DEERFIELD, Ill.—Taj Gibson’s trip home to Brooklyn for Christmas wasn’t just special because he scored a game-high 20 points in the Bulls’ 95-78 win over the Nets at the Barclays Center, located in the Fort Greene neighborhood where he grew up.
Gibson also had a chance to give back to his old community when the Bulls arrived Tuesday, as he hosted a toy drive, along with his childhood friend Epiphany Prince, a guard for the WNBA’s Chicago Sky.
“It was special. I had my toy drive. The look on the kids’ faces were more than enough and even better, we got a win in Brooklyn. I felt like we played great, we played great defense, we were sharing the ball and it was just fun to play,” said Gibson of the event, which was held at a church close to the Marcy projects, best known for being home to where Jay Z grew up. “Christmas Eve I was just running all over the place. I was calling around the toy stores, calling around to game stores, just buying a whole bunch of toys, giving them out because I understand the burden on families, especially on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. So I just wanted to be thankful and help out however I can to my neighborhood.
It was a great turnout. It was more than I expected. I was truly blessed. But I was just happy. My teammates came. Nazr really showed up. But the first thing, it was just a good environment and even better for us to get a big win the next day,” he continued. “There were Christmases were we didn’t have gifts, but I understood. I was humble and I understood sometimes your family can’t be able to gifts under [the tree]. But I never got mad, I understood. So I understood what their parents went through. So that’s why I went out there, tried to get as many good gifts as I could because I understand the economy is kind of rough, families are struggling and I just wanted to bring cheer to those family vibes. It’s small, but hopefully it will bring a big outcome.
“I went around to a whole bunch of Game Stops. At one Game Stop, I bought like at least 10 to 11 X Boxes. I was looking for PlayStation 4s all over the city. I was just in the minivan—I had two minivans and I brought a cab—and we were just moving. But we were just trying to make the kids have fun because I understand. When I got in there, I really saw the effect on the families. There were a lot of families and you could really just tell by the looks on their faces, they needed those gifts.”
Gibson said Prince “held up her end” of the event.
“WNBA players, they play all year round, so she came from overseas and she chipped in a lot. She does a good job. She’s playing for the Chicago Sky, so it was a big boost and we’re from the same neighborhood and that’s the whole key, to give back,” he said of Prince, a scoring guard who helped the Sky make the WNBA playoffs for the first time in the fall. “She knew me since I was about 8. She’s been playing with boys in my neighborhood for a long, long time. So it was good to see her make it to the WNBA.”
Another basketball notable from Gibson’s neighborhood has played a role in his success this season, albeit indirectly: Bernard King, the recently-inducted Basketball Hall of Famer.
“I’ve just been in the gym late, come in early, leave late. I’ve been watching a lot of film. I watched a lot of Bernard King film on footwork. I just take my time and one thing, the confidence is my teammates understand I put in the work. The work is everything and my coaching staff sees that,” Gibson explained. “He’s from my neighborhood, one. Plus, he was a good, dominant scorer in the low post
“[Bulls assistant coach] Mike Wilhelm just kept giving me Scriptures and kept giving me different films to watch, and lately, because he’s got that spin move I try to do under the basket a lot—he did it a lot, especially with his face-up game—I’ve just been taking small pieces and working on them, and lately, it’s been working. It’s been clicking and Thibs has been calling plays for me,” he went on to say about King, who had the best years of his career with his hometown Knicks, once scoring 60 points on Christmas Day. “I’ve never met him, but my family is familiar with him. Everybody from my family mostly knows him, everybody from my neighborhood knows him real well. I’ve just never got a chance to meet him.
“We grew up in the same projects. He’s from Fort Greene, Brooklyn.”
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Gibson wasn’t the only Bulls player with Brooklyn ties, as All-Star center Joakim Noah attended high school in the borough and grew up in Manhattan, while Mike Dunleavy Jr.’s father, the longtime NBA player, coach and executive of the same name, also hails from Brooklyn.
“Yeah, both sides of my family were back there, so it’s nice to see people, it worked out pretty well and obviously getting the win was the cherry on top,” said Dunleavy, who moved around a lot as a kid, following his father from city to city. “I tell people [his hometown is] out West: Portland, Ore., that’s where I went to high school. It’s kind of my hometown, but we moved around so much. We’ve got a bunch of different homes and it’s not a bad thing. Everywhere you go, you kind of know somebody.”
But back to Gibson, whose quick spin moves are now obviously on opposing scouting reports, forcing him to make counter-moves, which have been effective lately. Regardless of who has influenced the Bulls’ top reserve, it’s clear that he’s added being a scoring force to his repertoire, which already included upper-echelon defensive play.
“I always felt like I could score. It wasn’t that. I was just doing what the team needed me to do. Thibs always felt like he needed me to get more post touches the previous years, but we always had such good teams, I was just focused on what the team needed,” said Gibson, who is averaging a career-high 12 points per game, to go along with 6.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks a contest, and has developed into so much of a threat that he’s the Bulls’ primary low-post option and regularly has plays called for him, even drawing double teams from opponents as of late. “My rookie year, I would be just freelancing, having fun shooting the ball. But I’ve just been working on my game. I was [invited to] USA [Basketball mini-camps] the last two years. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go last year because of my ankle injury, but I’ve just been working. People have been seeing that and I’ve just been focusing on what my team thinks, what my coaching staff thinks and I’ve just been putting in the work.”
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau is happy with Gibson’s development as a scorer.
“I think it’s a big plus to have a guy you can throw the ball into the post to and he’s going to get a good shot up there or he’s also passing the ball very well out of the double-team, so it’s creating easy offense because it’s forcing the defense to react and collapse,” the coach said. “He can run the floor, he’s a very good screener, his back to the basket’s very good and he has gotten comfortable with that 17-foot face-up, so you can put him in pick-and-roll. But he’s playing at a very high level and he’s playing an all-around game. It’s not only his defense, but his offense has been very, very good.”