Celtics

Celtics

This Friday is Jayson Tatum Day here at NBC Sports Boston. Be sure to check out our exclusive content around Tatum throughout the day, both online and on the broadcast of Celtics-Timberwolves, which begins Friday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 8 p.m. You can also stream it on the MyTeams App.

ST. LOUIS — Jayson Tatum’s dad Justin played professionally overseas. 

His godfather, Larry Hughes, was an NBA lottery pick. 

Jayson has an older cousin, Tyronn Lue, who won an NBA title both as a player with the Los Angeles Lakers and later as a head coach in Cleveland.

Surrounded by such an elite level of basketball achievers, 21-year-old Jayson Tatum becoming an NBA All-Star in his third season should come as a surprise to no one. 

But a deeper dive into Tatum’s basketball ascension shows a young man who constantly found himself being challenged on and off the basketball court to the point where he wanted to quit playing multiple times only to ... uh, be strongly encouraged to stick with it. 

"I used to tell my mom, ‘I’m sick of this; I don’t want to play anymore; I’m quitting,’" Tatum told NBC Sports Boston. "She would be like, ‘No you’re not. I ain’t paying for college.’"

 

Tatum plays the game with a quiet confidence, a confidence that’s rooted in years of being battle-tested on and off the court by his father to the point where both acknowledge at times it put a tremendous strain on their father-son relationship. 

“It was all out of love,” Justin Tatum told NBC Sports Boston in an exclusive interview at Christian Brothers College High School where he coaches. “A lot of people at that time didn’t understand it. They probably thought our relationship was going to break or he wouldn’t like or love me. Now they see why I did it; it’s just tough love. Whether he would go on to become an NBA pro or not, I wanted my son to be prepared for this world.”

THE EARLY YEARS

Jayson Tatum remembers being around 10 or 11 years old when his dad Justin would have him practice three or four days a week with high school players, some of whom were on the varsity team. 

They would block his shots, pick his pockets and show absolutely no mercy on the kid several years their junior. 

Meanwhile, Justin would look on and encourage his high school players to keep going at his son. 

Jayson recalls there being days he would go home in tears, not fully understanding why his father kept putting him in situations where he had little to no chance at success early on. 

But as time moved on, Tatum got bigger. Stronger. Better at keeping his dribble. Better at knocking down shots against stronger, taller, older players. These would all prove to be small but important victories that meant the world to him. 

Justin admits he didn’t relay the pride he was feeling towards Jayson’s accomplishments as much as he could have back then, in part because he wanted Jayson to stay hungry, stay aggressive and continue to evolve as a basketball player whose temperament when playing in Game 54 of the NBA season wouldn’t be all that different than the Conference Finals. 

That’s why he had Tatum playing at the Wohl Recreation Center located in one of the rougher parts of St. Louis, a place that would be the basketball starting point for some of the area's best players like Bradley Beal, who has been a long-time mentor of Tatum.

“That’s where everybody kind of started out,” said Jayson, who has had a free camp at the recreation center since coming into the NBA in addition to donating a new floor for the kids to play on. “It is grimy.”

Jayson credits those pre-teen years of getting roughed up on a daily basis by older, high school-aged players for shaping him into the player he is today.

“They played hard. They made me tougher,” Tatum said. “They didn’t take it easy on me.”

 

The same could be said for his dad, especially when it came to Jayson making mistakes while working out with the high schoolers.

“If they messed up, they would have to run and do drills,” Jayson recalled. “I was only 11, but if I messed up, he would treat me the same; run drills, do suicides (running drills), all that.”

It’s one thing to play against guys that were a few years older, but Jayson showed that he could do some work against grown men who were two and three times his age as well. 

When Jayson was 12 or 13, Justin’s men's league team needed a fill-in player one night. 

“He (Jayson) was like, ‘Am I playing?’” Justin recalled. 

Justin said the plan that game for Jayson was simple. 

“Run the court and shoot threes. That’s all I want you to do,” Justin recalled. “‘You don’t have to get rebounds or nothing. He scored like 20-plus points in the game. Now when I see those guys, they remind me of that time that he was out there shooting those threes, looking confident.”

But things didn’t always go so well for Jayson and his father when it came to basketball. 

STRAINED BUT STRONG FATHER-SON BOND

The way Justin tells the story, Jayson was in the fourth grade at the time and was the best player on his team. 

But the opposing team had more experience and more big, strong bodies to put on the floor. 

When Tatum’s teammates made their way towards the bench at halftime, Justin got a hold of Jayson before he made it over there. 

“I go in the middle of half court, grab him by his jersey, lift him off the ground and I tell him how soft he’s playing and how hard they need him to play to win this game,” Justin recalled. “Now mind you, this is fourth grade. So, your son is bawling, tearing, crying.”

And before he let Jayson go, he told him, ‘we better not lose this game.’

Said Jayson: “My dad was on my ass as a kid, all the time.”

As Justin recalled, Tatum responded by scoring 30 points that night and his team won the game. 

In addition to dropping buckets on the opponent, Tatum did so while dropping buckets of tears up and down the court while shooting, too. 

When I reminded him of that particular game, he grinned, “That used to happen every week. I would be crying, snot coming out my nose. I would be crying the whole second half but getting buckets.”

They both can look back on it and see it as part of the narrative of Jayson’s basketball journey as well as their own personal passage as father and son. 

