There is so much that needs to be addressed about Taj Gibson’s career with the Chicago Bulls now that it has come to a sad conclusion (via a hilariously perplexing deadline-day trade), but I think these tweets are the best places to begin:
Taj Gibson said John Paxson got choked up as he hugged him goodbye.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) February 23, 2017
Bulls VP John Paxson calls Taj Gibson "one of the best people we've had in this organization."— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) February 24, 2017
We’re talking about an executive that attempted to choke out the head coach of a professional basketball team—that he is tasked with improving—getting very emotional over the departure of a player that started roughly 40% of the games he played in along an eight year span. Wow. If you haven’t been paying close attention to the Bulls for the last decade, that should tell you everything you need to know about what Taj Gibson means to the Chicago Bulls.
Now here’s everything you should know about what Taj Gibson means to the Chicago Bulls.
He was one of the oldest players in the 2009 NBA Draft, set to turn 24 in the upcoming season, and appeared to be an early second round pick prior to a couple of days before the Bulls selected him. That’s understandable given—on top of being elderly by draft standards—he was a tad undersized (but still lengthy) and didn’t have a great offensive skill set further than finishing around the rim against college competition. Ricky can recall the public response to the Bulls choosing Gibson nearly eight years ago:
I remember the reaction when the Bulls selected Taj at No. 26 overall in 2009, and it was not positive. Most were much more excited about the Bulls' other first round pick that year, James Johnson. It wasn't hard to see why. Gibson would be 24 years old before he ever played a pro game, and the Bulls already had a (younger) shot-blocking power forward in Tyrus Thomas, who was coming off the best year of his career in his third season. —Ricky O’Donnell, 2013
Playing the same position, James Johnson would go on to start in only 11 of the 65 games he played as a rookie. Taj Gibson would play in all 82 games while starting for 70 of them, eventually making the NBA All-Rookie First Team with a line of 9.0/7.5/1.3 points/rebounds/blocks per game. He earned a reputation right away as a high-energy guy with excellent defensive potential, hence Stacey King screaming “Hard Hat, Lunch Pail” every time Gibson did something great.
How did the Bulls’ front office reward Gibson’s breakout? They signed Carlos Boozer after striking out in the LeBron sweepstakes. Did Taj complain? Of course not, he just went back to work.
Hard Hat, Lunch Pail.
Gibson made lemonade out of lemons after unjustly losing his starting spot by pairing up with Omer Asik (under the guidance of new head coach Tom Thibodeau) to become one of the most dynamic-defensive-duos in the entire NBA. On a reserve unit that quickly gained repute as “the bench mob,” Gibson stood out as the leader of the pack. Thibodeau also clearly favored Gibson over Boozer given his affinity for playing Taj in the fourth quarter to the point that Boozer eventually complained about it publicly.
Then came Game 1 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals:
That first dunk on current-Bull Dwyane Wade was certainly one to behold (just ask Wade’s kids), but I would go as far as to say Gibson’s second dunk was the joyus peak for Bulls fans post-Jordan. Not only is it one of the most spectacularly-difficult putback dunks I have ever seen (that had me running around my house screaming for about five straight minutes), but it served as the exclamation point on a blowout home win in a conference finals game over the NBA’s then-universally-hated unholy trinity.
Every time I watch Gibson slam home that C.J. Watson miss, I remember the hope for the future I had in that moment. The Bulls had the youngest MVP in NBA history, a coach that established himself as one of the best in basketball as a rookie, and just spanked the team everyone assumed was going to win the NBA Finals after sweeping them in the regular season. There had not been a better time to be a fan of the post-Jordan Chicago Bulls than in that moment. It was truly a beautiful time, certainly the happiest I have had watching this team in recent years.
Of course, fate is often unkind, and the Bulls not only proceeded to lose the next four games, but a year later following a lockout-shortened season, Ground Zerose happened. Ironically, there was no sadder time to be a Bulls fan post-Jordan.
