TORONTO -- Taj Gibson had a crazier Halloween than you did.
On October 31, he prepared for his home opener against the Sacramento Kings with his future in the balance. The tip was scheduled was for 8:07 p.m. CT. The deadline for him to receive a contract extension from the Chicago Bulls was 10:59 p.m CT. Pregame, he told reporters he "highly doubted" a deal would get done.
As Gibson competed on the court, his agent conversed with his club about his contract. Chicago took care of the Kings, then Gibson barely beat the deadline, signing for four years with the team that drafted him No. 26 in 2009. Gibson will make $32 to $38 million depending on incentives, nice numbers for a late-first round pick, but numbers that could have been higher if he'd played out the season and hit the open market. Praise immediately followed for the Bulls.
"It was a lot of emotion," Gibson said. "It was like one of the biggest decisions of your life. It was like a decision as far as making a choice of what college I want to go to, then now this is one of the biggest decisions -- having to choose whether to take money or not take money. It's a humbling situation and I was blessed to be in a situation like that and learn from it ... A lot of guys, look at where I got drafted at -- 26th pick -- and so many guys went ahead of me and they may not even get a chance and probably won't get an opportunity to get that kind of option, so I'm blessed."
The Bulls are also blessed. They're blessed to have one of the game's most versatile and skilled defenders coming off their bench. They're blessed that Gibson was mentally tough enough to deal with derision when he came into the league. As brilliant as that No. 26 pick looks now, selecting someone hours away from turning 24 years old seemed like a stretch to some on draft day. Bulls fans wanted someone in whom they saw more potential, more promise, or just someone who they'd seen more.
"It's crazy because when I first got drafted, it felt like they didn't even want me," Gibson said. "I know the team was ecstatic that they had me, but the city was like, ‘Who is he? What is he gonna do? Why'd we pick him?' And it was real rough the first couple months because it's your dream come true but then at the same time you have so many people shooting your dream out of the air. But I just took it in stride, just kept working at it. I won the starting job and just kept progressing. It's changed dramatically over the years, to see how much love I get now compared to what I got when I got here on draft night. It was crazy.
"It was crazy because it would be nights where I was so bummed out because they really were sending me messages, hate mail like ‘Why we pick you? You suck,'" Gibson continued. "That kills a person's dream. I just had to push through it."
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Gibson pushed through with the help of then-Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro. While Del Negro took copious criticism in Chicago, he was great for Gibson, talking to him and teaching him on planes, in practices, after games, on off-days.
"He was a great coach to me because he gave me the shot," Gibson said.
Less than a week into his first season, he was in the starting lineup, where he would find himself 70 times as a rookie. He played in the Rookie Challenge, made the All-Rookie First Team and, most importantly, started in the playoffs. Only one other player in his draft class, Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings, can say the same.
Now the coach of the L.A. Clippers, Del Negro made a point of finding Gibson when his team met the Bulls this season. He gave Gibson a hug and congratulated him on earning his second contract.
"Without [Del Negro], I don't think I probably would have done so well the way I did my rookie year because he basically just put me in the starting role and had a lot of confidence in me," Gibson said.
Coaches have confidence in Gibson because he can play defense. Listed at 6'9, he has a 7'4 wingspan, with feet quick enough to stick with guards and the strength and smarts to shut down post players. But great defenders aren't born that way, and Gibson learned lots of lessons at the University of Southern California.
"Before I got to college I didn't really know too much about defense," he said. "I was just worried about getting rebounds. But then I got to college, coach [Tim] Floyd said I have the length, I have the athletic ability to block shots and alter shots. I got to college and I was blocking shots and I broke the record for USC and won [Pac-10] Defensive Player of the Year and just built on it ever since."
Floyd, a head coach for more than four years in the NBA, might not be remembered fondly for his time in Chicago -- a month before he resigned from the Bulls in 2001, he told reporters that "every day has been hell" -- but the city has him to thank for his tutelage with Gibson. He told him that if he could use his athleticism and play proper pick-and-roll defense, he'd get minutes at the next level. He was right.
While Floyd and Del Negro put Gibson on the right path, current Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is essential to sustaining and strengthening the skills that make him successful. Gibson is the embodiment of Thibodeau's defensive philosophy: tough, relentlessly aggressive and, above all, smart. Gibson's stats have hardly changed since Thibodeau's arrival but his team has won more, as its young players have matured and taken on the personality of its coach.
