Gorman: Seton's Gibson lives up to legacy
Naje Gibson appeared unfazed when the Bishop Canevin student section serenaded the Seton-La Salle sophomore with chants of "traitor" during the WPIAL Class AA girls basketball championship game last weekend at Duquesne University's Palumbo Center.
"When they chant that stuff about me," she said, "it gets me going."
Originally bound for Bishop Canevin, Gibson became the target of taunts by enrolling at Section 5 rival Seton-La Salle. That the 6-foot forward has led the Rebels to six victories in as many tries over the Crusaders the past two seasons has only increased the ire.
"Last time they really got to her," Seton-La Salle coach Dennis Squeglia said. "I said, 'That's their way to beat you. They can't stop you, can't defend you. That's what they have to do.' That's not easy for anyone to handle."
But it pales in comparison to what her family patriarch endured.
Gibson is the great-granddaughter of Negro League great Josh Gibson, who hit 69 home runs in 1934 to become known as the Black Babe Ruth but died just months before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier.
"Josh Gibson was discriminated against because of the color of his skin," said Sean Gibson, Naje's first cousin and executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation. "We come from a family that knows it better than most people. I tell her to forget the taunts and let your play do the talking.
"The name-calling, it's hard for someone that age to hear that and try to maintain level-headed play, but she was focused on winning that championship. No matter what was being said, her goal was to lead Seton-La Salle to another WPIAL championship and, now, a state championship."
Her family history is not lost on Naje (pronounced Ny-zha). As fate would have it, she picked out a No. 20 jersey only to learn that it's the same number Josh Gibson wore for the Homestead Grays. She now wears the number to pay homage to him.
"He was good when he was around, and I feel like I'm going to be the next good one," Gibson said. "I'm working hard to try to get there."
Where Josh Gibson and his son, Josh Jr., both played in the Negro Leagues, the family's sporting legacy since then has been on the hardwood. The family tree is a virtual who's who of basketball players who starred in the City League over the past half-century.
Edward "Petey" Gibson played point guard alongside Kenny Durrett on Schenley's 1966 PIAA champions. Ron Carter starred at Perry, averaged 19.2 points per game at Virginia Military Institute and was the 26th pick of the 1978 NBA Draft who played for the Los Angeles Lakers and Indiana Pacers. His son, Paul Carter, played at Minnesota and Illinois-Chicago and is now with the Idaho Stampede of the NBA Development League.
Sean Gibson starred at Langley and received a scholarship to Robert Morris, where he averaged 8.6 points per game as a freshman in 1987 before later transferring to Edinboro. His niece, Britney Gibson, played on Westinghouse teams that reached the City League final in the early 2000s.
"We've had several generations of great athletes," Sean Gibson said. "The legacy she's following, of course, my great-grandfather and grandfather played baseball, but everyone else plays basketball."
Naje Gibson plays it as well as anyone in the WPIAL. She played on the Western Pa. Bruins 15-and-under AAU national champions and followed Bruins coach Ron Mumbray to Seton. As a freshman, she averaged 13.7 points and 14.6 rebounds per game and was a Tribune-Review Terrific 10 and second-team all-state selection. This year, she's upped her scoring average to 16 points for the Rebels, who were undefeated heading into Friday night's PIAA first-round game against Greenville.
"She's just a calming factor," Squeglia said. "Everyone has faith and trust in her."
For the sake of honoring their great-grandfather's legacy, Sean Gibson hopes Naje continues to have faith and trust in their family name. He takes copious notes on her play every game, then shares his critiques on the ride home. The Josh Gibson Foundation focuses on athletics and academics for inner-city kids, and Naje could provide a perfect poster child for its programs.
"The one thing about Naje is she's very focused on basketball. She wants a better life, and she knows basketball can provide that for her," Sean Gibson said. "We've always been brought up and raised that education comes first because you never know what can happen in sports. I've told her to use basketball as an avenue to open other doors. If you don't have your grades, if you don't have your degree, it doesn't mean anything. For me, it's very important to follow her career and make sure she's on the right path."
One that leads to a day where the crowds cheer her name.