Not every professional athlete is given the chance to go home. For Taj Gibson, that opportunity was presented to him during the 2019 NBA offseason, when the veteran forward/center received a contract offer from the New York Knicks. Gibson, a Brooklyn native, put pen to paper on the deal, and prior to the NBA’s current hiatus, he served a steady hand in the frontcourt amid the team’s youth movement.
While Gibson has done plenty of work in the community over the years — he was awarded the key to Brooklyn during a ceremony last June, before he came to terms on a deal with the Knicks — there is no way he could have seen the hurt that New York has gone through over the last few months. The Big Apple was, for a stretch, the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, and of the more than 100,000 casualties that have occurred in the United States, more than 21,000 of them have occurred in New York county as of this writing.
As a result, Gibson teamed up with Knicks legend John Starks to raise money for the Robin Hood Foundation, a New York-based charity that fights poverty in the city. A number of other big names, including a host of athletes who represent the city, have joined in on the initiative, and according to the Foundation’s website, tens of millions of dollars have been distributed in relief funds.
Dime caught up with Gibson recently to discuss, among other things, his charity efforts at a time when his fellow New Yorkers need it the most.
How did you get involved with the Robin Hood campaign?
Well, I’ve been talking to them for a couple months now, ever since I’ve been a part of the Knicks. I always liked how their organization was ran. They had a lot of stars and I was always just in tune with them for a couple of months — one of my best friends, Tameek Floyd, one day, introduce them to me. But then, this pandemic happened and the New York Knicks, they kind of reached out, Robin Hood reached out to the Knicks, and the Knicks and me were already talking about doing some positive things. So we just felt like, why not jump in and try to do something with Robin Hood? That’s how it all started.
And what’s been the goal with all of this?
Just to raise money for most of the starving families around New York. It was so many different fundraisers underneath one umbrella — it was from the Giants, from the Rangers, the Knicks, I was in charge of the Knicks with John Starks. The goal was to try to raise over a million dollars, they succeeded, that number, with a telethon.
It was a bunch of people just gathering up money and then trying to put it all in one. And then the telethon thing comes on, they shut down New York with all the television and everything, and callers would just donate $10. Most of the time, we wasn’t asking for much, mostly $5, $10 to a good cause, and we did that.
You’re a New Yorker. Do you feel some kind of added motivation in that to help out those in your city who are really struggling right now?
Of course, without a doubt. I always felt like this even before the pandemic happened, I always was helping out throughout Brooklyn in my neighborhood for like 10 years now, with my foundation, the Taj Gibson Foundation. Just the lowest scale, but as of late, I’ve been picking up, meeting people, networking, working with the NYPD, NYCHA, building it up to help people the best way I can. But since this pandemic, it’s been even higher — you got funerals, you got people needing money, people needing food, support, people being there for each other. There’s a lot going on in New York.
So when you first joined the Knicks, you gave a quote where you said you grew up a Knicks fan, and the one player that you mentioned in this quote was watching John Starks, so how special was it getting to work alongside him for this?
It’s dope have your name attached with John Starks in anything. Because I grew up watching him, he’s tough-minded guy. Over the years, even coming to New York to always play the Knicks, he always just talked to my family. He’s a great guy. When I became a part of the Knicks, I was running in to all the Knicks legends — Sprewell, LJ, ran into Pat Ewing in D.C. To see these guys and honestly have a conversation with them about basketball is just dope, it’s a great feeling.
So I’m from Jersey and it seems like there is something about John that made him particularly beloved among a certain era of Knicks fans. For the non tri-state people, could you explain why Knicks fans loved him so much?
I liked him because, when you look at the makeup of the old Knicks team, they were rugged and a grimy kind of team. They were hard-nose on defense and they were really physical and passionate. Every night they went on the court, you knew that they were going to play hard and I was a big fan of that. He was a very aggressive player and I just liked that growing up. It’s always those players on every team that you just root for no matter. He was one of them to the Knicks.
I’ve always thought there’s this really special sense among New Yorkers of being in it for one another. And you’re a well-traveled dude, is that something that is unique about people in the city?
Yeah, cause we can fit in anywhere. New Yorkers will go anywhere and just be like, you know what, you just adapt. People from New York just adapt. I’ve been able to adapt in different circumstances, but my hunger and my determination and my work ethic has always been a New York, grime and grit kind of style. I’ve been a blue collar guy my whole life. Being in New York kind of helped me with that.
