Whether it was after Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, when Taj Gibson had introduced himself to the world with two high-flying dunks, or after one of the three losses that followed, his first instinct was to reach for his phone when he got to the locker room.
Gibson was waiting for a call or a text that would never come. He wanted to make a phone call that would never go through.
One of the memorable role players in this star-studded series, Gibson has carried a heavy burden with him. Every accomplishment is robbed of a little joy. Every disappointment is magnified because there's no one to share it with -- no one to lift him out of a bad moment and send him soaring toward the next challenge.
|Taj Gibson played big in Game 1, but it meant a little less without his friends being around to enjoy it. (AP)|
"I tell them I miss them," Gibson said in a quiet moment during the conference finals, which the Heat lead 3-1 going back to Chicago for Game 5 Thursday night. "First I say the Lord's prayer, and I say every one of their names. I think about the good times we had, all the positives. I tell them I miss them; tell them, 'Be with me. Give me inspiration.' I say the same thing no matter what. Every game, good or bad."
There's been a lot of good for Gibson, along with unthinkable doses of bad. After a promising rookie season with the Bulls, Gibson was back home in New York City last summer, spending time with childhood friends in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn where he grew up.
"We were all together once again," Gibson said. "I felt real good. It was summertime in New York. We were going to the pool, going to the gym, playing basketball. It was fun. All you hear about in New York, especially in Brooklyn, is gun violence. And you're like, 'It's not gonna hit close to home.' And then one by one, they all just dropped. Not months or years; it was weeks."
It was early August. Gibson had finished a week of workouts in Chicago and was getting ready to fly home again to New York for the weekend. A week earlier, he and his friend, Tremaine Patterson, had spent time together -- working out, shooting hoops, going out for drinks. Before Gibson had repacked his suitcase to go home again, he got a call from his sister.
"Tremaine's been shot," she said.
Patterson, 33, was found in a third-floor apartment of the Ingersoll Houses -- a housing project in Fort Greene that is no stranger to gun violence -- with a gunshot wound to the buttocks. He was pronounced dead at Kings County Hospital in the early morning hours of Aug. 7, according to newspaper reports. There had been an argument in the hallway of the apartment building, and Gibson said his friend "got involved with somebody else's problem" when he got caught in the crossfire.
Gibson went home for the funeral, and made a point of spending as much time as he could with his best friend from childhood, Charles Wynn. Charles was sort of the basketball pied piper in Fort Greene, always with a group of kids around and basketballs bouncing. "They're gonna be the next NBA stars," he'd always say.
In early September, less than a month after attending Patterson's funeral, Gibson arrived in Las Vegas, where he'd made arrangements to spend the weekend with Wynn before NBA training camps would begin.
"I landed first," Gibson said, "and I'm thinking he's coming. And I get a phone call from my mom."
Wynn, 24, had been fatally shot in the head on the front porch of a two-family house in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn on Sept. 3. Earlier that day, Wynn had testified to a grand jury as the lone witness to another murder in the same house, according to newspaper reports.
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"He was the last in his family," Gibson said. "His brother died the same way, by gun violence. His uncle died the same way. His mother ... that was her last son. That was the hardest thing, his mother having to go through that again. His mother said when she went to the hospital and saw him, she felt the same thing she felt when she lost her first son all over again. She's looking at him and she's seeing her first son who passed away. And it's sad, because I didn't want her to feel that. She's like my second mom."
Gibson kept quiet about his pain, not wanting to become a distraction for his team. But incredibly, Gibson got word as training camp opened that a third friend from Brooklyn, Johnny Smith, had gone missing somewhere between New York and the Carolinas, where he'd been living. He's never been found.
"He lived down there for a while and he went back and forth," Gibson said. "He's a recreational dancer, dances a lot for fun. He's a good soul. Never was a guy to get into fights. He's one of the guys when we go to a party or a club, he'd be the best dancer there. He really takes pride in dancing. Think he had a couple of decent jobs down south. Never was involved in drugs or any kind of crime. He was a hard worker. That's one of the things I respected about him ever since I was young."
These are the friends Gibson speaks to before every game. These are the guys he wanted so badly to call after those dunks in Game 1 -- and after the three crushing losses that followed. After the Bulls lost Game 3, Gibson said he went to the locker room and just stared at his phone.
"I didn't know who to call," Gibson said. "I wanted to call Charles because I knew he would've been calling my phone. He's a big LeBron fan."
"Uh oh," I said.
"No, it's all good," Gibson said. "He's a big LeBron fan and he loves the game and he would've been excited. He probably would've gone to some of the games." Gibson's grandfather, Wilbert Gibson, Sr., would've gone, too. Gibson didn't know his grandfather growing up. Family complications and relationships -- the minefields of our lives -- had denied him that chance. In February, Gibson, Sr., lost his battle with lung cancer. All Gibson can do now is be thankful for the time he had with his grandfather late in his life.
"He was one of my No. 1 fans," Gibson said. "It was hard because I was talking to him on the phone and he was like, 'My body is so tired. I don't know how much longer I can do this. I'm ready to just go.' ... I never really heard anybody talk that way, for someone to want to die from so much pain."
So much pain for one young man to endure.