Taj Gibson providing plenty of punch to the Bulls

Taj Gibson
Life was not always smooth for Taj, but strong faith and a positive attitude have helped him manage life’s journey to the Windy City.
(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)

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For most of us, June 25, 2009, was just another summer day, but for one Taj Jami Gibson, it’s a date that forever changed his life.

Twenty-four hours after celebrating his 24th birthday, Gibson’s name echoed throughout New York’s famed Madison Square Garden when NBA Commissioner David Stern announced to the world that the Chicago Bulls had used the 26th overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft on the lanky forward from the University of Southern California. Yes, dreams do come true, but the road to the NBA was a long and oftentimes bumpy one for Gibson. And, although nothing ever came easy, Gibson says he always knew he was capable of achieving great things if he worked hard — and so that’s exactly what he did.

To say Taj Gibson was the steal of the 2009 Draft is a bit of an understatement. Passed up twenty-five times, Chicago, which owned a second, first-round pick by virtue of a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder, didn’t hesitate to pluck him out of obscurity. Over the course of his rookie season, Gibson proved time and again that he’s the real deal, leading all first-year players in field-goal percentage, rebounding, and double-doubles, while also ranking second in blocks. And all that time, he was battling a painful case of plantar fasciitis in both feet.

An early season injury to former teammate Tyrus Thomas catapulted Gibson into the starting lineup, and the 6’9, 225-pound power forward flourished, starting all but a handful of games the rest of the season and averaging a little over 26 minutes per night. Taj’s early success doesn’t surprise family, friends or any of his former coaches from the University of Southern California.

Wilbert Gibson, who also played basketball while in the military, bursts into contagious laughter when asked about his son and the night of the 2009 NBA Draft.

“There were 40, maybe 50 of us in a hotel suite watching the Draft on TV when Taj’s name was called. Everyone went nuts,” muses Wilbert. “Taj is a very humble person. He’s had to work hard. It’s taken a while for it to sink in, but my son is playing in the NBA! It sure feels like a dream, and nobody around my house wants to wake up.”

Taj blocks Phoenix Suns' guard Grant Hill

Thanks to Gibson’s finely honed defensive instincts around the basket, the Bulls ended up second in the league in blocks (5.83) and tied for third in defensive field goal percentage (.442) in 2009-10. (Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)

Life was not always smooth for Taj, but strong faith and a positive attitude have helped him manage life’s journey to the Windy City.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Gibson started playing basketball when he was just five years old. For a number of years, he was home-schooled by his mother, Sharon, until eventually she decided Taj needed more of a challenge in a classroom setting. His freshman year in high school, he enrolled at Telecommunications High in Brooklyn, but after a while his parents felt something important was missing.

“We always wanted Taj to get the best education possible while also letting him enjoy basketball. However we started to feel he wasn’t getting that in Brooklyn,” says Sharon. “At that time, the right place for Taj just didn’t seem to be close to home.”

So, at the age of 17, Gibson took a leap of faith and moved from the East Coast and headed west to a whole new world. Picking up numerous sponsorships and support from family, friends and some of his former coaches, Taj attended Stoneridge Preparatory in Tarzana, California.

“I was full of tears when I first left New York because kids at that age usually have their parents with them all the time,” admits Gibson. “California was a totally new environment, and the transition was tough. But after awhile it got a little easier as I was able to make friends. I guess, at least in my situation, moving away from home helped me grow up.”

After spending his sophomore and junior years at Stoneridge, Gibson finished his high school days at Calvary Christian in nearby San Fernando, California. His mother explained that several colleges started calling her expressing interest in Taj, but in the end it was the Trojans of the University of Southern California who landed the then 21-year-old freshman.

“Honestly, back then I didn’t think too much about making it to the NBA,” Gibson insists. “I wanted to go to college, but not just any college. I wanted to go to a really good school, and, lucky for me, USC wanted me.”

USC Men’s Assistant Coach Phil Johnson knew Taj was capable of making it to the NBA not only because of Gibson’s skill-set, but because of his character.

“Taj was a developing player from the day he first arrived on campus,” says Johnson. “When he first came to us as a freshman, he was a skinny kid that was eager and ready to get better. We definitely miss him around here. Not just because he’s a terrific player, but because he’s a quality person. I believe that’s part of the reason Taj is and always will be successful in life.

“With regards to basketball, coaches value players who’ll defend their position and are aware of what’s going on around them. For any program to be successful, you obviously need talent, but you also need players who are unselfish,” adds Johnson. “Taj is a perfect example. He’s a very talented player with great instincts. But, more importantly, he’s someone his teammates look up to. He’s someone who cares and who’ll always give maximum effort.”

