In the final strains of the national anthem, Taj Gibson closes his eyes, bows his head, and asks three fallen friends to come join him on the floor. "I always get teary right at the end," Gibson said. "That's how I know they've heard me." He refers to them by nicknames -- Cakes, Cookiehead and Johnny -- part of the group he grew up with in Brooklyn, who flew across the country to visit him at USC, celebrated with him the night he became a first-round draft pick, and watched him evolve into an unlikely starter as a rookie for the Bulls last season. They would leave him re-assuring post-game voicemails that he now cannot bring himself to erase.
The NBA is full of players from difficult backgrounds who lose friends and family members too soon. Their stories are so common it's hard to keep them separate, easy to grow numb, until one comes along that is almost unfathomable. According to Gibson, Cakes was shot and killed in a New York nightclub in August. "Accidental shooting," Gibson said. About two weeks later, Cookiehead was shot and killed in another New York club. "Same situation as Cakes," Gibson said. And in September, Johnny was killed in a car accident, also in New York. Three young men, all close friends, all dead in a span of six weeks. "How does that happen?" Gibson asked. The odds, of three tragedies touching the same person at roughly the same time, are incomprehensible.
NBA players like to say that their hardest offseason is their first one, because many of them have never had so much money and free time. Gibson's summer was challenging for different reasons. First he underwent shockwave therapy -- "Like surgery," he said -- to address plantar fasciitis in both his feet. Then his rehab schedule kept getting pushed back, so he was not allowed to step on a court, left to sit on a couch at home and flip the ball up in the air, hopelessly simulating his shooting motion. His friends warned him about a phenomenon known as the sophomore jinx.
When Gibson was finally getting ready for training camp, he got the call about Cakes and flew home for the funeral. Gibson asked Cookiehead, whose real name was Charles Wynn, to come stay with him in Chicago. "I sent him his ticket and everything," Gibson said. "But he never got on the plane." Gibson flew back to New York for another funeral and one more after that. By then, camp had started, and first-year head coach Tom Thibodeau was implementing his system. "I needed to learn everything," Gibson said. "But I wasn't sleeping at night. I couldn't focus in practice. I would zone out in the middle of the plays. There were times that passes would just hit me in the chest and bounce off. That's how bad it was." Thibodeau would whisper in Gibson's ear, "Stay with me, stay with me," but he kept drifting. Eventually, the Bulls sent Gibson to see a psychiatrist.
The Bulls had newly signed power forward Carlos Boozer ready to take Gibson's job and they were reportedly offering Gibson as part of a package for Carmelo Anthony. But they still made Gibson's mental health their priority. One of the Bulls assistant coaches is Adrian Griffin, whose father died of a heart attack when he was in training camp before his second NBA season. Griffin had never heard of someone losing three friends in two months, but he believed he could relate as well as anybody. "You can feel guilty because you are out here living the NBA life and people at home are dying," Griffin said. "But the best way to honor them is to play for them."
As a rookie, Gibson was pegged to back up Tyrus Thomas, but Thomas broke his arm early in the season and Gibson started 70 games, averaging nine points and 7.5 rebounds. This season, he was supposed to back up Boozer, but Boozer broke his hand in camp and Gibson started again. The Bulls quickly discovered that the shots Gibson took on his couch were worthwhile. With a drastically improved outside jumper, Gibson is scoring 12.4 points on 52.8 percent shooting, and the Bulls are thriving even with Boozer on the bench.
Last week, the Bulls started their annual circus trip, a 12-day pilgrimage through much of the western United States, and Gibson went a combined 1-of-16 in Houston and San Antonio. When the Bulls arrived in Dallas, Gibson sought out ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who made him realize he had become too enamored with his outside shot. Working inside, Gibson had his best game as a pro, with 17 points and 18 rebounds in a win over the Mavericks. He could hear Boozer on the bench, in his suit, yelling "Keep going." Gibson sat out practices this week in Los Angeles with a pinched nerve in his right foot, but played against the Lakers and turned ina 16-points, 12-rebound performance. He had never missed a game in the NBA until Wednesday night, when he sat out the Bulls' overtime win against Phoenix with a sore ankle.
Though he expects to return Friday, Gibson is headed back to the bench in December, when Boozer is projected to return. For the Bulls to contend in the Eastern Conference, they need surging point guard Derrick Rose to establish a rapport with Boozer, a reality that Gibson grudgingly accepts. He does not like that he is losing his starting job, but after everything he has seen in the past few months, he feels silly complaining about it. He will still get minutes, on the court and off, that his friends do not.
He has stopped thinking about the sophomore jinx, stopped calculating the odds of three deaths in less than two months. "I guess the world is just a crazy place today," he said. But Gibson does still mentor a high-school basketball player in Los Angeles whom Cookiehead met last summer, helping the boy pay for tuition at a local prep school. He listens to the voicemails his friends once left for him. And he sends text messages to their families before games that read: "This is for all of us."
Then he does what his coach told him to do, honoring them by playing for them, one at a time.