Anyway, Omer Asik would get poison-pilled off of the Bulls in the offseason, and the Bulls entered the 2012-13 season with an uncertain future and a decision to make regarding keeping Taj Gibson. It didn’t take long for them to come to a conclusion, as Gibson would sign a 4 year/$38 million extension in late October that would kick in the next season. Though many at the time questioned why a reserve player was getting nearly eight figures annually, Gibson would prove his worth many times over during the next four seasons on his way to becoming a bargain contract (thanks also to the rising cap).
Taj Gibson became a constant figurehead in the Sixth Man of the Year discussion for the next three years. Many people noted Gibson had become enough of a quality player that he could start on most other NBA teams, and he finished second in voting for the 2013-14 NBA Sixth Man of the Year award to only Jamal Crawford. Gibson played in all 82 games that season and scored a career-high 13.0 points per game on 47.9% shooting from the field while posting a defensive win-share total of 4.4. That would have been good for 10th overall in the NBA last season.
How did the Bulls’ front office reward Gibson’s stellar performance on what suddenly became a vastly underpaid contract? They signed Pau Gasol after striking out in the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes. Did Taj complain? Of course not, he just went back to work again. Have you heard this before?
Gibson continued to be a productive player off the bench before Joakim Noah’s injury-plagued final year with the Bulls forced Taj to start more games in 2015-16 than he had in his previous five seasons combined. He became increasingly more efficient with his field goal attempts while retaining the defensive ability that allowed him to earn his living in the NBA, all while remaining a nightly double-double threat thanks to commitment to cleaning the glass. Though he couldn’t really stretch the floor beyond fifteen feet and baseline jumpers (making him a poor fit for a Fred Hoiberg offense), his hyper-efficiency at the basket combined with an above-average postgame made him one of the most complete and consistent players on the Bulls’ roster for his final three seasons with the team.
Gibson meant so much to the Bulls on the court, and yet, he meant so much more to the team off of it. Not just because he accepted lesser roles for the betterment of his own team, and not just because he didn’t whine about a deserved restructuring of his contract.
When Luol Deng was
salary dumped traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the middle of the 2013-14 NBA season, the Bulls lost their glue guy. “Glue guy” is a cliche term used by sports-heads to describe the player most important to the chemistry of the team, and when one is lost, they are not easy to replace. Glue guys are not only central to the ceiling of a team’s success, but also critical for developing a team’s basketball identity and retaining harmony among teammates at all times.
I wholeheartedly believe that Taj Gibson co-piloted this role with Joakim Noah before taking the reigns for himself this season. Given that he was the longest-tenured Bull prior to being traded, it only seems natural that Gibson would serve as the glue guy for a team that desperately needed some adhesive to keep the Two and a Half Alphas from slaughtering each-other. Don’t believe me? Check out these answers from a personal interview he gave to ADrinkWith.com (I highly recommend reading the entire piece):
How would your teammates describe you?
I’m the guy who really gets along with everybody. I’m shy around people I just meet but once I get to know you I open up. I like to feel people out and see what pushes their buttons, what doesn’t push their buttons and find out where I really fit in. I’m the guy who comes in and wakes everybody up. I’m energetic, I laugh. I bring donuts! I just know how to read people and what they’re feeling so if you’re feeling down, maybe nobody else knows but I’ll know. That’s the kind of person I am.
Who’s the funniest guy in the locker room?
That’d be me again! I’m always joking and everybody’s always joking with me. I always make ’em laugh, I’m never too serious. If the mood in the locker room is down, I pick it up every time. Every time! I like to just go out there and have fun. When I’m on the court I play so hard so when I’m off I just like being a spark plug.
