Wolves' Gibson is first NBA player to wear No. 67. Here's why.
MINNEAPOLIS—Taj Gibson returned to Brooklyn to play his first NBA game in his hometown on Feb. 1, 2013. He received a hero's welcome he didn't expect.
It was the Chicago Bulls' maiden voyage to the Barclays Center, the $1 billion home of the Nets, located less than two miles south of the Fort Greene neighborhood where Gibson grew up.
Gibson had a lot of fans in the arena that evening, many of whom he'd never met.
"(Taj) said, 'Mommy, I was so blown away by so many people from Brooklyn, even though they're not from where we live, they were so proud,' " Sharon Gibson recalled. "A lot of them were like, 'Taj, you're my hero, you make me so proud.' "
After playing that night, Gibson told his mother, " 'People were so good, and a lot of these kids, they don't even know me, but because I'm from Brooklyn, they feel like they have somebody that represents us.' "
Taj Gibson is Brooklyn. More specifically, he's Fort Greene—a big part of it, anyway. A local icon in a neighborhood that needs one, Gibson returns to help his extended family with giveback events while mentoring the area's youth.
Gibson plays in Minnesota now, but his connection to Fort Greene will be near his heart every night and for all to see. Needing a new number since joining the Timberwolves as a free agent—his "lucky number" 22 was already taken by Andrew Wiggins—Gibson turned to the kids in his hometown community for suggestions.
They had just the one.
"They was like, '67,' and I just went along with it," Gibson said. "At first, it didn't really mean much to me, but to them, it meant a lot, they appreciated it and that's what I rolled with."
No NBA player has ever worn 67, but it didn't come out of nowhere.
Charles A. Dorsey school, Gibson's elementary school, is Public School 67 in Brooklyn.
"Smack dab in the middle of Fort Greene," he said.
Charles A. Dorsey school is blocks away from the Ingersoll and Walt Whitman housing projects, one of the roughest areas in Brooklyn—the area where Gibson grew up.
"There's a lot of violence, shooting, things like that," said Shakur Pinder, one of Gibson's family friends. "There's a lot of gang-related things going on."
Living in the Ingersoll housing projects as a child, Gibson said he saw acts of violence and drug activity "all day, every day."
"It was rough," he said, "but (the school is) like the heart of the community, so people respect it."
There's some historical significance to P.S. 67. Kyesha Jackson, the school's principal, said it was "colored school No. 1" in Brooklyn, one of the first African-American schools in New York City.
Jackson is in her third year as the school's principal. When she started, the school's population had a 99-percent poverty rate. It dropped to 81 percent last year.
"It's on a steady decline," Jackson said, "but it's still high."
Many of the kids in the area start life behind the 8-ball. Gibson is a reminder that success is possible.
"I think it's significant in your goal setting," Jackson said. "That's one of the things we really focus on with our scholars: You set goals and you figure out how to obtain those goals.
"They need to see that there are people like them — that look like them, that sound like them, that live like them—that have set those goals and were able to accomplish those goals through hard work."
Gibson was arrested in Queens this summer—less than a week after he agreed to a two-year, $28 million deal with the Timberwolves—for providing the police with a suspended driver's license after he was pulled over for making an illegal U-turn.
A few days later, at his introductory press conference in Minneapolis, Gibson said his license was suspended because of an outstanding ticket, of which he wasn't even aware, for driving with tinted windows. It was a minor infraction, but to Gibson, the mistake mattered.
"I was just disappointed because that's not the kind of guy I am," he said after his introductory press conference. "I do everything the right way, and that has been my stamp for many years. I understand that in my neighborhood, kids look up to me. People in my area look up to me. I was just really disappointed."
Pinder said there are "bad" role models in Fort Greene—those involved in gangs, those who sell drugs, those who took the wrong path. Then there are role models like Gibson, who lay out a potential path of success for kids who are like he was.
"I'm trying to pave the way for the rest of the kids in my community," he said. "I try to set an example, because I know a lot of kids back home are watching me, and I want to set the tone the right way for future kids and the future generations to come to try to make the NBA.
