It’s early in the off-season, which means Taj Gibson’s phone is lighting up with one “When we gonna hang?” text after another. The Bulls’ power forward’s answer is always the same: “I’m chillin.”
Tonight, Gibson is chillin’ in his just-moved-into two-bedroom River North penthouse apartment with breathtaking 45th-floor views of the skyline and the Rainforest Cafe. To his credit, he’s not quite sure what the Rainforest Cafe is or why a giant frog would sit atop it. There’s talk of having friends (and maybe some women) over later. But for now, Gibson stretches his 6-foot-9 frame out on a black leather recliner across from a prominently displayed hookah and a TV that’s much bigger than yours.
Yesterday, Gibson was chillin’ in a very different place—on a bench near the projects in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, where he grew up and still has an apartment. (Gibson bought his parents a house “somewhere in New Jersey,” but it’s, well, Jersey, so they hate it there and want to move back to the city.)
Everybody in his old neighborhood knows him, the best-in-his-projects kid turned NBA player on the verge of stardom (or at least starter-dom), with a highlight reel of oh-my-goodness dunks over Dwyane Wade et al. and a four-year contract extension that will put up to $38 million in his bank account.
“People see me sitting on the bench and are always like, ‘Why are you out here?’ ” Gibson says. “Sometimes, the simplest things in life are the best.”
Gibson’s place on the Bulls—and thus in Chicago—is anything but simple at the moment. At 29, he is coming off his best season. He finished second in the NBA’s Sixth Man voting and, according to every person in every bar in Chicago, deserves to be a starter next season. But what if starting power forward / perennial fan punching bag Carlos Boozer isn’t traded, as the Bulls have hinted? Or what if the team makes a splashy free-agent signing? “I’m a basketball player,” Gibson says. “I can come off the bench or start, it doesn’t really matter. I’m going to do my job.”
OK, so that might sound like professional athlete-speak. But it’s also what you’d expect from a guy who has always had a desire to get along with everybody. In fact, Gibson’s earliest memories of playing basketball are of busted lips because he was too friendly.
“I was the kid who’d come outside with his basketball and be smiling. Where I’m from, people didn’t understand that. I’d say, ‘My name is Taj. Can I play with you?’ They’d say no and then, ‘Let me see your ball.’ ”
That ball—always an NBA regulation Spalding that Gibson’s father, Wilbert, bought for him for Christmas—would quickly be snatched. The game would turn into a fight, which would turn into Gibson crying, which would turn into his older sister having to get his ball back, which would turn into Gibson trotting out his ball—and smile—again the next day. “Whenever I didn’t have a fight, I’d go to the corner store after the game, sit on a hydrant outside, take a deep breath, and I’d be like, Man, today was a good day.”
Gibson practiced harder and longer than everybody else, got better and taller than everybody else, and, at age 12, was taught how to dunk by a homeless guy. “I went to a park in Queens,” Gibson recalls, “and this guy says, ‘You’re not jumping right.’ We were at it for at least a couple hours. Then he said, ‘All right, little man, be safe.’ ”
The world of elite New York City youth basketball soon came calling, specifically the Gauchos, an Amateur Athletic Union powerhouse whose alumni include former NBA stars Stephon Marbury, Rod Strickland, and Mark Jackson. The neighborhood ballers still weren’t impressed. At 14, just home from his first Five-Star All-American camp for the country’s top youth players, Gibson got into a pickup game. “They were older guys, and they were good,” he says. “They were testing me, punching me, back-screening me, so much stronger than me. I thought I’d done so well in the camp, and they made me feel like dog crap.” (Yes, he really did say “dog crap.”)
All summer went by before Gibson had a chance to play in their game again. And—please read this next line in your best movie-trailer voice—this time Gibson was ready. “One by one, I was dropping buckets on them. I was dunking on them. It was insane. The whole neighborhood was out watching. It was bigger than me getting drafted.”
Think his parents cared? Guess again. “My mom and dad had no idea how good I was. They’d say, ‘All right, go to the tournament and have fun.’ My mom would put each new trophy with the other trophies, and that was it.”
