LAS VEGAS — Jayson Tatum offered a sly grin while he pondered the question about his Team USA jersey number but his conscience wouldn’t let him tell a fib.
"I could lie and say I picked it for my man Paul [Pierce] but I didn’t. They gave it to me,” Tatum said of the No. 34 on his training camp jersey. “I don’t know if it was on purpose or a coincidence, but I like 34.”
When Team USA released its numeric roster before the start of this week’s training camp in Las Vegas, the number choices for Tatum and Jaylen Brown (33) left many Celtics fans wondering if the young guys were offering subtle nods to a couple of Celtics legends.
It turns out that none of the Celtics in Vegas picked their own jersey number.
"I don’t know, it just kinda happened,” said Brown. "But it’s an honor just to have the jersey, in general.”
Was Brown aware that Celtics fans thought he chose No. 33 for Bird, who, ironically, wore No. 7 — Brown’s regular-season number — for the 1992 Dream Team?
"Absolutely. And it’s a very very great feeling to be attached to that,” said Brown. "I’m just happy to have a jersey at all. Just come out, play the best version of myself, and compete against these guys, and show that I can play at a high level, too.”
Marcus Smart is wearing No. 40 at camp. Asked why he chose that, he laughed and responded, “I didn’t.” Kemba Walker pulled at his No. 26 jersey and joked, “Oh, this isn’t my number.” Hey, at least 2+6 = his new Celtics jersey No. 8 (which, of course, once belonged to Antoine Walker).
A Team USA spokesman said that jersey numbers are randomly assigned, typically with sizing considerations. Those in training camp this year range from Kyle Kuzma at No. 21 to Khris Middleton with No. 57 (one of five players in the 50s).
As Walker hinted, USA Basketball assigns the final 12-man roster numbers ranging from 4 to 15. FIBA allows teams to wear numbers outside that range but Team USA has maintained the tradition of that lower range to keep with the legacy of past teams, according to a spokesman.
Tatum spent time with Pierce in his rookie season and later declared he wanted to be “the next Paul Pierce,” by spending his entire career in Boston. The significance of wearing No. 34 is not lost on him, regardless of who decided on those digits.
“[Pierce] was one of the best players ever,” said Tatum. "Obviously, top 2 Celtics [scorer] of all-time. And somebody I admire.”
Celtics fans should hope Tatum’s Team USA experience goes better than Pierce’s did. Team USA settled for a disastrous sixth-place finish in the 2002 FIBA World Championships, games that were held on U.S. soil, no less. That year, a starless roster struggled and Team USA’s 58-game international winning streak was snapped while some of the league’s top stars did not participate due to injury or simply seeking rest.
The 2019 squad has likewise seen much of its star power elect to sit out this year, opening the door for younger players like Brown and Tatum to take center stage.
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