Taj Gibson leaves Chicago with his head held high
Gibson: Chicago's going to be in my heart.
No one moment or event defines a person. But with Thursday’s Bulls trade to Oklahoma City that featured Taj Gibson, I was asked about Gibson highlights. Gibson was, as well, and I loved that when someone mentioned his 2011 Eastern Conference finals running, flying dunk over Dwyane Wade, Gibson sort of shrugged it off.
"It really wasn't (my favorite),” Gibson said to the surprise of many of the media members. “It was just a dunk. That really wasn't one of my favorite moments of my career. I had a lot of shining moments in my career. Just being around (former coach Tom) Thibs; he just told me people don't look at most of the games. They look at the bright spots. I had a lot of different bright spots in my career. The biggest one in my career would have to be just being on the team when guys were down and having a coach look at me and know he can count on me. No matter what position, no matter what time of the game. And he would trust some of the most important plays for me to do. Those were the most important moments of my life, just having a guy (like) Fred (Hoiberg) and Coach Thibs, knowing the guys ahead of me making twice as much money, and he's still calling my name in crunch time. Those were the best moments of my life."
It’s the pride of doing a job and doing it well, of having earned being called a professional and the respect of the people for whom you work. It’s meant the most for Gibson, who fought his way out of the tough and violent projects of Brooklyn when it wasn’t fashionable, when the battle was for dignity as well as survival. Taj Gibson grew, perhaps unexpectedly, into a great professional and NBA player with the Bulls in eight seasons, cracking the franchise’s alltime top 10 for seasons played.
He wouldn’t get his name on one of those championship banners or in many of the franchise’s statistical annals. His top 10 categories for the Bulls are fifth alltime in blocks and sixth alltime in offensive rebounds, which perhaps tells enough about how he played and who he was, the guy who did the thankless so called dirty work. He was about working, from his humble NBA beginnings as a 26th draft pick in 2009 to repeatedly being denied seemingly promised starting job positions and being the greatest supporter of the players who stepped in front, like free agents Carlos Boozer and then Pau Gasol.
When asked about that Thursday—when Gibson, by the way, came back to meet with reporters when traded players generally leave without speaking—this is how Gibson responded:
“I really love the game. Most guys say they love the game, but I really absolutely love the game of basketball. It's bigger than scoring. You got to do everything. You’ve got to love your teammates, you’ve got to be fans of your teammates, sometimes. I was extremely excited to play with Pau because I know I could learn some things from him. I was extremely excited to play with Carlos Boozer, and there were some great battles in practice. I learned a lot from those guys in practice. It showed when I got in the game. It was great for my career. Most guys don't really get that kind of contact nowadays. Most guys are just expected to go out there and play. And then when they go out there and play, they're not ready. For me, it was good for my career."
It’s an incredibly rare and unselfish attitude, but it is the vital alchemy that produces a team from a collection of individuals, which is what everyone starts with. They never called Taj "Elmer’s", but he was the sort of glue that held things together.
Taj had his moments on the basketball court, like the dunk over Wade and a similarly fabulous put back dunk in that 2011 conference finals when everything looked so buoyant for those young Bulls, galloping and frolicking and not good enough to beat LeBron and Wade, but coming, coming fast. Coming with toughness and determination, with the flash of Rose and the guile of Noah and the subtlety of Deng. Miami knew it. It all ended with Rose’s knee injury a year later. Gibson had a 26-point game for a career high afterward against the Cavs, and he was always in the midst of the Bulls straining efforts to compete with Rose out despite painful bouts with plantar fasciitis and an ankle injury he played through an entire season, forgoing surgery for that entire time.
I saw Gibson angry with teammates once, in the locker room after a painful loss in Boston with Noah joking with him about some turnovers, hurtful mistakes. Gibson stalked out of the room, Noah trying to chase him down to apologize, say he was just kidding. Basketball was always fun for Taj, but never a joke. And never what he put into it because he wasn’t the most gifted.
He was a bit on the small side for a power forward, a spindly 6-9, didn’t have the shot for the modern power forward, though he’s worked himself into a wonderful mid range shooter. But Thibodeau and now Hoiberg, the latter who made him a starter for the first time on merit and not injury, relied on him and yet would sit him out for others as circumstances changed. Taj was up waving the towel and cheering for everyone. He defended the pick and roll as well as any, able to switch onto guards, maneuver outside and battle inside. So he wasn’t scoring 20 points or getting 15 rebounds. His statistics were in the result.
“It was a process,” Gibson said. “I just believed in the process. I believed in doing the right things. When you believe in doing the right things, playing for a successful organization like the Bulls, good things can happen. Like I told the young guys, ‘I was the guy off the bench for a while. But because my team and coaching staff, we worked hard and won games, I was able to get a big piece of the pie, too.’ I was always trying to be a leader on the court. I'm excited to just move forward. I'm proud of what I've accomplished, as far as just being here for so many years. I'm just really saddened that we didn't get a chance to win one. I'm saddened that I didn't get a chance to finish off the year. My agent and everybody knows how badly I wanted to stay here. But, gotta stay focused. Going to a new situation. New chapter.”
Some of my favorite Taj moments were in the locker room; maybe my favorite.
The Bulls have a history of having high character people, good guys who generally are cooperative with the media. Often media members tend to be more cautious, quieter in the post game locker room after losses. Some players might be curt, less sociable. One of my favorite moments was when one of the young reporters after a game like that went over to Gibson. He was open, engaging and cooperative, as usual, aware of the circumstances, but understanding the work others have to do. After the reporter was done, Gibson said he had a question. How come, he asked, you only ask me questions when we lose?
