BROOKLYN -- Chicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson walked into the Barclays Center for the first time Friday morning looking like a wide-eyed child who had just unwrapped a big present on Christmas morning. A Brooklyn native, Gibson grew up in the Fort Greene projects about 10 minutes away from where the new arena stands, and he remembers what the area used to look like.
"I remember it was a construction zone but there was no construction going on," said Gibson, whose Bulls play the Brooklyn Nets on Friday night. "It looked bad. I always saw drug dealers. I always saw people hustlin', selling used stuff, I never really saw a lot of stores. It was a rough area."
Now it's one of the coolest places to play basketball in the country. The $1 billion arena, that Gibson said looked 'like a space ship' on the drive in, brings back a lot of old memories for him. For Gibson, there's a lot of extra personal pride attached to Friday night's game against the Nets. He knows that being from Brooklyn and playing in the NBA is a privilege that most players don't enjoy.
"That they know you went through a lot just to get to where you're at," he said of the perception of players from Brooklyn. "There's a lot of time you're on the basketball court just going to different projects. The first thing you see when you come off the bridge, you see projects, you hear about nothing but a lot of projects, and a lot of different things going around in Brooklyn that's probably negative. But just to make it out of that, and know that you went through that hard a struggle, it means a lot."
For Gibson, and teammate Joakim Noah, playing in Brooklyn is special because it reminds them of what it took to get to where they are.
"Joakim, he understands me," Gibson said. "Because he understands that it's really tough, even though it's one of the meccas, one of the best places to play basketball, when you make it out of here, it's tough. I remember me and Joakim just playing AAU basketball together. He played for the Long Island Panthers, I played for the New York Gauchos.
"When you think about it, me and him, we weren't really the guys that you at least expect to make it to the NBA. That's how much talent and how crazy it was. I didn't ever think I would make it to the NBA just being on the Gauchos. I was just happy to wear the Gaucho jersey. And looking back at how far I've come just playing in Brooklyn, playing across the city, it's great to come back and be a part of this."
Gibson's game has come a long way since he grew up playing all over the city.
"I just had to mature," he said of his early years playing ball in the city. "I couldn't even dribble, I couldn't even rebound, but they just had me on the team because I was tall. I was one of the tallest guys on the team. But as time went on I just kept developing and kept working at it and that's how I play hard the way I play now because in New York you got to do something, you've got to play hard all the time ... guys play hard because they understand that it's do or die when you get on these courts. You never know if somebody could be watching, somebody could be offering you a job."
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau just hopes Gibson can build off the recent success he's had, especially if Carlos Boozer can't play again because of his injured right hamstring.
"I don't want him to change," Thibodeau said of Gibson. "I know he's excited to be home. I think that's the way most guys are. But he's been down this road before when we play in New York. This probably has a little added meaning for him because of where he grew up, but Taj has been playing well, and we need him to play well tonight."
Gibson is just trying to enjoy the moment because it's not every day he gets to play 10 minutes from where he grew up.
"It's great," he said. "I think it's just amazing to come in here and see a lot of new technology, and it shows that they put a lot of time in, a lot of money into it and it's good for the community to see little kids come in here and see that good things do happen in Brooklyn so it's good ... It's kind of one up on the Garden right now."