6,545 miles separate Columbus, Ohio from Tokyo, Japan.
Jeff Gibbs has been playing basketball for Utsunomiya Brex since 2016. For 17 years, he has overcome doubts about his size to become one of the most dominant post players in his league. He has won multiple championships and individual accolades, at both the collegiate and professional levels.
Chances are, you’ve never heard of him.
“Especially me being a post player – only 6’2″ – that’s extra motivation,” says Gibbs, who has competed for most of his career as a power forward. “I’m going up against guys that are 7, 9 inches taller than me.”
Growing up within minutes of Ohio State University, Gibbs was not immediately a basketball prodigy. His family initially thought he’d be a football player.
But basketball is where Gibbs found his ultimate niche.
“Once I saw the way Charles Barkley played, I was like: I want to play basketball just like him,” recalls Gibbs.
Barkley was a star player at a D1 university and enjoyed one of the most successful careers in NBA history. For Gibbs, the road has not been nearly as predictable.
He enjoyed a stellar collegiate hoops career at Otterbein University, where his team won the 2002 Division III national championship. Before leaving the school as one of its all-time leading scorers and rebounders, he picked up a National Player of the Year honor as well.
A year later, Gibbs left basketball to pursue a career in the NFL.
Despite Gibbs’ immense success, he has always remained humble as can be.
“I don’t like all the accolades and anything like that,” he remarks. “I’m just happy to play the game.”
A Heart To Outmatch His Size
In the early 2000’s, the Sioux Falls SkyForce were a member of the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association.
They were holding a tryout for prospects, and Gibbs’s former college teammate helped him land a spot in the intrasquad scrimmage.
To say he dominated would be an understatement.
“In 20 minutes, I had 16 points and 10 rebounds,” Gibbs recalls of his performance in Sioux Falls.
“I led the entire game with 10 rebounds and played less minutes than all of the post players.”
Soon after the scrimmage, the SkyForce coaching staff informed Gibbs that he would be cut. The league wanted much taller players for his position. That was the moment Gibbs decided that he’d be “the best 6’2’ post player that I can possibly be.”
Doubt about his size has followed Gibbs across the world.
When he played in The Basketball Tournament for Carmen’s Crew, his opponents often were confused about his true position. Many teams would start games asking a guard to defend him.
“OK, that’s the wrong time to put a guard on me. I’m a post player,” Gibbs laughs.
“So that’s when teams started to realize that I’m not a guard…so [the defense] needs to get a bigger guy on me.”
Gibbs thrives on competing against players that tower over him. During one game in Japan, he almost had the opportunity to take on Hasheem Thabeet, a 7’3” center and former number two overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft.
Gibbs did not play in the anticipated matchup. He was out rehabbing an Achilles injury that he suffered in May 2016.
Yet he was back dunking a basketball just four months later.
Entering the 2020 NFL season, there were just six players that hailed from Division III colleges.
Recent research published by the NCAA shows that less than 2% of NCAA football players will go on to play at the professional level. With most of these players coming from powerhouse FBS universities, it’s no surprise to see a severe lack of Division III representation in the NFL.
Jeff Gibbs did his best to change that narrative. He was a star tight end and three-time all-conference selection for Otterbein’s football team. In 2001, he was named an All-American.
After college, Gibbs landed tryouts with multiple NFL teams. He attended the league’s annual scouting combine, passed the threshold required to be considered a legitimate prospect, and was on his way to entering the professional ranks.
Coaches even remarked on his “great hands and speed” during workouts.
But they overlooked Gibbs because of his size, which has been a theme throughout his athletic career. Told he was too small to play in the NFL, he settled back home in Ohio and took up a job as a painter.
A year later, Gibbs received a call that would change his career forever.
Across The Pond
“Jeff, this team from Germany – they’re here in the States, right now, they’re about to play East [High School].”
It was Gibbs’ former Otterbein teammate on the other line.
A team in Germany’s second-division was playing against Gibbs’ high school alma mater in Columbus. The team had regulations on the number of international imports allowed on the roster and was having trouble with their current American player.
