Nothing lost in translation for Gibbs

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After a few NFL tryouts, Jeff Gibbs found success playing basketball in Germany and Japan where he's still a very popular player for Tochigi Brex.
Photo by Yoshiaki Miura, Japan Times

By Ryan Scott

Jeff Gibbs is still playing basketball.

The first thing through my head and out of my mouth when I looked into contacting him for a potential column on rebounding: Jeff Gibbs is still playing basketball. Gibbs, the 6-1 football player who dominated the boards for Otterbein en route to the 2002 national championship, earning the moniker “D3 Charles Barkley,” is still playing basketball.

I received an invitation to my 15-year college reunion last month and Jeff Gibbs is older than I am. In May, Gibbs tore his ACL in the waning seconds of the Japanese League championship game, in which he scored 16 points in the fourth quarter, and once again willed his team to a title. This would’ve been a fitting end to a storied, if unexpected, career, but Jeff Gibbs isn't done playing.

The most amazing thing is that this career almost never happened at all.

“My main sport was always football,” says Gibbs, a tight end on the Otterbein squad during his four years in Westerville, Ohio, where he was a first team All-America selection in 2001. “I had several NFL tryouts and went to the combine, but it didn’t work out.”

Gibbs went home to Columbus and worked for the local school district for a year and for a painting company in the summers. “That’s where I was when I got the call,” says Gibbs. “A team in the second division in Germany had some problems with their American and they had a spot open and did I want to try out. I didn’t have an agent. I didn’t even have a passport.”

After an expedited passport arrived in the mail, Gibbs set off for Germany and has never looked back. Two seasons in the second division were followed by four in the top flight, where Gibbs led the league in rebounding every season. “I know I’m a good rebounder,” says Gibbs. “But I didn’t expect to lead the league.”

The rest of the league took notice, too, and when one of his rival’s coaches got a job in Japan, Gibbs was first on his list of imports. “He told me one day, ‘I’m going to Japan and you’re coming with me.’ He didn’t ask or tell me to think about it. He said, ‘you’re coming with me.’ Salaries are better in Asia and at the time I was looking for a payday.”

Gibbs didn’t plan to spend much time in Asia before heading back to a higher-profile gig in Europe, but he fell in love with Japan and they fell in love with him, too. Now entering his seventh season, Gibbs has enjoyed the competition and challenge of being a foreigner in a league with very few spots for non-Japanese players.

“The competition level is a little better in Europe,” says Gibbs. “But that’s because of the limits on imports in Japan. We can only have three per team and there’s limits to how many can be on the court – one in the first quarter, two in the second, one in the third, and two in the fourth. There’s 60 minutes for three players.”

This creates a near constant battle to keep one’s job, as there’s always another foreigner looking to take your spot, making it even more impressive that a 37-year old could remain a dominant figure, let alone one who plays inside at 6-1 (“6-2 with shoes,” adds Gibbs. Gibbs was listed by Otterbein as 6-4 on its basketball roster, and 6-3 in football).

As you can see in highlight videos on YouTube, Gibbs is a compact player who doesn’t immediately stand out on the court – that is until you see him flying to the rim for a dunk or blocking a shot or boxing out two guys at once.

“In Japan,” says Gibbs, “most of the imports are tall post players. They get a wake-up call when I’m grabbing ten on them and blocking their shots.”

Those skills were on display during the 2002 NCAA Tournament, which Gibbs and Otterbein ended up dominating, but that wasn’t the expectation going into the season.

“We were picked to finish sixth in the conference,” says Gibbs, with a near encyclopedic memory. “We had three seniors and a bunch of freshmen and sophomores, no juniors. The first weekend we were playing a tournament and found out the team was pretty good, then we started rolling. We only had three losses that year: one game I didn’t play because I was in the football all-star game and the other two were just one point losses.”

There are often masterful individual performances that propel teams to titles, but rarely are they done in such a dominating statistical fashion.

