we’re playing well. We can’t hold any grudges. The NBA it’s a business. It’s another game; we’re just trying to get wins.”
Maybe another game; but there aren’t many guys around pro sports like Taj Gibson.