Johnson and Gibson look to make an impact
“I’m just a laid-back, cool person, so if you see me, don’t be afraid to come say hi,” says Johnson. “I’ll have a conversation with anyone.”
“I get along with everybody real easily,” says Gibson, the more soft-spoken of the two. “Once I meet you, I’ll remember your name. I’m cool with everybody.” The two big-hearted forwards were picked in the first round of this year’s NBA Draft; Wake Forest sophomore Johnson was selected first, at number 16 overall, while the Bulls used their second pick to grab USC’s Johnson, a third-year player, at the 26th spot.
James and Taj have more than a few things in common. They come from athletic families, each the son of a military vet who preached the values of competition and hard work, both in school and on the court. And each traveled far from home on this current journey that’s led them to the NBA.
Johnson went from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Winston-Salem, NC, to play for Wake Forest under the late Skip Prosser and then Dino Gaudio, while Gibson’s odyssey took him from Brooklyn, New York, to Los Angeles and USC, where he played for former Chicago Bulls head coach Tim Floyd.
We sat down with both players after they arrived in Chicago to prepare for NBA Summer League to get their take on life and basketball. We also chatted with coaches, family and friends to find out just who these newest Bulls are.
Basketball in Wyoming?
Yes, there’s basketball in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and a highly competitive scene at that. But James Johnson, 22, who as a point guard led Cheyenne East High School to the Wyoming state championships his junior year and to the semi-finals his senior year, didn’t get his athletic start in hoops. Nope, young James, like his six brothers and two sisters, got fit and physical doing Kempo and Kenpo karate under the tutelage of Dad Willie, who runs a martial arts school.
With the exception of his youngest sister (who has a blue belt), everyone in the family, including his mom Vi, has a black belt. “When they could barely walk,” explains Willie, “I’d have them move around, kick and punch – I just started training them.” James started fighting competitively at age 5 and, by the time he was 18, had wracked up a 20-0 record kickboxing, along with nine national and six world champion karate titles. His first world title came at age 8.
But it wasn’t just kickboxing and karate that taught the now 245-pound James toughness; being the fourth out of seven brothers taught him to “just go and get it,” no matter what the competition or game. “My older brothers never let us win at basketball or football,” says James. “If I tried to skateboard, to do anything, I tried to be the best.”
“The boys were serious about their sports because they wanted to be number one,” says Willie. James, for example, was an all-conference wide receiver and tight end. “But I always told them if they lost, it meant that they took someone for granted, or they didn’t train hard enough.”
James was born in Oceanside, California, where his dad served in the U.S. Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton and met his mom. The tight-knit family moved to Cheyenne when James was six, to be closer to relatives and to escape the hustle of Southern California. Willie, whose full-time job is in management at the local Veteran Affairs hospital (where Vi is a certified nurse’s assistant), opened the martial arts studio.
“Other people played Monopoly for family night,” James says. “We went to the gym and sparred and worked out.”
James didn’t play organized hoops until eighth grade or AAU ball until 11th grade because he spent so much time practicing martial arts and playing football. But years of going against his older brothers paid off, and he quickly fell in love with a sport that seemed to come naturally.
Martial arts turned out to be a huge help to his game; most players his size aren’t as quick, flexible and balanced as James. “A lot of the positions in martial arts are the same as basketball, like the defensive stance,” he explains. “And martial arts also helps with discipline. It’s a lot of training. You have to want to compete and work harder than the next person to succeed. It’s the same thing as basketball, only in basketball you have a team.”
For all his success at the art of kicking and punching, however, don’t expect James Johnson to raise a fist on the court.
“With his background – the black belt at a young age, being in the Ultimate Fighting ring with much older competitors, I never saw him ball his fist like he’d like to hit someone,” says Wake Forest head coach Dino Gaudio. “He’s an incredibly engaging young man with a terrific personality. And he’s so secure in who he is that the fighting part of him never rears its head. He carries himself with such confidence.”
Confidence, and kindness. In high school he was one of those guys who spent time with everyone. “I don’t just hang out with one group,” Johnson says now. “I hung out with kids who played sports and kids who didn’t. I’d hang out at lunch with students who had special needs and play basketball with them.”
“I have a caring heart, but I’m also competitive. I want to play hard but I want to shake hands afterwards.”
He learned about caring from his family. James’s dad brought troubled kids off the streets and into his gym and home, giving them a stable family and a place to sleep and eat. “He (Willie) was an orphan and was adopted himself, so he knows what they’re going through,” explains James.
Just like his dad, James brought home kids who needed some guidance and a hand. From junior high through high school, says Willie, “James took kids who were down on themselves and brought them to the basketball court or out to eat, where he’d talk to them. By the end, their heads were up and they were smiling. He enjoyed bringing ‘lost’ kids home and putting them on the right path again.”
Though James loves being with family in Cheyenne, Wake Forest was a golden opportunity, and he made the most of it. In his two years as a Demon Deacon, Johnson started 59 of his 61 games, averaged 14.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.44 blocked shots, shooting 51 percent from the floor and 69 percent from the free throw line. He led the team in rebounds with 8.5 per game and field-goal percentage (.542) as a sophomore, was second on the team in scoring with 15 points per game, and was named Third-Team All-ACC both seasons. It wasn’t just basketball talent that got him there, however.
“I was held back in seventh grade, and even though I was embarrassed and discouraged, my brothers and mom and dad told me not to quit trying,” says James. “I got my grades back up, ended up going to a big-time Division I school (where he majored in religious studies), and now I’m in the NBA playing for the Chicago Bulls. Wake was tough academically; the classes are no joke, and they don’t give athletes leeway.”