“The sectional semifinal was our toughest game against Randolph-Macon,” says Gibbs, rattling off 16-year-old statistics as if they just happened yesterday. “I fouled out in 19 minutes. I told the team ‘I’ll never put you guys in this situation again.’ I fulfilled my promise to my team. In the next game against DePauw I went for 37 and 24; 30 and 15 in the national semifinals; and then 25 and 25 in the championship game.”

Gibbs is certainly not your prototypical rebounder, but he remains tied for second all-time in Division III for rebounds with 1,496. “I have long arms,” says Gibbs. “A seven-foot wingspan and I got my jumping ability from my dad. I’ve always loved Charles Barkley and I modeled my game after his.”

This is a stark contrast to Division III’s current rebounding king, Cabrini senior Tyheim Monroe, who's a lanky 6-6 forward also known to hit a few outside shots. Monroe recently topped 1,300 rebounds. At his current pace, it will take only two conference tournament games to reach 1,500. Although the career mark of 1,628 by Hamilton’s Michael Smith is probably beyond reach, Monroe is poised to have the highest single-season rebound total since 1978.

Of course, those records may only stand until the next Gibbs comes along. “This is the first Christmas I won’t spend with my family,” says Gibbs, whose wife and children have traveled with him throughout his career. “My son is in seventh grade and he made the basketball team and it’s not fair to take that away from him.”

As his children grow up, Gibbs is looking to the finish line of a remarkable career. “If he’s not playing varsity as a freshman, I’ll do one more year, but definitely by his 10th grade year I’ll call it quits.” The Gibbs family has moved back to Westerville and Gibbs hopes to spend his “retirement” years helping out his alma mater. “I’d like to get into coaching.”

As we reflect back on 20 years of, Jeff Gibbs remains one of the dominant personalities, named to the All-Decade second team, and the epitome of a Division III story – the undersized guy with a big heart and all the talent in the world.

Says Gibbs, “I don’t know what I would’ve done if I didn’t play basketball. It’s given me an incredible career, great experiences, and an incredible life. I’m just thankful I got that phone call.”

I think the rest of us are, too.

Taysean Scott update

Last May, after appearing with his Williams teammates in the Final Four in Salem, senior guard Taysean Scott had an accident in his Williamstown, Mass. home and suffered a severe brain injury. Many of us were informed through a gofundme page set up in his name, which raised almost $70,000 to help with medical expenses.

Scott spent ten days in a coma and an additional month in the hospital before beginning rehab. He has made an almost full recovery and plans to finish up his remaining coursework this spring and graduate from Williams as he’d planned to do last year. Currently back home in Maryland and undergoing therapy to restore speech and motor function, Scott wishes to express thanks to the Division III, Williams, and NESCAC communities for supporting him through this ordeal.

“I haven’t really had the opportunity to thank everyone, but I want to thank all of them, because they made so much happen for me and if they weren’t a part of this process, things would be a lot different. I want everyone to know I’m ok and I’m on the right path to getting back to where I used to be.”

When Scott does finally get that degree, he hopes to move into coaching, where he can give back to others what he’s received from the game. While Scott may not have had a huge presence on the stat sheet during games, he was front and center during Williams’ run as a senior leader and captain. We wish him the best and look forward to seeing him on the sidelines somewhere in the years to come. 

Ryan Scot

Ryan Scott serves as the lead columnist for and previously wrote the Mid-Atlantic Around the Region column in 2015 and 2016. He's a long-time D-III basketball supporter and former player currently residing in Middletown, Del., where he serves as a work-at-home dad, doing freelance writing and editing projects. He has written for multiple publications across a wide spectrum of topics. Ryan is a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College.
Previous columnists:
2014-16: Rob Knox
2010-13: Brian Falzarano
2010: Marcus Fitzsimmons
2008-2010: Evans Clinchy
Before 2008: Mark Simon