That brief glimpse into Gibson’s personality just screams that he would be one of the most wonderful people to go to work with and an even better friend to everyone around him. He was gritty and plugged in when there was basketball to be played, but even Gibson had his personality briefly leak out onto the hardwood when the moment was appropriate. Nothing sums that up better than this hysterical face he made after he knocked in his only career three prior to this season:
Yet, even when talking to the media, Gibson knew how to be stern in addressing the problems of his team without singling people out or directing his frustration at anyone within the organization in particular. I will never forget when he said this to the media following the Bulls dropping two back-to-back games to the Knicks last season in as many days:
"Hell yeah, I'm embarrassed," Gibson said after the Bulls' 106-94 defeat. "I take pride in wearing this jersey. I love wearing the Bulls jersey. Especially what we've been through, I take pride in playing for Chicago. When I wear that jersey, I try to go out there and play my heart out. And it's frustrating when we come up short, and we look at ourselves, we're losing to ... I don't want to criticize any[body], [but] trash teams. Everybody's in the NBA for a reason, but we're playing against teams that are not playing for anything, and we're just laying down. It feels like now we're a target. It feels like teams are not taking us serious.
"Teams are more eager to play us. [In years prior,] it was vice versa. They knew we were coming in to punch people in the face and keep playing. It's just, it's hard, man. It really eats me up inside. It's really hard to sleep at night knowing it's coming down to the wire, and our effort isn't there. It's really frustrating."
And that quote not only reveals Gibson’s ability to be direct about the team’s problems when the situation called for it, but also his love for the city. Gibson resonated with Chicago in a very strong way, and not just because “Hard Hat, Lunch Pail” is something countless blue-collar Midwesterners can sympathize with.
Michael Jordan was his favorite athlete growing up. His favorite restaurant in the city, predictably, is Gibson’s Bar & Steakhouse. He said of the city in the aforementioned personal interview, “What I love most about Chicago is the people, they’re just so real. You can walk outside and a person may cuss you out but in the end they’ll love you just the same. I’ve gotten that many times! The people in Chicago are their own kind, they speak their minds but are still humble.” He went on to recall a story of a Chicago man once offering to divorce his in-love-with-Taj wife on the spot so that she could marry and run away with Gibson (Taj was left speechless).
I will conclude with this bit from Nick Friedell’s own farewell piece that includes perhaps the most soul-wrenching blurb yet from the former soul of the Bulls:
"It's not difficult for me, really, because I was always that guy that sacrificed," Gibson said of getting along with everybody. "I always said, I was that guy they can rely on and say, 'Taj is going to do the right thing for the team, no matter what.' I'm that guy. You could probably have a bag full of money in my face and I might just pass it along. I might say no to it just as long as everybody on the team is feeling right. I've never been that guy. It was never hard for me to get along with everybody. I was always that guy that when I come into the situation I'm willing to run through a wall for my teammate, and I won't change that for anything."
"I've been here a long time in a short career, but a long time here," Gibson said. "I've been through a lot of ups and downs where at times I wanted to just lash out and quit. I told Bobby [Portis], 'I've been through what you're going through right now.' I've been through a lot of different situations. I felt like I should have been starting a couple years earlier. I felt like I should have been doing a lot of things, but I told him I sacrificed so much all for the good of the team. Take me as an example. And I got emotional and they understood because we went against each other and guys understood [where] I come from.”
"I wanted to make that one of the main focal points. The main thing I kept stressing is, like, I really love my teammates. I don't just say it. When you look at yourself you got to ask yourself, 'What do you play the game for?' I love the game of basketball. I really love being around my teammates. I really love setting screens. It's deeper than scoring. I told them a lot of different stuff, but I mainly just want to try to show love for my teammates, the main thing I wanted to get across. They all reciprocated, and that's what made it so much easier, knowing that I care about them. It's deeper than basketball."
Folks, that right there is a consummate professional. That right there is what every parent should hope their child grows up to be. That right there is one of the most exemplary human beings that has ever made their way onto the United Center’s floor.
I will miss Taj Gibson with the part of my heart that is dedicated to being a Bulls fan, but I will miss Taj Gibson with every part of my heart because of the person he is as a whole. I wish him and Shooty McNickname nothing but the best in Oklahoma City.