NEW YORK — Of the four basketball goals standing on the cracked cement courts outside the Ingersoll Houses in Brooklyn, only two have rims. Neither of those includes nets.
Kids like 11-year-old Steven Arroyo shot baskets on a beautifully sunny Sunday anyway. Arroyo deked a shadow defender and exclaimed the name of his favorite NBA player as his layup bounced through the cylinder.
"Taj Gibson scores!'' Arroyo said.
The Bulls forward once dunked on Arroyo at this rim, the boy bragged. Another kid practicing his jumper, 17-year-old Kacey Gordon, chimed in that he knew Gibson too — as claimed two other friends who drove up on a moped to play 2-on-2. Not to mention the boys who remembered Gibson buying them ice cream last summer while visiting one of this borough's roughest sections known as Fort Greene, about a 10-minute walk from the shiny Barclays Center.
"Everybody who lives here knows and loves Taj because he rose from the ground up and hasn't changed,'' Gordon said. "Someone like that is a role model for someone like me.''
Someone like that grew up in the brick apartment building adjacent to the courts dreaming big. When Gibson takes the court for the Bulls for Game 2 at the site of what used to be, in his words, "a construction zone without the construction,'' he will represent much more than the name of the team on his red jersey to family and friends.
"It's all kind of crazy and surreal to be back here,'' Gibson said. "I'm just trying to focus on getting wins against the Nets.''
Beating Brooklyn's odds remains Gibson's biggest victory. From the spot on the concrete near where kids imitated him Sunday, Gibson memorably threw down a dunk for the first time as a 14-year-old. But what stood out even more in the memory of longtime family friend Dennis Simmons — known as D-Nice — was the way Gibson finally grew into his body after an awkward start. In the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, Simmons provided a tour of nearby Tillary Park, which spurred Gibson's growth. If those same courts were good enough to develop playground legends like Bernard King or Ed "Booger" Smith, they were good enough for Gibson.
"Not going to say we taught him the toughness you see today, but that's where he learned it,'' said Simmons, 37, a community leader. "We'd be like, 'Keep the ball above your head, Taj, or you're going to get it slapped away.' That boy was too weak. Tell him I said that.''
Simmons smiled, unspeakably proud of that boy maturing into a man strong enough to lift hopes in a neighborhood needing some.
Though recent business development on Flatbush Avenue around the Nets arena has enhanced the environment, Simmons illustrated the inherent threats of drugs and violence by recalling the day years ago when Gibson returned from USC to referee a summer-league game. An argument ensued. A shootout commenced.
"I remember talking to Taj after seeing someone get shot in the head and him saying, 'I've got to get out of here if I want to survive,' '' Simmons said. "A lot of people knew Taj was great, no gangster, and wanted to protect him. We knew it wasn't to get away from us. It was to get away from the danger.''
Sadly, Gibson had that reality reinforced shortly after his rookie season when he lost three childhood buddies within a six-week period — two of them to shooting deaths. Friends say Gibson avoided going down a similar road to ruin as a teenager thanks to the structure designed by his mother, Sharon, and father, Wilbert, who played for the U.S. Army national team. Whether it was sending Taj out of harm's way to prep school in California or instilling a good, old-fashioned work ethic, the Gibsons guided their oldest son down a path paved with faith and discipline.
"If you didn't listen, you got your behind whupped because my mom and dad believed in the belt and the switch,'' said Jasu Robinson-Okai, Gibson's older sister. "Thank God my little brother isn't a follower.''
If Taj ever felt tempted to succumb to peer pressure like so many kids who become urban statistics, Sharon Gibson coached him to ask one key question.
"I told Taj in the heat of the battle you have to stop and think: Is this worth what I'm about to go through?'' Sharon said.
Answering no often enough wound up being worth generational wealth for Gibson, who fought back tears last October discussing his $38 million contract extension. A season that began emotionally nears its end the same way in Gibson's hometown. The chance to reminisce with Taj back home for the playoffs has provided "a wonderful adventure for our whole family,'' Sharon said.
One of the most poignant parts came when she pulled out an old photo album that included a picture of Sharon and a 3-year-old Taj sitting outside the Ingersoll apartment where the Gibsons still live. In the photo, Taj is wearing a red hat with the logo of a shoe company.
"Now wouldn't that be a good commercial?'' Sharon asked.
Only if you're selling dreams.