“It shows that if you care about something, it’ll drive you to do things that no one thinks you can possibly do. If you love something that much, you’ll get it no matter how long it takes.”
Gotham to Cali to Chicago
Which leads us to fellow rookie Taj Gibson. Like Johnson, he grew up focusing on two things: academics and sports. Unlike Johnson, who was raised in quiet Wyoming, Gibson honed his skills on New York City’s crowded playgrounds, getting on the subway either alone or with his dad, practicing against guys much older than himself, and eventually joining the New York Gauchos AAU team.
Taj grew up in the projects in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, in a strict household headed by his dad Wilbert, a former U.S. Army national team basketball player, and his mom Sharon, along with a younger brother and older sister.
“I picked up a basketball at age 5,” says Taj. “New York’s a basketball town. I’d always go to the park and watch the guys play, I watched the Knicks and Bulls games, I collected trading cards – I was a basketball fanatic.”
Like his fellow rookie, Taj was a gifted all-around athlete, who competed in soccer, baseball, and track and field before setting his sights solely on basketball.
Though he started playing young, he entered USC as a 21-year-old freshman. And at 24, he’s one of the older rookies in the league. But there’s a story behind his late start that points to a never-give-up attitude that’s led to an incredible appreciation for where he is today.
During his introductory press conference in Chicago, where he and James met the media, posed with their jerseys (Gibson’s wearing 22, Johnson’s number 16) and saw their names on the United Center scoreboard, Taj was asked if his age has helped him.
“Yes, it helps me out a lot,” he said softly. “I’ve learned from great coaches, and I can’t tell you how blessed I am to be here after a long, hard road through high school and college.”
That road to the NBA began at age 11, when he started traveling with local AAU teams. “I grew up real quick, I was on my own, playing in different parks and maturing,” says Taj. But basketball was always balanced by school and, later, a job. His dad taught carpentry skills to Taj, who at age 14, started working year-round as a carpenter and a furniture mover. “Sometimes I even did the night shift,” says Taj. “It taught me a lot, like how to be a man.”
At age 15, his parents decided that homeschooling was a better option to keep him away from gangs and other troubles, and focused on school. Going into his senior year, however, the board of education announced they wouldn’t accept his homeschooling grades and told Taj he needed to start high school again. He was devastated.
“I didn’t want to talk to anyone; I didn’t play ball for a few weeks. It was traumatizing,” he says. “I had to start all over, but I told my mom I wouldn’t give up.” Not content to earn a GED, he went to Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunications and focused on grades. Later that year, his mom and AAU coach decided he needed to get away from the city for a better education, on and off the court.
At age 18, he moved by himself to Southern California to attend Stoneridge Prep School (for two years) and then Calvary Baptist Christian High School. “As soon as I got to California,” he says, “I just kept doing what I had to do. I placed myself around good people and worked.”
His coaches drove him to his jobs at a steel mill and a carpentry company. “Sometimes I’d take homework with me to work. It was a grind, but I always believed my time would come and that I needed to be patient. Then I got the blessing to go to USC.”
Taj was a few credits short and took on-line courses through Brigham Young University before finally making it as, yes, a 21-year-old freshman.
“Once I got to USC I never missed a class, and I got good grades.” He majored in communications with a business minor and was accepted into USC’s prestigious Annenberg School for Communication. (He cites the Wall Street Journal and politics blogs as his favorite reading material.)
On the basketball court, he was coached and mentored by former Bulls head coach Tim Floyd, former Bulls assistant Phil Johnson, Dwayne Polee, and strength and conditioning manager Rudy Hackett. “They were a big influence on me, from teaching me the game to how to be a man, to being a father figure. They really care about the kids.”
The long, athletic Gibson, who left as USC’s all-time leader in blocked shots, with 253 (2.41 per game), blossomed over his three seasons at USC. “The fact that we went to three straight NCAA tourneys for the first time in USC history and Taj led us toward all three says a lot about him,” says Coach Johnson. In 105 games played, he averaged 12.4 points per game, 8.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and shot .580 from the floor. As a junior, he earned Second-Team All-Conference honors and was Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year.
“He’s a wonderful person who cares deeply about winning, is respectful and is a good worker,” Johnson says. “And, when coaches weren’t around or during a timeout, we always felt comfortable about Taj saying or doing the right thing. Taj was always one of the guys preparing the most.”
And like fellow draft pick Johnson, Taj enjoys sharing his basketball blessings. “I played ball with a bunch of kids who had Down’s Syndrome. I talked to them, and they’d come in the locker room after (USC) games, good or bad. And I tried to give them as many tickets as I could. Life’s too short, and a lot of kids haven’t been to a basketball game.”
The willowy forward – he arrived in Chicago weighing 225, but he’s focused on getting bigger and stronger -- has worked hard for everything in his past, so there’s no doubt he’ll continue to succeed. “I love working hard, and I love being in the gym,” says Taj, looking around the Bulls practice facility after his second workout with the team. “I got here and I saw these wonderful things – the court, people rebounding for you – guys take that for granted. As soon as I got here I basically wanted to sleep here. It’s just wonderful.”
He’s also looking forward to bringing defensive intensity to the Chicago Bulls. “I want to find a niche and fit in and help the team win. When we win, we all reap the benefits. The guys are great guys, and I’m looking forward to seeing how everything pans out.”