Taj Gibson seemed to be everywhere Saturday, bouncing around the sun-splashed basketball courts amid the Ingersoll Houses in Brooklyn. He was watching the youth tournament, handing out boxes of noise-making party snappers to kids, posing for photos and hugging adults, literally embracing the community.
He’s one of the new Knicks, one of seven free agents they signed this summer. But the 6-9 power forward is also a part of Ingersoll, this public housing complex in Fort Greene where he grew up. So he was hosting his Back to School Basketball Bash in the shadow of his childhood apartment building.
“It’s 100 percent really important to come back and show your face,” Gibson said. “Once you lose that connection, it’s really hard to get it back. . . . You bring people together, good things happen.”
So giving back is always on the agenda for this solid 34-year-old veteran of 10 NBA seasons. There’s something else on his agenda now. Gibson thinks the Knicks, league-worst 17-game winners last season, can contend for the playoffs this season.
“That’s the plan, to go and compete for a playoff spot, and I think we have the group to do it,” said Gibson, who has averaged 9.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in his career and has placed in the top 20 of the defensive ratings three times.
“We’ve got some good veterans. We’ve got some serious individuals and a great explosive young core. I think we’ll be ready . . . Last year was different because there was a tanking season. But even when we played against them when I was with Minnesota, they were a tough group. It’s all about keep getting better.”
He saw three young boys standing nearby at the moment. He had to take a timeout to talk to them.
“Hey, what’s up?” Gibson asked them. “What’s up, guys? You all right? All right.”
Gibson was set to be honored with a key to Brooklyn at the event. But he was already exhausted at 3 p.m. after being out at 3 a.m. to help install a court floor for about 200 boys and girls to play in the tournament. This was his 10th time hosting, with free food, haircuts, school supplies and T-shirts also part of the program.
But the former first-round pick, wearing a gray T-shirt that had the words “Poverty” and Ingersoll Houses” emblazoned on the back, was finally here as a player for one of the city’s teams after spending his career with the Bulls, Thunder and Timberwolves.
“It means a lot,” Gibson said. “It’s for my neighborhood, understanding the fact the kids need activities . . . It’s bigger than me. I’m extremely excited to play in New York and wear the Knick jersey. I’m blessed.”
He’s home, near his father who underwent a heart transplant in July. “I always wanted to play for the Knicks,” Gibson said. “It was a great opportunity. I always wanted to come home and play. My dad, with his heart transplant, I was adamant about trying to stay home and be around my dad. But he wanted me to play for the Knicks. He’s a Knicks fan. He’s ecstatic about the situation and the opportunity.”
The team based in Gibson’s home borough was the one able to land the mega names. The Nets signed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, as well as DeAndre Jordan.
“They did a great job,” Gibson said. “I think the city of New York is going to [have] some exciting basketball.”
But are the Nets going to own New York now?
“It’s a big city,” Gibson said. “I can just say from my experience and being around my neighborhood, we’ve got so many die-hard Knicks fans. Even when you’re playing for a winning season, the roof will blow off. Playing in the Garden every night, you see the energy. It’s a wonderful place to play.”