Timberwolves Forward Taj Gibson’s Emotional Tribute to His Brooklyn Neighborhood
BROOKLYN -- Poverty.
It’s more than just a word to Taj Gibson. It was the reality of his life growing up in the projects of 95 and 125 Navy Walk in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
But rather than run from poverty, the Minnesota Timberwolves forward had those seven letters emblazoned across T-shirts worn by staffers at his fifth annual Basketball Classic at the Ingersoll Community Center in his hometown this offseason.
“Because we come from nothing,” Howard “Geo” Miller, Taj’s childhood friend and trainer, tells CloseUp360. “The word is self-explanatory. We were given limited opportunities, close to nothing. There's not many resources here. We don't have the best school system. The books that we used to have were all ran down. We had 20-year-old books. Computers? You know how long that took? But that's what we had. That's where we came from.”
Taj himself wore a T-shirt with No. 67 on the back—the same jersey number he switched to last season to pay homage to P.S. 67, where he went to elementary school. As Geo pointed out, the initials for Fort Greene, “FG,” are also the sixth and seventh letters in the alphabet. Inside the number were the names of those in the community who impacted Taj’s life, including those who were murdered or incarcerated.
The 33-year-old opened up to CloseUp360 about getting out of poverty and making sure that others do the same. This is Taj Gibson’s journey, in his own words, edited for clarity and length.
Taj Gibson and Howard "Geo" Miller, his childhood friend and trainer, at the NBA veteran's fifth annual Basketball Classic at the Ingersoll Community Center in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. (Howard "Geo" Miller)
This is the real Fort Greene.
This is basically the side of Fort Greene—the projects—that people in this part of Fort Greene, when you say “Fort Greene,” we think of this part. We think of the projects. When you say Fort Greene Park, Spike Lee, that area, that isn't where we're at. Real people know when you say “Fort Greene,” this is where we're at. We have arguments with people all the time who say they're from Fort Greene.
What part? What building? Where?
It gets testy.
Growing up in Fort Greene was exciting because it taught me how to be tough and strong-minded. Every day when I was seven or eight, I had a fight with almost everybody in the neighborhood. Every day I came outside, and just because I was a new face, I fought every single day.
My best friend downstairs and one of my best friends, my close friend Geo, they were my bullies. So every day, I had to run into them. And I ended up playing ball with them right after. So it was strange in a way to get beat up constantly, but then they gained respect for me right after that, and it helped me and prepared me for anything.
You saw how those coaches were yelling at the 11-year-olds, the 14-year-olds next, and that set the tone for me when I got to the NBA after college. I felt like I could handle anything just because those guys were screaming at me, yelling at me and then I had to walk home and fight almost every day. So when “Thibs” [Tom Thibodeau] and all these guys yell at me, that's like a walk in the park because I came from somewhere way harder, with a struggle way bigger.
Taj arrives at his tournament. (Howard "Geo" Miller)
In the projects, sometimes the mother and father sleep in the living room, and the children sleep in one bedroom, and that's kind of the way it goes. But everybody in the neighborhood is close-knit. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody knows everybody's business. It's just like one yell out the window can trigger everybody.
Someone would say, “Your mom is looking for you!” I can’t tell you how many times I’d be outside and somebody would go, “Your mother is looking for you.” I used to be on the other side of Fort Greene. “Your mom’s outside looking for you. You’d better get home!” Like, how did that get all the way here? But that’s how close-knit Fort Greene is.
I was lucky enough to have a dad in my household, but just like everybody else, especially when 9/11 happened, a lot of people were laid off just from all the chaos and the construction and stuff like that. I was lucky to have a tight family even though my mom, Sharon, and dad, Wilbert, couldn’t provide at times. We were still close and I worked, too. My dad worked at a moving company and I did, too.
I learned to be real humble there. At the job site, most of the movers on the truck came from jail, and some people had just come into the country with no paperwork. I was in the pits with them—carrying boxes, doing chain gang stuff, being in basements in the hot summers. It woke me up, like, “I don't want to do this.” But I think it kept me grounded because every day, I'd speak to those men during our lunch break and they'd tell me about being in jail. I was 14 at the time and my dad allowed it because I was tough and could handle it. It was dope.
