How a fight on a New York train laid the foundation for Taj Gibson's career
You'll want to put aside 10 minutes for this Q&A with the Chicago Bulls' longest-tenured player
Before Taj Gibson goes to battle, he sits at his locker quietly, listening to Coldplay or perhaps Hans Zimmer's The Last Samurai soundtrack. Some players prefer a pregame playlist with more oomph, but that's the last thing Gibson is looking for. He needs something to calm him down.
Gibson has no chill in his game. When he attacks the rim as he did violently last week against the Minnesota Timberwolves, he tries to tear it off. This contrasts not only with what's coming through his headphones, but with the professional manner with which he's carried himself over the last eight seasons.
Outlasting not only Luol Deng and Tom Thibodeau but Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose with the Chicago Bulls, Gibson has gone from the No. 26 pick that Chicago fans never wanted to the bruising big man they don't want to lose in free agency. All the while, he has quietly done whatever's best for the team, never complaining about coming off the bench behind less productive players. Kevin Garnett told Gibson to stay patient after a particularly intense offseason pickup game in Los Angeles years ago, and he never forgot those words.
This season, the 31-year-old Gibson is finally a full-time starter, and he has rewarded the Bulls with arguably the best year of his career. Through 26 games, he has never been more efficient -- all those years as a reserve kept him fresh.
"I want to be like Benjamin Button," Gibson says.
In an interview with CBS Sports, Gibson looked back on his journey and discussed the Bulls' ups and downs and where they're going now. The following Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
2011, you get to the ECF, Thibs' first year. Did you ever think you'd be the last guy remaining from that team?
To be honest with you, no. I did not. In a million years, I would have never thought that. You got so much going on, I didn't know if I was going to stick.
You're the longest-tenured Bull now, but do you remember how the city reacted when you were drafted?
Man, the day I got drafted, I was so happy, but then the moment I went to Twitter and the moment I got to Chicago and I'm doing the press conference, it was unforgettable -- it was like the fans didn't want me. They were acting like they wanted somebody else to get drafted. It really hurt me. That's what made me play with that fire. I remember it made me feel like crap. I remember that.
Five years ago, did you think you'd be competing for championships every year? How do you reflect on that time now?
I look back, I wish the injuries and all that stuff didn't happen. I felt we had a lot of talent, but we had a bunch of guys that just got it. That understood the team aspect, that understood the more we win, the more we're going to succeed as a whole. It's hard every year, different players need different contracts. So every time you got a good shot to go win it, you gotta go try to win it. Because every year, you never know whose contract is going to be up and who's going to want more money.
That's your perspective now -- did you realize it then?
Man, at the time, I took it for granted. Because I remember Game 3 in that series against Miami, I blew an assignment, but after the series was over, I looked back, it was one of those assignments I wish I didn't mess up. And I looked back, I was like, We're going to be back, I'm not worried about that, we're going to come back next year or the year after. And it was hard ever since. And I think about that all the time: What if?
Would you be perceived differently if you hadn't come off the bench all these years?
Without question. I was a starter back then, but I just worked, I just went along with the way Thibs saw things and the way that management saw it. I just went along with it, I wanted to be a good teammate. In this league, it's hard to really be a good teammate because most guys are real selfish, but I just wanted to do what's best for the team at the time. I played my role, I adapted to coming off the bench and being the sixth man, and that's what I tried to be.
Was last year the toughest of your career?
Mentally, yes. Because sometimes when you're in the NBA, the roster -- if people can win championships just off of roster names alone, there would be a lot of championships around the country. But people have to put the work in. And I felt that we left a lot on the table. And I played for a great coach who said, at night, you go home, you gotta look in the mirror and be like, you know what, I gave it my all. And some nights I think about last year, I'd be like, I don't think we're bringing enough, I don't think we gave it our all. And that bothered me sometimes at night.
How did you deal with that?
It was just different. You had a whole new coaching staff, everybody, a lot of guys' minds weren't locked in on the right things. And every day, it was rough. It was even harder for Fred, just trying to keep a veteran group together. And that's why it was such a hard time for me -- I'd never been a part of anything like that.
What's the state of the Bulls this season?