I knew. Because the other guys could be cranky, or scary or intimidating or sometimes ride. Taj treated everyone well. Some guys revel in the wins and leave after the losses or just mumble and snarl. Taj was always there for the media, understanding everyone has work to do and treating everyone who does their work with respect. Let me, he was saying, say some things when we win, too.
When Bulls vice president John Paxson met with reporters later Thursday he began by saying how difficult it was to trade Gibson, how he really was one of the best people the Bulls have ever known. Gibson admitted earlier in the day when Paxson officially informed him after years of these February rumors, there were tears from the tougher Bulls champion guard.
“I was a little bit shocked,” Gibson admitted. “But from the moment I woke up at like 5 this morning, my agent called me and he was getting a lot of hits from a lot of different teams (Gibson said eight different teams told his agent they were interested). That’s when I knew it was serious. I didn’t know if it would get done. I was just going through the day like I normally do. Guys, we laugh about it, we never know who’s going to be here. But once I saw the news, I was kind of excited and a little sad at the same time.
“It was emotional (with Paxson),” Gibson said. “I don’t really see Pax get choked up and a little teary eyed. But he gave me a long hug and I got a lot of respect for Pax. He’s like a father figure, just a great guy. I’m familiar with OKC as far as the players. I’m excited because they’re a good team. They’ve got a lot of good pieces. I’m looking forward to going in there and competing and doing my job.
“Just being able to put on a Bulls jersey and every day I came to the locker room and saw my name on the back of a Bulls jersey was a dream come true,” Gibson said. “Great city. A big time city. Just to have the fans behind me at times was a great feeling.”
Here was what Gibson posted after the trade on his Instagram account:
Today was such an emotional day for me. From the time I heard my name called by David Stern, I have been so proud and honored to be a Chicago Bull. To Jerry Reinsdorf, John Paxson, Gar Forman, Coach Thibs, and Coach Hoiberg, you have all helped me grow into who I am today. There is no way I can ever thank you enough for the opportunities you have presented to me. I will be indebted to all of you forever! To the Fans of Chicago, you have made playing for the Bulls everything I could've dreamed of and more. From the incredible support that we get every night at the United Center to the reaction I always receive walking down the streets, it would be impossible for all of you to make me feel more special. Every single one of you will always have a piece of my heart. I have also had such an incredible group of teammates and assistant coaches, who all created moments that I could have never imagined coming true. So, here is just a real heartfelt thank you to all of you for letting a New York City kid live out his dreams as a Chicago Bull. Now, it's off to OKC and a new chapter in my life and I'm so excited to see what lies ahead. All I can tell the Thunder fans is that you'll get everything I've got every single day and I'm looking forward to our journey together! #thankyouchicago #heaveyheart #seerednation #thunderup
Not a whole lot was expected of Gibson, taken well after James Johnson in that draft. But he found himself a starter in his rookie season of 2009-10 when Tyrus Thomas was hurt, went to the bench behind free agent Boozer for 2010-11 and his game declined. Though few knew the heartache and despair he knew that year, his three closest friends killed, two in shootings and one in a car accident. He fought through the grief and distraction and played in 80 games after 82 as a rookie.
He bounced back from foot problems in 2013-14 to be runnerup for Sixth Man of the year and again lost a chance to start when the Bulls signed Pau Gasol instead of landing Carmelo Anthony. Back he went into full team support mode even as tragedy again struck in the murder of his six-year-old nephew back in New York.
Gibson battled out of the ankle surgery and earned his way back into the Bulls starting lineup this season and was having one of his best seasons, his shooting more reliable than ever, averaging his second most points and rebounds as a Bull while combining with Robin Lopez to help the Bulls remain stable and lead the league in rebounding much of the season. It was his second straight season also among the league leaders in shooting. The Bulls will not be as good without him, but their goals become more the future.
Now Gibson, a free agent after the season, stays in the present with an Oklahoma City team that with MVP candidate Russell Westbrook believes it can make some noise in the playoffs as long as it doesn’t have to start with Golden State. They want to remain at least seventh, and Gibson and Doug McDermott should help.
Though Chicago basketball should never forget a guy who represented the city and its basketball as well as any, if not as celebrated.
“The first time I came here, the moment I got my jersey and I had my draft cap, it was hell because nobody knew who I was or what I was capable of doing,” Gibson recalled. “It was rough for me, but as the years went on, just playing hard and playing competitive and leaving it on the court each and every night, the fans became my family. It sucks to have to depart, but I'm going into a great situation and I'm happy. I'm blessed to be in this position, blessed to be able to play for the Chicago Bulls, a higher echelon kind of organization and I'm going to another great organization and I'm happy."
“This was my home for a long time; this still is my home. I want to see Chicago succeed and I want to see the young players succeed, so I wish them all the best. Right now we still have a whole 'nother half of the season to play. I have to get adjusted to the West Coast style of play. It's completely different, a whole new system, a whole new organization. So I can't really speculate on anything right now. I'm just like a kid going into a new school. I don't know where to sit on the bus. I don't know where to sit in class. It's a whole new situation for me. Chicago's going to be in my heart. Who knows, in a couple years down the line, you never know what can happen. Hopefully in the future, come back (to the Bulls), maybe in a coaching role or some other role. You never know. This is like family."
"I felt like it could happen. I was like, 'They got to get something for me. Because look at how they lost Joakim. They didn't get anything for Joakim. They didn't get anything for Pau.’ So it was only the smart thing for them to do was trying to get something for me while I was still here, which is good for the organization in my opinion. Because you don't want to let a free agent just walk away without trying to get some pieces.”
Right to the end, all about the team, all about the organization, all about the city.
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