SAN FRANCISCO – Almost from the start of Taj Gibson’s NBA career, his former teammates on the Bulls called him the “young vet.”
“He’ll come in, play hard, knows his role, really great teammate in the locker room and just does the right things,” said Luol Deng, who was in Chicago with Gibson at the time.
But there was a time the young vet had to grow up into a vet.
It was Gibson’s second NBA season and Joakim Noah was yapping at Gibson during a practice. For more than a year, Gibson never retorted until one day when Noah was saying some “slick stuff,” according to Gibson.
“I just started snapping back,” Gibson said. “It felt weird because I don’t want to go at my teammates, but after a while I just started saying I don’t care anymore. It’s the NBA. I earned my stripes. You’re going to hear me talk.”
That’s been Gibson’s guiding mantra ever since that day, and now his voice is one of the most respected and needed voices in a Wolves locker room dealing with the fallout from Jimmy Butler’s trade request.
After several Wolves players downplayed the Butler news at media day on Monday, it was Gibson who cut through the noise and admitted Butler’s demand was a distraction and referred to it as a “right hook,” even though he and Butler remain good friends.
Gibson isn’t afraid to speak his mind. Entering his 10th NBA season, he has earned those stripes.
But Gibson said his leadership style isn’t to shoot back at teammates when things get heated in a practice. He’s there for support both on and off the court and tries to keep a positive vibe.
“In today’s world you have to deal with so much — social media stuff — that alone you’re dealing with a lot, especially with the crowds,” Gibson said. “My job is to try to support you to build you up and not tear you down.”
Coach Tom Thibodeau said Gibson is a leader not so much for what he says but how he carries himself in practices and in games. Gibson always gives maximum effort and is a model for younger players coming through the league — you may not have a good night, but it should never be for lack of effort.
“If your schedule is heavy, he’s still got a big smile on his face. He’s a great teammate and lifts everyone up,” Thibodeau said. “It’s just part of who he is. He never takes a possession off and he’s selfless, he’ll do whatever the team asks him to do, whether you start him, finish with him, all the dirty work. Those things are invaluable.”
Friday’s practice was no different. He stayed on the court longer than almost anyone after practice and worked on post-up moves with Karl-Anthony Towns. Sitting on a bench after, his voice cracked when he told strength and conditioning coach Troy Sutton to “bring me a towel.”
He had two ice bags on his knees, but that “big smile” Thibodeau referred to was on his face as he tried to catch his breath. Physically, he said he feels great.
“I stay in the weight room. My body fat is down crazy … ” Gibson said. “Just more muscle, staying on top of my body. I like being able to move when I can move, if you know what I’m saying.”
Even if he has trouble with that, Gibson can still say whatever he wants to say, when he wants to say it. It just might help the Wolves get past losing Butler.
“I run through a wall, do things most guys don’t want to do,” Gibson said. “Guys who come here understand I play hard. That alone is going to give me that kind of respect.”