NBA players are always able to use their platforms to help their communities and that seems like it’s a little more important than usual right now. Would you agree with that?
Of course, of course. Your platform, sometimes you take it for granted, because you don’t want to be so into social media, but then, you gotta think about the bright sides that come with it. You’ve joined forces with many different people that want to help and have the same kind of desire and the goal that you want to do, that you have as well. And with social media, you connect, get the word out there, build more bonds so you can even bring back more reinforcements to help the people that you’re trying to help yourself. That’s one of the main things I’ve been trying to do with my platform since I’ve been around this pandemic and the last 10 years working with my foundation and the kids.
It also seems really important to use your platform and to show other guys how they can use theirs. What do you tell younger dudes finding their way in the league about why it’s so important to be able to give back like this?
Well, you always try to tell them to get back because it’s like, somebody took the time out to put some energy into you. It’s a lot of little children, a lot of little kids out there that are looking up to us and we got to set the standard for them, you know what I’m saying? Especially in New York where the standard of making it to the pros or making it to play division one basketball has kind of slacked off a little bit. You just got to just be there, got to kind of coach them, kind of give them an insight like, yo, this is good for you, this could help you. I see young players are really into it. Some of the guys, a lot of guys in my team, that’s all they do. That’s how we communicate. We laugh at jokes and everything through social media.
Aside from the charity work, what all have you been doing to keep yourself busy as we’re trying to wait everything out right now?
Well, just try to stay in shape. It’s nothing like basketball shape, but when you’re in New York, they shut everything down. It’s not really too much you can do, but just staying shape. The Knicks send workouts — a lot of biking, but mostly just staying home and staying ready, staying healthy because you never know. Anything can happen in this pandemic, but so far, it’s been okay. But the main thing right now is just a lot of Zoom meetings with friends, family, my teammates, coaching staff. This has been a weird but fun … It’s kind of weird, but the fun part about it, you learn new things. I’m having meetings on Zoom a lot with my teammates. So it’s a new way as far as getting to know each other.
You’re the longest-tenured dude on a team with a bunch of young guys, and obviously none of us have all the answers, but how do you act as a team leader in the middle of something that none of us have ever experienced before?
First thing is try to stay in tune with the team, make sure you always be a part of the team. Sometimes those things just come to you — sometimes you’re never really trying to be the leader or anything like that. It just comes natural because when you’re a giving person, as a team-first kind of a person, those things kind of build strong qualities in you, so guys kind of respect you a little more, guys kind of feel they can always count on you to ask you questions and count on you to just be there for them. And it just comes like that, just having a personality like that, I guess, for me personally.
Beyond all of this, you’re living out every single New York kids dream in that you are playing for the Knicks. How’s your first year been back in the city and what’s it been like after a decade-plus to finally get to go home?
Well, it’s a weird feeling. I used to ask guys before before they went back to New York to play, “What is it like? What is it like? What is it like?” And for years, I used to always look at them like, oh man, they’re lucky they get to go back home and play. That’s awesome. I was like, I wonder if it will ever happen, but then it happened. It has its good and it has its bad. Being home, you always have a thousand phone calls. Then at the same time, you got to still lock in and be able to play, and it’s tough, because you’re a pro, you got a lot of things you have to be attentive to.
But so far, it’s been great. I can see my family, my dad, he’s still recovering from a heart transplant, brand new heart, which I’m happy he’s able to get thanks to the great doctors at Mount Sinai, New York. So I get to see my family all the time. That’s one of the bright spots that would be in this pandemic, seeing all distant relatives, people I grew up in my neighborhood, people where I grew up that used to work at the local stores, essential workers. A lot of the older generation are slowly dying from this disease. And every day, it just makes me think like how appreciative I am to be able to play in New York and be around my family at this crazy time.
A really fun quote that you gave when you joined the Knicks, you were mentioning that Thibs said to you, if anyone is capable of playing in New York, you’re a New York style player. How do you and Thibs define that?
I guess it was just from him talking through all the years, when he was with the Knicks. One of my favorite players was LJ. I just appreciated how he played, especially when his back was hurt, all those years in the Knicks. And Thibs, we just always just talked about being tough. Like, you can always count on me just to stay focused, be tough, and have that mindset of every game, just knowing that you’re going to play hard, do whatever it takes to help the team, be a strong leader on the court, strong leader off the court, always have a solid mindset of just being that guy for your team. Being that guy that you can always count on, like he’s going to be there to always have your back.