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Sticking it out

Gibson had to overcome many obstacles before he could make an impact at USC

March 01, 2007|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

And here you thought out-muscling such wide bodies as Washington's Jon Brockman in the paint and soaring for rebounds over the likes of Stanford's 7-foot Lopez twins took some doing.

Those feats are dwarfed by the seemingly endless series of academic hoops that Taj Gibson jumped through merely to reach USC. It's been a start-and-stop odyssey for the Brooklyn native who, at 21, is the Trojans' fourth-oldest player as a freshman.

There was the year his parents held him back in middle school because they felt he hadn't learned anything, two years of home-schooling that the NCAA said would not count toward college entrance requirements, and the mad scramble last summer to complete online and correspondence courses that would allow him to enroll at USC.

"I was about to just say, 'Forget it,' " Gibson said. "I probably would have been just another street basketball player out there in New York like every other guy."

But if there was one thing those streets had already taught him, it was perseverance. He learned it growing up in a hardscrabble neighborhood where he worked some nights as a furniture mover to help his family make ends meet. And he had it instilled in him while competing on the famed blacktop of Rucker Park in Harlem, often against players three or four years older.

"He grew up playing up in parks with one ball and 50 guys waiting to play, and if you got beat you had to sit for two hours," USC Coach Tim Floyd said. "So every possession was big.

"He persevered because playing was important to him, and he put himself in a position to get to the floor through a lot of hard work."

Gibson has emerged as one of the best freshmen in school history and a major reason that, entering tonight's game at Washington, the No. 23 Trojans (21-8 overall, 11-5 in the Pacific 10 Conference) are closing in on their first NCAA tournament berth in five years.

The 6-foot-9 forward's first name was given in honor of the majestic Indian mausoleum, and he's lived up to it by providing the kind of menacing interior presence that USC lacked a year ago.

Gibson's length and shot-blocking ability have also helped the Trojans hold 23 of 29 opponents to 42% shooting or worse.

"He's been a factor defensively," California Coach Ben Braun said. "He's also a guy that can stretch the defense a little bit, meaning if they throw it in they can get some looks inside. Now you've got to send some guys down there against them. That gives them the balance that they have right now."

Gibson leads the Pac-10 in field-goal percentage (57.7) and ranks third in blocks (1.8 a game) and fourth in rebounding (8.3 a game). He's averaging 11.9 points, and his 53 blocks and 234 rebounds are school freshman records.

He had 18 points, 13 rebounds and seven blocks against Oregon on Jan. 4, and his eight double-doubles are tied for the second-most in the conference behind Brockman's 13.

Gibson recently powered through a late-season bout of fatigue to score 18 points against Cal on Saturday.

"I knew he had talent but not to be shining as soon as he is right now," said Wilbert Gibson, Taj's father and a former high school All-American guard who went on to play for the U.S. Army national team.

"The emotion that comes to me is, 'Is that the same young man that I remember when he was a little boy running around on a basketball court?' I have those flashbacks of that clumsy guy who couldn't walk straight."

Gibson was so gangly as a child that his sister, Jasu, said she called him "Sticks" because "he was all legs and arms and feet."

He's still a relatively thin 218 pounds, though he has gained about 10 pounds by lifting weights with the Trojans' football team and hopes to reach 225 or 230 by next year.

Gibson has been doing more than his share of heavy lifting since his teenage years moving furniture.

"You had to have the mentality to tell yourself that you're going to do this to help somebody. So that's what I did," Gibson said. "I would get on the truck with grown men. I would be on the steps with them lifting heavy furniture all the way until 8 at night."

After being home-schooled for his first two years of high school, Gibson attended Telecommunications High in Brooklyn for a year before his parents and club team coaches persuaded him to transfer to a prep school in California.

"It was tough growing up in the city and staying focused," Wilbert Gibson said. "That was the main reason we sent him out here. It's scary for us. But I knew we had to give him a chance to grow up."

Gibson attended Tarzana Stoneridge Prep for two years before his coach uprooted Gibson and six other players and moved them to nearby Calvary Christian. It was about this time that Gibson learned the home-schooling credits he was counting on did not meet NCAA requirements.

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