So far, it's been OK. I feel we're a lot better than we show sometimes. I know that, all the big-time games, we really get up for -- we compete very well in big-time games. But at times we slack off for the teams that maybe the statistics say we should beat. But it's a part of the NBA. And we're still learning.
What do you think people got wrong about this team?
People didn't know what to expect. People just saw a team that just, at the last minute, they tried to trade Jimmy, but then they just went the other way and signed Rondo, and then they signed D-Wade. So then they didn't know what to expect. And then you turn around, we got a team now where we're like fourth -- at one point, we were like second in the East, now we're like top-four in the East. [This interview was conducted on Dec. 12.] In the NBA power rankings today I looked, we're like top-10. You never know. That's why I say, at the beginning of the year, everybody's saying they want to win a championship. Then you slowly see, day by day, different teams fall off. We're just trying to make the playoffs and see where we can go.
What's it been like to watch Jimmy Butler grow into the player he is today?
It's like a scene out of a movie when you're fighting so many battles and then one guy finally steps up and he becomes, like, the leader. And he finally goes and wills guys to battle and victory. Every day I see Jimmy, that's why we're so tight, that's why we're so cool. 'Cause I've seen him come in and I remember him being so down on himself, like he wanted to play so bad and he didn't get any time. And he worked at it, he worked at it. The more he worked at it, the more his hair grew and got nappy, but he did his job. And his work ethic is extremely crazy, how much time he puts into this game.
What don't people know about him?
He's a super competitor. He's a super competitor. He's one of those guys that you're going to want to go into battle with no matter what. And that's the type of guy that you can always lean on. Especially in a time when you probably don't think that you have a chance to win -- he's going to be the one who's like, we can still win, we can do this. Those kind of guys, you like on your team.
Have you had any moments with Dwyane Wade when you're like, Oh, this is why everybody says he's a great leader?
Every day Dwyane does something cool. He's so smooth. He's a smooth man, he's a smooth dude. Like, every day in practice, he's calling out things. He's always, during the game, like small stuff in the game -- he's always calming guys down, telling guys to take certain looks, believing in guys. Even in practice, he gets on guys if things aren't going right. He's just an all-around good leader -- I didn't really understand it, didn't see much of it going against him for so many years, but now playing with him, I really see why they won those championships.
Ever remind him that you dunked on him really hard in the playoffs?
I try not to say anything because it was some static between us for a few years because of that. So I try not to say anything about that and just go out there and play. But in the back of his head, he knows.
How did growing up in Brooklyn shape who you are?
Growing up in Brooklyn, it was like non-stop basketball, but it's hard-nosed basketball. You have to be tough. You can't go outside smiling, I'll tell you that. I had a lot of fights. People don't understand how many fights I had. I may seem like a great guy, but I had a lot of fights. Every day.
Are there any fights that stick out?
I remember going up to the Gauchos Gym 'cause I played for the Gauchos and I remember I took the train to the Bronx from Brooklyn. Which is like an hour and change. And I remember fighting these kids in the Bronx. And I'm like, man, I'm up here to play basketball and now I'm on the train about to fight three dudes. That's one of the most pivotal moments in my life because I'm like, if I make it out of this train alive, unscathed, I'm going to try to put my all into this game. And that's what happened.
So that was a turning point for you?
It was one of those nights, we had late practice. And I was like, I think I'm going to take the train after this. I never really thought about it ever being some static. But they told you, be cautious when you're taking a train at night. But I was like, man, I'll be alright, I'll take the train. Normally they always drove us home. I wanted to take the train home. And yeah, these guys just didn't like me for some reason. Long story short, I held my ground, stayed who I was, and luckily I was able to walk away from it.
Is it true you're still nervous before every game?
Oh yeah. It's not like a scared nervous, it's just like, I don't want to fail my team, I don't want to let my teammates down. With my assignments, my coverages, I just don't want to let anybody down. But as far as fear, no, I'm not afraid. I'm just real jittery. After everything, I still get goosebumps when I hear "the Bulls." Like, every day, I'm still so happy to be doing my job. It's easy to be stagnant and be like, oh here we go again, but every day I'm smiling and looking at the scoreboard, the rafters. I'll always be excited.
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