Taj with standout performers of the tournament. (Howard "Geo" Miller)
Of course, I could've strayed down the wrong path. My dad saved me. My dad was the one that was able to tell me to stay in the house sometimes. He'd let me roam around the neighborhood and do what I wanted to do, and hang out with my friends late. But at times he'd be, like, “Stay in the house.” And that saved my life. My friends would come to the house to talk to my dad. And it showed how privileged I was to have a dad in my house to correct me on different things.
So having a father figure is real important in this day and age. That’s why I try to be the best person I can be. I tell the kids, “I’m not your dad, but I’m here if you need me.” That’s kind of what I try to give the kids today and try to open up to them.
The local court I played at was around the corner from my place. It's still there. Omar Cook. Ed “Booger” Smith. So many talented players. In Fort Greene, that's where everybody played at. That's where everybody started.
When I left home to go out west for high school, I was trying to make it and willing to do whatever I had to do to get there—by any means necessary. My parents put me in a van and they sent me to California. I remember always seeing Jamaal Tinsley and I said, “If he can do it, I know I can do it. I want it.” I went out there and got out.
Taj will always be connected to the real Fort Greene. (Howard "Geo" Miller)
A lot of my close friends have gotten killed during my NBA career. Some of them were during the season. Some of them were after the season. You never know. My phone is like a revolving door of messages. You could get a call that somebody's incarcerated. You could get a call that somebody's sick, somebody's on their deathbed. I get those calls all the time. So now it's like it's not just me I'm thinking about. I've got to think about a lot of people. It's tough at times. It's tough.
I try to deal with it by just going for long walks on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade at night, thinking about how far I've come. I look at the city and I think to myself that I'm blessed that I'm still here, and it's not that bad. And then I come back to reality and try to do my best to help.
I've got a lot of respect for Thibs coming to my friends' funerals. He's the only coach that really showed me love. He was there through all the rough times. Even when I got in trouble last year for getting pulled over, he was understanding. He's a good kind of coach, a players' coach.
Most of the time, I was embarrassed because you don't want to keep talking about funerals all the time, but he was understanding. He's tough. He's from Connecticut, and he always came down and asked me if I was okay and he'd show up. That's how that Chicago Bulls family kind of was. We were all really close. We were a family.
Taj and "Geo" wear shirts that represent the challenges they have faced since they were kids: poverty and gun violence. On Taj's, he remembers friends who have lost their lives through the years. (Howard "Geo" Miller)
I have the No. 67 on my back with those names to honor the ones that came before me, the ones that made Fort Greene what it is. The myths, the legends, the ones you'd look to for guidance or would give you a dollar or two when your mom or dad weren't around to get you something to eat. So I want to make sure I remember everybody that passed away, whatever they've done. The circumstances may be they got shot and killed, murders, different types of things like that, going to jail. But I still want to give them praise because they're from Fort Greene like everybody else.
The neighborhood now has changed for the better. I feel like crime in the area is going down a lot and the kids are starting to come outside more. That's one of the reasons I wanted to hold the tournament inside because I wanted the kids to feel safe. Not that they didn't feel safe when we had it outside, but it's a better opportunity for the kids inside the community and it's been great.
When I retire, I want to be a high school coach. I want to work with kids. I want to work with different age groups. Financially, I'm not too worried about that. I'm more focused on being a good coach. I really want to be with the kids, and see them succeed and do things well. I'll probably be an NBA coach, but the thing I really want to do is high schools. That's what I want to do.
It's about being able to help the next kid get out. Because a lot of times when you make it or get a little bit of money, you leave the neighborhood and you don't come back. But my thing is, I have to help the next one or coach the next group and the next group. That's my big dream. That's my next goal. That's why we're starting at a young age now and we're going to keep working at it. Anything I can do for the kids. It's never too late. That's how I feel—it's never too late.
Taj and "Geo" with one of the winning teams of the tournament. (Howard "Geo" Miller)
I hope to eventually get my tournament to where it's like a Kenny's Kings kind of thing, where I'm able to mentor a lot of kids at an early age. So that when they're 16 and 17, they're going to remember me and say, “I played in your tournament.”
I want to keep that cycle going because this is what I want to do when I'm done playing. When I'm done playing ball, I don't want to shoot a ball ever again. I want to really help kids and just help them attain the same dream that I was able to.
Mike Mazzeo is a veteran NBA writer based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.