MIAMI — An emotional Jayson Tatum called Kobe Bryant his “hero” and credited him with being the reason that Tatum first gravitated to basketball.
Speaking to reporters for the first time since Bryant’s tragic death in a helicopter crash on Sunday, a hushed Tatum tried to put into words what Bryant meant to him, first as someone he idolized as a kid and later a mentor on his NBA journey.
"It meant the world. Everybody knows how much he meant to me,” Tatum said at Boston’s morning shootaround inside AmericanAirlines Arena. "He was somebody I really looked up to, and really was like my hero, the reason I started playing basketball. To becoming a friend and mentor, somebody who I could talk to and help me out with a bunch of things, on and off the court. It's been a tough couple of days.”
Tatum politely declined to chat with reporters in the immediate aftermath of the news on Sunday while the team was in New Orleans. He posted a series of tributes on social media and expanded on his relationship with Bryant on Tuesday.
"It was such a surreal moment, for me. Just being in his presence, and being able to work with him,” said Tatum. "Even in that moment, all I could think about was he was the reason I started playing basketball. To have him reach out and try to help me, and want to work with me, was something I will never forget.”
What was it about Bryant’s game that hooked Tatum?
"Everything. How hard he worked, his compassion, his drive, his work ethic to be the best,” said Tatum. "It just made me fall in love with him, and the game. I loved everything about him. The way he carried himself. He was special.”
Tatum still expressed disbelief that Bryant even wanted to work with him. The summer sessions became a punchline at times when Tatum settled for low-percentage mid-range shots in his sophomore season but Tatum repeatedly pushed back against that suggestion, stressing how important those sessions with Bryant were in his development.
"It was everything, just for him to reach out and want to help,” said Tatum. "He didn’t have to. After he retired, he had his family and everything else he was invested in, so I was greatly appreciative of the time I got to spend with him, and things like that.”
Tatum was asked what Bryant’s legacy should be and pointed to Bryant the family man.
“Obviously, everybody knows how great of a basketball player he was, the tremendous things he did on the court,” said Tatum. "After he retired, you could really see how much he loved his family, his wife, his kids, how much he enjoyed being around them and spending time with them. I guess just how great of a father he was. I think people should shine light on that more.”
Tatum missed the first two games of this three-game road trip while dealing with a right groin strain suffered in a win over Memphis on Wednesday. He was listed as doubtful for Tuesday night and said he’d see how he was feeling, but Celtics coach Brad Stevens suggested Tatum was unlikely to play Tuesday.
“He worked really hard [Monday] and looked like he made good progress,” said Stevens. “Obviously, with that type of an injury you have to be very careful."
Said Tatum: " I love this game. Sitting out is tough. I definitely want to get back out there. … “I feel a lot better. Each day, just working towards it.”
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