Gibson said his biggest improvement since Thibodeau's arrival is how he thinks and sees the game.
"That's one thing Thibs really focuses on when I come in the game," he said. "He wants me to really understand playcalls, he wants me to really be a leader out there. That's one of the things I'm really maturing in. At first I really didn't pay attention to plays, I would just go out there and play and rely on my athleticism but now I'm just starting to just understand different plays and how to shut down different players. And I look forward to it."
Last summer, Gibson worked out with Thibodeau before playing and training with the USA Basketball Select Team, sharing space in Las Vegas with the Team USA squad that won gold at the London Olympics. In practice, Gibson learned from Tyson Chandler, last year's Defensive Player of the Year. He listened to Mike Krzyzewski, he guarded Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant.
"You take so much from it, being able to go against the first team," said Gibson. "You compete on a high level ... it felt like playoff basketball. Real physical, real grind-it-out and you're going against the world's best. It was a great experience."
Stepping out of that experience and into a new contract, Gibson put too much pressure on himself going into his fourth year. At least that's what Thibodeau thought, seeing him average just 6.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game while shooting 44 percent from the field in the season's first two months. In January, though, Gibson turned it around. This month he's averaging 10.3 points and 6.1 rebounds a game, shooting 57.6 percent from the floor.
"He's playing very well right now and I just think that he slowed down a little bit," said Thibodeau. "He was rushing earlier in the year, now he's letting the game come to him. He's reading things extremely well.
"I just let go," Gibson said.
Through the offensive struggles, his coach simply wanted him to go out and play.
"He just has to be who he is, just play to your strengths, cover up your weaknesses," Thibodeau said. "He has great versatility. He plays both positions, can shoot, can post up. Great defender, individual and team. Just bring energy to the team, go out and do your job."
Part of Gibson's job is coming off the bench. Last year it meant anchoring the league's second-most efficient defense, with the help of fellow elite defenders Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer. With Gibson on the court, opponents scored just 88.6 points per 100 possessions compared to 100.8 when he was on the bench, per NBA.com. With Asik and Brewer elsewhere opponents are scoring 94.8 points per 100 possessions when Gibson is on the court this year, which is still better than the Indiana Pacers' league-best mark.
"To have Taj as someone coming off the bench for any team, it's a huge advantage," Deng said. "He could start in pretty much every team in this league. He plays his role so well and there's nights where he does so much stuff that you might not see, but as teammates we see it and we appreciate it."
"It doesn't matter to me," Gibson said of coming off the bench instead of starting. "As long as I'm going to play, I'm just going to go out there and do my job."
"People gotta understand that in our league you're a pro," Gibson continued. "You have to perform whenever you get your number called. That's the one thing a lot of guys tend not to understand. You have to just do your job no matter what. You [can't have] any hard feelings about it. Just go out there, have fun, do your job and at the end of the day just know that you played hard."
Gibson makes the on-the-court part sound so easy, certainly easier than the decision he had to make on opening night. "It was hard because you always have others that tell you what you're worth," Gibson said. "And you have to just know your worth. You have to understand where you want to be. It all comes down to you. A lot of people talk and a lot of people say different things, but you can only go with what's in front of you and look at yourself. And that's one of the things I had to do, it's one of the tasks of becoming a real pro, making your own decisions."
Right now, Gibson is not worried about salaries, slumps or starting. He's just about going to work, stopping scorers and being part of the organization that believed in him.
"Life is too short, just gotta enjoy it," he said.
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In the bonus:
Some other notable quotes about Taj Gibson:
Noah: "Taj Gibson's a good dude. You know, I think the best thing about this team is we're all workers and we like to have a good time. At the same time, we're focused and we handle our business. We've been playing with each other for a long time now and we all bring something a little bit different. I love playing with Taj'y, he's a great teammate and has a great work ethic and he's about the right things so that's like a brother to me. He's like a brother to me."
Thibodeau: "He's got a great motor. He's one of the few guys that you can start him or you can play him off the bench and he'll play the same. It doesn't take him long to get going. As soon as you put him in, he doesn't need five minutes to warm up. He goes very quickly. And I think that's a huge asset for our team."
Deng: "He's never going to stop working and that's the good thing about it. No matter what his role is, he has love for the game and he's just going to keep working on his game no matter what. He's coming off the bench now but his opportunity will come where he starts and he shows what he can do."