Gibbs checked with his boss, who gave him the OK to attend the tryout.
“I showed out for the team, and hadn’t played basketball in a while, maybe a couple months,” says Gibbs.
The German team offered Gibbs a spot on their roster, after about an hour of seeing him on the court.
With an expedited passport and little knowledge of Germany, he traveled to Ehigen, a small town in the southern part of the country. But shortly after arriving in Europe, Gibbs had second thoughts.
His wife was pregnant at the time and Gibbs needed a mental reset.
After averaging 23 points and 13 rebounds in just two initial games for the club, he was invited back for the following season.
Gibbs would go on to lead the league in rebounding for four consecutive seasons during his seven-year stint in Germany.
A Global Game
After his playing career, Gibbs aspires to be a coach – in either football or basketball – back at Otterbein. As a father of four kids, he wants to help them in their own athletic pursuits. They all play basketball now, too.
He hopes to stay in Ohio. But playing internationally for much of his career, Gibbs has not always had the luxury of a comfortable place to call “home”.
“When I got to Japan, the most difficult obstacle for me was the language barrier,” Gibbs recalls about adjusting to yet another new living situation.
“Luckily I was in Tokyo, where most of [my teammates] spoke English. So that made it a little bit better. I had an American coach. But me venturing out to other places in Japan, that’s when it got more difficult.”
Now playing his 11th year in Japan, he has made inroads in picking up aspects of the Japanese language. While the language barrier still remains somewhat of an obstacle to him, he’s able to understand conversations and has been helped out by teammates.
Others have since followed in Gibbs’ footsteps to play basketball in Japan.
“The B-League has come a long way since I first got here. Now you have guys from Spain, Serbia, the Philippines. So [the league] is trying to broaden their horizons of attracting more players from around the world.”
No matter the time zone, Gibbs has found success at each stop of his career.
He won a championship in Germany. In Japan, he took home the Emperor’s Cup – one of the highest achievements in Japanese basketball.
His drive for greatness is second to none.
On May 27, 2016, Gibbs suffered an Achilles injury while playing in Japan. He would soon go back to Ohio for a surgical procedure, but a rigorous rehab process lay ahead.
For some NBA players receiving around-the-clock medical treatment, recovery time can take around a year. In 2019, Kevin Durant ruptured his Achilles tendon and missed his entire first season as a Brooklyn Net.
Gibbs was back playing basketball just seven months after the injury. He was a few weeks shy of his 36th birthday.
By sending video clip updates to his team in Japan, he allowed them to monitor his recovery.
“A lot of the players around the league couldn’t believe that I was back so soon,” he remembers.
“Because of what I’ve been able to do at my age, they’re like, ‘You’re built differently than everyone else.’ It was a different mentality of me tearing it and then me trying to come back.”
Prove Everyone Wrong
The underdog mentality has resonated with Gibbs for much of his career. Often overlooked but always one to outwork the opposition, he is a textbook definition of what it means to give 100%.
Despite humble beginnings at a small Division III university, he emerged as one of the best two-sport student-athletes in Otterbein history. He was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2008.
“For all these kids out there that want to get these D1 scholarships, I tell them ‘Don’t go where you’re not wanted,’” warns Gibbs. “A lot of these coaches, if they don’t want you, go somewhere else.”
“A lot of good players are playing in these lower-level leagues. Devean George played for the Lakers, D3 guy.”
Tom Brady played in his tenth Super Bowl at the age of 43. Coming out of Michigan, he was considered a fringe NFL prospect and was famously selected late in the NFL draft.
Just like Brady, the once-upon-a-time overlooked prospect, Gibbs is writing his own inspirational chapter in a lengthy career.
“I didn’t let me being too small get my hopes down,” Gibbs says.
“I tell all these guys to go out there and be the best person you can be. Prove everybody wrong. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past seventeen years overseas.”
“Go out there, prove yourself, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do anything. If you set your mind to something, you can do anything you want.”
Author’s Note: A big thank you to Jeff for taking the time to interview with Joker Mag. You can hear more from him by following him on Twitter.