His parents, a carpenter and a stay-at-home mom, did care about everything else—whether Gibson took the garbage out, whether he did his homework, whether his room was clean. In other words, typical parent-kid dynamics in a neighborhood where that was rare.
“Where we grew up, Taj’s was the only family that had a mom and dad,” says Greg Watson, a longtime friend. Gibson’s mom, Sharon, would even open their home to neighborhood kids whose parents were in prison, on drugs, or simply neglectful. “Want to hear something you might find weird?” says Watson, who himself never lived with the Gibsons. “Taj’s mother’s name is saved in my phone as ‘Mom’; my mother’s name is saved ‘Jeanette.’ ”
Gibson was homeschooled for two years of high school. He then spent a year at a public school in Brooklyn before, at the advice of his Gauchos coaches, transferring to Stoneridge Prep, a tiny school in California’s rural Simi Valley that was big on basketball and that gave him a scholarship.
“My coaches thought I should go somewhere where I can get away from Brooklyn, have fun, and be on a farm, with horses, try something new,” explains Gibson. “And my parents really wanted me to become a man.”
After following his Stoneridge coach to another California prep school for one final year of high school, Gibson found himself still needing to take online classes to be eligible for college. Add on three years at Southern Cal, and by the time the Bulls picked Gibson in the first round of the 2009 NBA draft (he was the 26th choice overall), he was already 24.
Chicago was a perfect place for him to land, for reasons beyond coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive mentorship or Joakim Noah’s ability to draw coverage and leave Gibson open on the baseline. “In New York, everybody is more high-strung, on edge,” Gibson says. “If you stop people and ask for directions, they’re going to give it to you in a hardcore, mean kind of way, even though they’re not trying to be mean. Out here, they might even end up taking you to the place you’re going and start partying with you. That’s how Chicago is.”
One of his fellow partyers in town is Chance the Rapper, who on Twitter calls Gibson his “big bro.” But he’s tightest here with Watson and another old friend from Brooklyn, Floyd Johnson. They followed him to Chicago to, as Gibson puts it, “enjoy the journey” with him. “They’re gonna keep it 110 percent real with you,” Gibson says. “A lot of people can kiss your ass and stuff. One thing about this life: People say you change because of the money, but it’s everybody around you who changes. They [Watson and Johnson] see that, too.” Watson, who is Gibson’s personal assistant, shares the River North apartment, while Johnson, who is a salesman at an electronics store, has been living in a house in Northbrook that the Bulls star bought for its proximity to the team’s old practice facility in Deerfield.
It’s safe to say that Watson and Johnson are also here so that Gibson doesn’t have to worry about losing other friends the way he lost three of his closest Brooklyn pals in 2010. Over a six-week period, two were killed in separate shootings and the third died in a car accident. “I think about them every day,” he says.
In early June, tragedy struck Gibson’s circle again. His six-year-old cousin was fatally stabbed in the boy’s Brooklyn apartment elevator while on the way to get ice cream. “They killed my lil super man,” Gibson wrote on Instagram. “Tears forever. . . . this can’t be life.”
Gibson will say that he goes back to the bench in his old neighborhood or chills in his River North penthouse because he needs a break from an intense NBA career. But he may also need these moments to help him make sense of a dream-come-true life interrupted so often by the incomprehensible. For all the far-too-soon death he has experienced, Gibson talks often of the possibilities ahead. He mentions the “good girlfriends” he let get away long before he made it to the NBA—and the search for somebody with whom he can start a family. He tells me several times he wants kids and peppers me with questions about mine.
As we head to Japonais for some maki rolls—Gibson is wearing the same clothes he was chillin’ in at home (Supreme football jersey, untied bright red Adidas high-tops, and olive-green pants with a print that at first looks like camouflage but on second glance reveals itself to be a very lovely floral)—I search for insight into the rarefied life of a Bulls player.
“How did your personal driver know when exactly to pull up outside the building?” I ask.
Gibson smiles. “Nah,” he says. “That was just Uber.”