Worst losses don't happen on court
Taj Gibson fights through personal tragedies to emerge as strong point for Bulls
But few know of the nights this season when he couldn't sleep but had trouble dragging himself out of bed, when he felt confused and even useless in practice, when he needed the Bulls' help as much as they needed him.
When he couldn't even bear to answer his phone.
"I told the team if they wanted to get in contact with me, I'd have one of the trainers come get me or, when we were on the road, call me on the hotel phone," Gibson said Friday. "I didn't really want to talk to anybody. It seemed like it was always something negative: 'He didn't make it. He didn't survive.' Bad stuff. And I didn't want to hear it."
Even the team was not immediately aware that Gibson's beloved grandfather, Wilbert Gibson Sr., had succumbed to cancer in early February. The Bulls forward was numb.
"I didn't want everybody to know because I didn't want to be a distraction for my teammates," Gibson said. "I didn't want anybody to feel sorry for me. I just wanted to go out there and do my job. And they had already helped me out all through training camp."
Within a month and a half in August and September, three of Gibson's closest friends from Brooklyn died -- two in separate shootings in New York nightclubs and the third in a car accident.
"They weren't even in gangs," Gibson said of childhood pals he called Cookiehead, Cakes and Johnny. "One went to college, and one went to prep school with me. He had a job and he was taking care of his daughter.
"Things just happened, and they just got caught up in the mix of it. It was just crazy because every one of them seemed to be an accident, one, then another and then a few weeks later, again. The last one happened during training camp, and the team let me go back to the funeral but they were shocked because I kept going back to another funeral."
Gibson remembers the conversations he had with his buddies after he was drafted by the Bulls in June 2009.
"They all talked to me sincerely, in one-on-one conversations, about how proud they were of me because everybody knew my background and how hard I worked," Gibson said. "They respected that. Everybody around my neighborhood knew what kind of guy I am."
Trying to impress new coach Tom Thibodeau after the free-agent acquisition of Carlos Boozer in July, Gibson struggled mightily both physically from the treatments he had received for his plantar fasciitis in both feet and mentally from the strain of losing his friends.
"The whole training camp was hard because I'm thinking about my friends and at the same time you're learning new plays and a new defense from Tibs and I would just forget it. I would forget every play," Gibson said.
"It was frustrating. At night, I couldn't sleep. I'd wake up all teary-eyed knowing I won't see them again and I was always like, 'What if?' What if I could've done something. Who knows? Just even call them and tell them to hang out with me in Chicago for a while. Something."
The friendship and guidance of his teammates and coaching staff helped. He also went for counseling.
Assistant coach Adrian Griffin shared with Gibson the experience of losing his 47-year-old father when, like Gibson, he was in his second year in the league and 25 years old.
"He was definitely a hands-on father, and to lose someone like that was a very tough stage in my life," Griffin said. "And one thing I wanted to let Taj know was that it's OK to grieve, OK to feel sad. Often in society and sometimes in professional sports, they want you to get over things quickly and move on.
"I told him, 'You can use basketball as a way to honor friends and family and take your mind off the heartache and pain ... but sometimes we like to suppress those, repress those feelings we have, and it's not healthy.' I think he has handled it pretty well in a very tough time. He's a very mature guy."
The whole training camp was hard because I'm thinking about my friends and at the same time you're learning new plays and a new defense from [new coach Tom Thibodeau] and I would just forget it. I would forget every play.” -- Taj Gibson, on playing after the deaths of three childhood friends last summer.
Gibson tried to channel his grief into his basketball. After starting 70 games last season while averaging nine points and 7.5 rebounds in 26.8 minutes per game, he was slated to back up Boozer this season. But when Boozer broke his hand in camp, Gibson was back in the starting lineup and responded early with an improved shooting touch as the Bulls proved they could win without their high-priced free agent.
But in February, Gibson suffered another profound personal loss with the death of his grandfather.
"He played a big role in my life," Gibson said. "He lived in North Carolina, but over the years, we just got closer and closer. Just like any grandkid, as time goes on, you learn to appreciate the small things he does for you.
"He always called me. He'd say, 'Don't worry about all the things around the NBA. Just worry about playing and having fun. Everything else is all gravy.' The only thing he told me after games was, 'You look like you're having fun. You have a great team.' But he was also always telling me how tired he was. 'I'm just tired,' he'd say.
"When my grandfather passed, I didn't want to leave the team. We were pushing for that No. 1 seed, and I told my family to go to the funeral without me. I knew he would want me to stay."
Gibson has done what he has been asked to do all season. As a starting forward in 18 games in relief of Boozer, he averaged 10.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in 28.6 minutes per game. As a reserve, he averaged 6.2 points and 5.3 rebounds in 20 minutes.
Against the Pacers in the decisive Game 5 of their first-round playoff series, Gibson relieved an ineffective Boozer and immediately injected an offensive presence and defensive energy during a key stretch of the third quarter, finishing with 10 points and seven rebounds in 30 minutes.
"Taj is one of those guys who's ready for anything," Bulls assistant Ron Adams said. "In some ways, that has been his background. As a human being, he's ready for those things mentally, that's the first thing. He also enjoys playing and contributing, and I don't think those things are in some specific format. He's not spoiled in that regard. Many players are, but he isn't."
"One thing about playing for this team, you're around a lot of guys like Carlos, Scottie Pippen, [John Paxson]," Gibson said. "They tell me, 'This is only your second year; don't get all caught up with the minutes.' That's one thing that never bothered me, though. When I get minutes, I produce. Whatever minutes Tibs gives me, I'm having fun with it. And he always gives me great minutes.
"He's such a good coach. He watches film and just knows how you can be better, how to move your body, how to talk on defense. With a little instinct and his coaching, you should be one of the top defensive players in the league if you just listen to him."
Of course, a good season still does not make the pain go away.
On the Bulls' two trips to New York to play the Knicks this season, the last on April 12, Gibson said he did not go home to Brooklyn. He couldn't.
"It's hard. You go home, and they're not there," he said. "Every kid has a place where they used to hang and you have glimpses of your friends being there, and it's hard. I don't want to be around that because my friends are not there."
Surrounded by teammates who love him, a coaching staff who appreciates him and a solid support system at home, Gibson says the loneliness still gets to him.
"When you're young and you're single and you're by yourself in this league, you live a fast life where you get paid lots of money, you're in the limelight, but it's tough," he said. "At times you're at home at night by yourself and you're thinking you don't have any friends. Your real true friends are gone. I still have friends and my teammates and people close to me. But there's nothing like your guys you grew up with and played in the sandbox with."
And so he prays. Each night. Before every game.
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He goes on with his life and his job comforted by that. He does it also with a new perspective.
"It changed a lot," he said. "When you look around the league, there's guys crying and complaining about so many different things. Just be grateful. There are a lot of guys who aren't humble. They need to humble themselves and understand the position they're in.
"That's one thing about our team. We have a lot of guys who are real humble and really understand and appreciate the position they're in. That's one thing I learned this year. Don't take anything for granted."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.