You couldn't blame their skepticism. This bald-headed guy in his 50s wearing cargo shorts pops out of his car on Kingsessing Avenue, starts into this spiel. Mike Gibson looks more like a process server than some kind of Basketball Angel. He happens to be both, which is why he was in Southwest Philadelphia this week, dropping off complaints and subpoenas for municipal court, plus some basketballs out of his trunk.
Vahiem Smith-Myers and Tatiana Nixon knew none of this when Gibson jumped out of his car. They were headed for Francis Myers playground. Smith-Myers was dribbling a ball that looked as worn as the sidewalk.
"What's up guys?" Gibson said as he crossed the street toward them. "Going to play ball?"
They took a slow step or two away from him, until his next words stopped them. Want a new ball? That was the pitch, no strings attached. Gibson explained a little about his 6th Man Project, which is really just him and the donated basketballs in his trunk.
This all began last November when Gibson had been buying a case of beer at his distributor in the Northeast. There had been a hoop promotion that included a couple of basketballs. The guy at the counter knew Gibson was into hoops. (He's the public address announcer at Father Judge basketball and football games.) He said sure, threw the balls in his trunk.
Soon after Gibson was trying to serve a complaint in West Philadelphia when he noticed a couple of boys right across the street playing on a miniature toy rim on the porch of their row home.
"They had a ball that was pretty much like a kickball," Gibson said.
He brought out his two balls and remembers asking their mom if he could take their photo.
"Driving away, I pull over and look at my phone, look at the picture, these smiles jumping off the screen," Gibson said. "I got a little emotional. 'Wow, that is cool.' "
If one random act produced legit smiles and made him feel that good, why couldn't he keep doing it? Call it the yin to the yang that Gibson usually gets when he's trying to drop off his court documents. (He doesn't know if that one guy had gone back in his house to get a gun but he was sure acting like it.)
Gibson started a 6th Man Project Facebook page, and the word spread. Nobody has turned down a ball yet. At this point, he's gotten 550 balls donated, figures he's given out about 450. He had nine in his trunk the other day as he drove around Southwest Philly before starting his other work.
"I wouldn't have been able to do this if I had regular job where I was in an office," Gibson said. "I tell my boss about it. 'I'm really not taking any time.' He said, 'You're not even taking lunch. I could care less.' "
He drove past the corner of 65th and Chester.
"This is where my uncle's bar used to be," Gibson said.
Once he drove past kids in North Philly shooting into a recycling tub with the bottom ripped off. He for sure pulled over that time, gave them three balls.
"Sometimes I'll be parked, they'll come out of their house, they'll have an old ball," Gibson said. "It's like, 'Do they know I'm here?' The ball looks like they found it in the trash and tried to dribble it. … My thing is, it sounds corny — here they are, they're going to be busy for the next couple of hours. They've got a new ball."
As he talked, Gibson passed a schoolyard where children were out during recess but he couldn't see a basketball rim so he kept driving. He started toward St. Barnabas playground when he came upon John Patterson Elementary School at 70th and Buist. More kids on the playground, and a couple of portable rims. There were a few basketballs but if it looked like they were bought at Five Below, it turns out they were.
"I'm going around the other side," Gibson said as he slowed the car. "I think we can get closer."
He pulled onto the sidewalk by the back fence. He called over to the closest adult (whose first thought, she admitted, was to keep this man away from the children; that was before he explained himself). She called over an aide, who called down to the main office. The next thing Gibson knew he was in the office. He explained to principal Kenneth Jessup that he was looking to give them some free basketballs, for recess or after school.
"Whoa," Jessup said. "Who you with?"
"It's called the 6th Man Project," Gibson said. "It's just myself. Since November I've had friends give me basketballs. We give out them to random places, playgrounds, schools, rec centers."
"You just walk around and arbitrarily give out balls?" Jessup said.
"Yep, that's pretty much it,"' Gibson said. "That's how it started, see if we can replace a couple here or there."
"I'm not going to stop you,'' Jessup said.
In fact, they're about to build a new playground at the K-4 school, with permanent rims planned.
"We drag them out every day," Jessup said. "You can see how beat up they are."
He told a story about one time the portable rims were somehow stolen, but word got around the neighborhood and they mysteriously reappeared.
Gibson, 56, explained that he had gone to first and second grade at Most Blessed Sacrament at 56th and Chester before his family moved from Ruby Street to the Northeast.
"This is actually my favorite spot to give out balls," Gibson said of Southwest, "because there's a connection."
Leaving the school after dropping off three balls, Gibson saw a teenager in a St. Barnabas jersey. His late cousin Jim had gone there. That's why he'd wanted to stop by there, and here was this kid in this shirt. He yelled across the street. Turns out Shaquille Clarke plays basketball at Boys Latin. He had just walked to a nearby place to pay his cell phone bill. Want a ball? Of course.
"It makes you think of kids differently," Gibson said of this kind of interaction. "He's walking to pay his phone bill. That's pretty responsible."
Gibson had played freshman ball at Judge, he said, but was cut after that. His class, he said, went 62-2 between four years of freshman, JV and varsity ball. Gibson went on to coach 18 years of rec and CYO ball, he said, assisted at St. Hubert's for a couple of years, then was head coach at Hallahan for two years, 2007-09.
"I loved it, but time-wise, I have more time to do grade school if I ever get back into it," Gibson said. "I didn't have time. As much as I like the game, I really didn't like it every day, and that's not a good thing."
He'll talk hoops with anyone, though. Josh Jackson is his choice for Sixers draft pick. He was calling him Julius Erving 2.0 on Facebook, which got some pushback.
"I would love to know what they said about Dr. J coming out of college," Gibson said. "I know it wasn't like now, the scouting. But they probably would have said, can't shoot, doesn't defend.' "
Facebook has been a main source of basketball donations. A sporting goods store basically gives him balls for half price. Jimmy Dillon, former Notre Dame guard and new coach at Nazareth Academy, donated 45 used balls that are perfect for outdoor use. A friend of a friend gave him $1,000. A referee, Pat Tobler, came over with two balls before a Judge game. Gibson said Union goalkeeper John McCarthy and his father want to do something similar with soccer balls. His response: "The more copycats the better."
"We appreciate it,"' Jessup, the school principal, had told him, and had joked about being greedy, looking for balls in all the other sports, too. "We really appreciate it."
Driving along Kingsessing, about time to start his real job, Gibson spotted Smith-Myers and Nixon and their old ball.
"That's what I like to see," Gibson said he slowed. "They're going to play. I'm not trying to convince them."
After they crossed the street, a little crowd formed on the sidewalk, skepticism gone. By the time Gibson pulled out, his trunk was free of basketballs and Smith-Myers had taken off on a fastbreak for the playground.