By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Taj Gibson woke up around 5 a.m. Thursday with an understanding that this day could finally be the fateful one. For several years, Gibson had found his name at the center of trade speculation, handling it with his trademark positive demeanor, but never had the circumstances lined up like this.
A phone conversation in the early morning with agent Mark Bartelstein reinforced Gibson’s feeling that it was “serious.” Conversations with Bartelstein and Bulls executive vice president John Paxson in the early afternoon made it reality.
Thursday was his last day as a Bull.
Less than 30 minutes before the 2 p.m. deadline, Chicago traded Gibson, wing Doug McDermott and a second-round pick to Oklahoma City for point guard Cameron Payne, big man Joffrey Lavergne and wing Anthony Morrow. While the long-term implications of the deal are primarily based around the performances of McDermott and Payne, it was the exit of Gibson that carried so much sentiment.
A Bull since being drafted by the organization with the 26th pick of the first round on June 25, 2009, Gibson had spent his entire eight-year career in Chicago, a place he called “home” and had mixed emotions about leaving. Ever the professional and courteous of those around him, Gibson left the Advocate Center shortly after being traded, only to return later in the afternoon to speak with the media.
“It was emotional,” Gibson said. “I don’t really see Pax get choked up and a little teary-eyed. But he gave me a long hug, and I gotta lot of respect for Pax. He’s like a father figure, just a great guy.
“It’s been fun, just being able to put on a Bulls jersey, and every day I came to the locker room and saw my name on the back of a Bulls jersey was a dream come true. Great city, a big-time city. Just to have the fans behind me at times was a great feeling.”
Throughout a nearly 16-minute interview session, Gibson acknowledged he had hoped to remain a Bull while emphasizing he was also “excited” for his new chapter. Averaging 11.6 points and 7.0 rebounds, he’ll turn 32 on June 24 and enter unrestricted free agency a week later. He called the Bulls “smart” for using him to acquire assets given his contract situation, pointing out Chicago let big men Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah walk in free agency a year ago with nothing in return.
Gibson didn’t completely shut the door on a potential return to the Bulls “at the right price” down the line, but there’s no expectation that they’ll reunite this summer. There were eight teams that showed interest in Gibson leading up to the deadline, he said, believing that’s a good sign for his free-agency prospects.
“Go get the (money) bags,” was a text Gibson said he received from Bulls star Jimmy Butler after the trade.
As usual, Gibson was plenty reflective too. He was the last remaining member of the 2010-’11 Bulls team that took the league by storm in recording 62 wins and going to the Eastern Conference finals in Tom Thibodeau’s rookie coaching season. Gibson was a reserve on that team, as he primarily was during his first six seasons in Chicago before becoming a starter in 2015-’16.
It was a role he always accepted without complaint. In so any ways, Gibson was the quintessential team player.
“I just believed in the process,” said Gibson, whose 562 games played rank 10th in Bulls history. “I believed in doing the right things. When you believe in doing the right things, playing for a successful organization like the Bulls, good things can happen. Like I told the young guys, I was the guy off the bench for a while. But because my team and coaching staff, we worked hard and won games, I was able to get a big piece of the pie too. I was always trying to be a leader on the court.”
While Gibson was nothing but complimentary of current Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, it was also clear how much he cherished his time playing under Thibodeau from 2010-’15. Gibson was a living embodiment of what Thibodeau desired in players, someone who was defensive-minded, detail-oriented and willing to sacrifice anything for the team.
It was in early 2015 that Gibson revealed he’d play through a stage 2 ligament tear in his hand that caused him great pain for a month. Why’d he keep playing? Because Thibodeau had asked him to and reminded Gibson that he was “from Brooklyn, you’re tough.”
Asked for his favorite memory during his Bulls tenure, Gibson cited a trait more than a moment: his ability to be a rock for the team.
“Just being around Thibs, he just told me people don’t look at most of the games,” Gibson said. “They look at the bright spots. I had a lot of different bright spots in my career. The biggest one in my career would have to be just being on the team when guys were down and having a coach look at me and know he can count on me — no matter what position, no matter what time of the game. And he would trust some of the most important plays for me to do.
“Those were the most important moments of my life, just having a guy between Fred and coach Thibs, just knowing the guys ahead of me making twice as much more money than me, and he’s still calling my name in crunch time. Those were the best moments of my life.”
Now, Gibson will start anew, comparing his situation to being the new kid in school who doesn’t know where to sit on the bus. He’s headed to an Oklahoma City team in the thick of the playoff race and one that’s led by star Russell Westbrook, whom Gibson has known for years and called “my boy.”
The Thunder were sending a private plane to pick up Gibson and McDermott later Thursday in Chicago, a place Gibson will never forget.
“I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, as far as just being here for so many years,” Gibson said. “I’m just really saddened that we didn’t get a chance to win one, I’m saddened that I didn’t get a chance to finish off the year.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. He’s also the co-host of the @LockedOnBulls podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes and Stitcher. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.
Taj Gibson Has Mixed Emotions On Trade From Bulls To Thunder – CBS Local