Along with Johnson, former USC Head Coach and current University of Texas-El Paso Head Coach Tim Floyd is also a big fan of Gibson’s. The two forged a close relationship when they teamed together at USC, and Floyd wasn’t bashful when it came to vouching for Gibson’s capabilities and character when Bulls General Manager Gar Forman began scouting the Trojans during Gibson’s junior year.

“Taj was the guy the players looked at to lead us, especially during crunch time,” says Floyd. “He’s a tremendous teammate and a great player to coach. Taj was inquisitive. He always asked good questions, and he wanted to do well. He never took a day off, not even a minute in the time he and I were together. That’s why every coach and every teammate of his respects him so much.”

Floyd says he isn’t surprised that Gibson adapted quickly to the NBA, and that he likes to check in on him from time to time by texting and through calls to Forman. Floyd, himself a former Bulls coach, says he tries to watch Gibson play as many games as possible and adds he’s incredibly proud of his former pupil and excited about the career that lies ahead.

Taj with Tim Duncan

Chicago’s first-year starting power forward seems destined to make the NBA’s 2010 All-Rookie First Team.

“I’ll be surprised if Taj doesn’t play at least 10-12 years in the NBA,” Floyd emphatically states. “Every team is looking for a guy who can do the things he does, especially defensively. He’s got great instincts on the floor,” adds Floyd. “And off the floor he’s incredibly kind and considerate. He’s a giver verses a taker. That will serve him well.”

In no particular order, there seem to be three distinctive strengths that are often repeated in conversations among teammates, coaches and family members when Gibson’s name comes up: strong work ethic, humble character, and a willingness to listen and put others first. Even though teammate Derrick Rose has been in the NBA a year longer than him, Rose insists Gibson has taught him a lot about being professional and how to succeed.

“I’ve learned from Taj,” says Chicago’s All-Star guard. “He always plays hard. He gives it his best every game. I’m really proud to have him as a teammate and as a friend. He’s a good person with a great heart.”

Gibson’s hard work has definitely paid off for the Bulls this season. He led all rookies in a number of statistical categories and is a lock to be named a member of the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team, which is an unusual honor for most players picked as low as 26th in the Draft. And, in fact, he was one of nine first year players selected to participate in the NBA’s Rookie-Sophomore Challenge game over All Star Weekend in Dallas. Gibson describes being a part of All Star Weekend as a “mind blowing” experience. He says it was an honor representing the Bulls, and he was also happy to be there to support Rose at the main event.

“All Star Weekend was incredibly inspirational. To see all the great players walking around and to listen to their stories was really exciting,” says Gibson. “It was just so much fun. I couldn’t believe how many [players] knew my name — knew who I was ... Shaq talked to me! I definitely learned a lot, and it also motivated me to continue working hard in order to get better. Hopefully, one day I’ll get to play in an All Star game.”

Taj Gibson, NBA All Star? That’s not crazy. Forman says the Bulls knew Gibson would be a terrific player, but even the GM admits he’s exceeded their expectations.

“Boy, Taj’s been fantastic,” Forman gushes. “Since the day he got here, he’s been all business. He has a great motor. He’s got great skills. He’s loaded with potential. And best of all, his work ethic tells you he’s going to continue getting better and better.”

Bulls radio play-by-play broadcaster, Chuck Swirsky, defines Gibson as a sponge with an undying desire to learn and improve.

“When I look at Taj, I see a player who is going to be in the league a good decade. He’ll battle and work hard to keep improving. He’s a true throwback; an old school player who I believe could play in any era because of his ability and his heart. It’s been a joy watching him play and to see how well he’s developed this year. Taj’s is a survivor.”

Gibson describes himself as a simple person who enjoys the small things in life, but, according to Rose, he’s really not that quiet because, after all, “He’s a “New Yawker!”

“Right now it’s about being mentally prepared every time I step onto the court,” emphasizes Gibson. “It’s funny how things turn out. I try my best to play hard but I also want to have fun. So far, everything has worked out great. But I know there’s a lot more work to be done. I’m excited about the future. This team is on the rise and I plan on being a part of it for a good long time.”

Gibson rebounds against Atlanta
Gibson’s long reach helped Chicago recapture the league’s team rebounding crown with an average of 44.5 boards per game this season. The last time the Bulls led the NBA in rebounding was back in 2006-07.
(Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images)

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