"I didn't really have that many guys ahead of me to show me the ropes of how to be a good professional, or even prepare me to go to the NBA, so now that I'm in this platform, I try to be the example."
One issue, Gibson said, is that many successful Fort Greene natives never come back. He, too, left Brooklyn, moving to California to play high school basketball at a prep school. He played his college basketball at USC and has made his offseason home in the Los Angeles area.
But he refuses to leave Fort Greene behind. He has taken a special interest in basketball players from his old neighborhood. He noted how much more challenging it's gotten for players in the area to make it in the sport, largely because of how many talented players New York produces.
Gibson tries to help local players at every step.
When Pinder took a year off from school after playing at a couple junior colleges, Gibson had him come to Chicago to live and train with him. Pinder eventually played for another junior college in Illinois, where he excelled, and is now hoping for an opportunity to play overseas.
Gibson holds camps and tournaments in the Fort Greene area and has had more than 50 kids from the community come work out with him, sometimes in New York, other times after bringing them out to California.
"They wanted to get away, and I wanted to show them something new," he said. "Whenever I went home, if I saw you outside and I felt like you needed a change in scenery, to go see some new things, some new people and show you a different outcome, a different side of the spectrum, I took a lot of guys out the neighborhood with me. ... (We) spend a couple weeks training, get their minds (on) things better than hustling and being outside on a street corner every day."
When Gibson told his mother he wanted to do a toy giveaway, Sharon got to work.
The first year, she said the Christmas-time giveaway serviced about 200 people. Someone else bought the toys that were handed out, but Sharon wasn't thrilled with the things that were giving away. So, every year since, she's done the shopping, buying in bulk from stores such as Toys "R" Us, Best Buy and Wal-Mart.
Gibson's giveaway, which is held at P.S. 67 for kids ages 6-18, distributes things like televisions, cell phones, and computers to area children in need. Four years in, the event has taken off. Sharon Gibson said 3,000 families were helped in 2016. The line last year went out the building, down the block and around the corner.
"It's like an annual event that people look forward to," she said, "so I enjoy it, I really do."
As often as Taj returns to Fort Greene, his family is there more. His parents have moved to a different part of Brooklyn "but you would never know, because they're constantly there almost every day," Gibson said. When he organizes other events, such as coat drives and backpack giveaways, his family is there to provide the leg work.
"My parents are really family oriented," he said. "They understand that this is where we come from. We can't ever shy away. ... We've just got to remain humble, continue to be the person you are.
"My dad, he's a carpenter, he's like a blue-collar guy. He's always back in Fort Greene. You would never think I made it out because we are always there. You can always catch us walking around, going to the grocery store, just helping the community."
Pinder said people in the neighborhood love Gibson not just for what he does, but the way he does it.
"He's so humble, he's positive," Pinder said. "Whenever he's in the neighborhood, he makes sure everybody feels comfortable. ... When he's in the neighborhood, he'll get food from where we get food from. He'll eat from wherever we're eating. It's not like he's above anyone."
Gibson continues to find new ways to give back. He has worked with area law enforcement to make things safer for children and, recently, he's dug deeper into his wallet for those in need. This summer, multiple media outlets reported that Gibson $20,000 each to the families of two shooting victims after an incident in July.
"It's not just one thing that he does, or he does it one year and you never see him again," Jackson said. "He's always coming back, always giving back. His family is always here to support. ... We've formed a relationship because they're doing so much for the community. So, it's not hit or miss with him. Him and his family are dedicated to giving back to the community, and they've made it a priority and that sends a strong message."
Brooklyn has laid on Gibson a heavy dose of heartbreak and too many struggles to count. Friends have been shot and killed and his nephew, just 6-years-old at the time, was stabbed to death there. Still, he returns to offer hope.
"Whatever we can try to do, I just try to do it," No. 67 said, "all from the heart, all trying to pave the way for the next group of kids to come."