“It was some growing pains,” Jayson admitted. “There was a point where it was hurting our relationship. I would tell him, ‘I hate you’ and I would say, ‘I quit; it’s not fun anymore.’”

 

That led to some frank conversations with his mother Brandy Cole, whom Tatum would confide in and tell her, ‘I don’t think Daddy likes me.’”

Jayson added, “Like I said, my dad used to be on my ass hard, all the time.”

Justin acknowledges that his brand of tough love may have been a bit much, adding that like most young parents he was trying to figure out on the fly the best way to reach his son and most importantly, get him to best utilize the basketball skills and gifts that he possessed at such an early age. 

“It might have been overboard; I can see that now,” Justin said.

In time, Justin wasn’t nearly as hard on Jayson, and at the same time, Jayson gained a greater understanding of what his father's motives were in pushing him to be the best version of himself at all times. 

“He understands it was love,” Justin said. “It wasn’t dad dislikes you … dad wants you to compete.”

Jayson added, “It took us a while to figure it out.”

KOBE BRYANT

Most of us have seen the picture of a really, really young Jayson Tatum next to Kobe Bryant after a game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

Justin tried to turn his son on to being a Paul Pierce fan at an early age because of Pierce’s footwork and ability to get a good shot off regardless of what a defender tried to do, but Jayson was all in on Kobe Bryant. 

So Justin arranged to get tickets to a Lakers game against Cleveland. Afterwards, Justin was going to get a picture of Jayson with Kobe, an encounter set up by Larry Hughes, who played with Justin at St. Louis University in addition to being Jayson’s godfather.   

“He (Jayson) was glowing the whole time,” Justin recalled. 

Tatum added, “that was big, real big for me.”

That picture became more than just a keepsake for Jayson. 

“That was his motivation,” Justin recalled. “Every time he came back home, he would look at it -- ‘I want to be just like you’ or ‘I want to be better than you and you need to help me …”

As important as Jayson’s parents have been in him being where he’s at today, there’s no question that Kobe left an undeniable imprint on Tatum that remains very much alive in him today. 

Which is why even now, nearly a month since Kobe’s untimely death on Jan. 26, it’s still difficult for Tatum to process that he’s gone. 

“It’s tough, real tough still,” Tatum acknowledged recently. “It’s just hard for me to say much or talk much about it.”

Knowing how Jayson revered Kobe as a kid and to later got a chance to work out with Kobe, the news of his death rocked Jayson to his core unlike anything his father Justin had seen. 

 

That’s why Justin feels fortunate to have been with his son when he got the news of Kobe’s death. 

The Celtics were playing at New Orleans later that night, so the two went out for a bite to eat before the game at a nearby Popeye's. 

At one point in their conversation, Tatum had to look away at his phone, which began buzzing frequently. 

And just like that, the usual chatty banter between father and son had been replaced by a silence as they looked up, stunned and dazed with disbelief that Kobe had died. 

“I just (saw) his soul leave,” said Justin. “Because he thought he heard some news of Kobe’s passing. We both couldn’t believe it. We were energetic, talking the whole time. When we found out, it was just dead silence for the rest of the trip until we found out it was real news.”
 
Nearly a month has passed since Kobe’s death. 

Tatum readily admits the process of coming to grips with Kobe’s death remains a work in progress for him. 
 
“Everybody knows how much he meant to me,” Tatum said. “For somebody I really looked up to and really was like my hero, the reason I started playing basketball to becoming a friend, a mentor, someone I could talk to and help me out with a bunch of things on and off the court.”

There will be a memorial at the Staples Center on Monday -- the day after the Celtics play the Lakers -- and Tatum said he plans to be there. 

It will indeed be an emotional event, with folks reflecting upon their time spent with Kobe. 

But for Tatum and several players in the NBA right now who were influenced by Bryant prior to his death, much of the thinking as far as them honoring Kobe revolves around their play. 

And more than anything, that is how Tatum’s father believes he will continue to process the death of his son’s basketball idol and honor him going forward. 

“The will to win every game, is something that Kobe has left with him,” Justin said. 

BOSTON CELTICS

That will to win will be put to the test in these final weeks of the regular season. 

Boston (38-16) comes out of the All-Star break as the No. 3 seed in the East, trailing Milwaukee and Toronto by 8.0 and 1.5 games, respectively. 

The Celtics have been one of the better teams in the East in part because Tatum has played at a level beyond his years of experience, something he established from the very outset when Boston drafted him in 2017 with the third overall pick. 

His first game ended with him having a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds in a loss at Cleveland.

 

Gordon Hayward’s ankle injury just five minutes into that game meant the roles for many players were about to change -- Tatum included. 

He responded with a strong rookie season, which included playing a pivotal role in Boston advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals. 

And while his numbers were better in Year 2 in many areas, he didn’t make the kind of leaps that he and many fans were banking on. 

Justin acknowledged that Year 2 for his son was a difficult one. 

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More than anything, Tatum’s improved play this season is fueled by the added experience of going through a turbulent season and somehow managing to come out for the better in the end. 

“He learned a lot through that troublesome, unsuccessful year,” Justin said. “I’m glad it happened because we might not have seen his growth this year.”

Growth that was fueled by a talented family of basketball players, tough love from his parents and an insatiable thirst to get better.

And along the way, Tatum has shown signs that there remains plenty of potential growth that remains untapped. 

“Can you imagine five years from now what he’ll be?” said former Celtics head coach and current Los Angeles Clippers coach, Doc Rivers. “He’s one of the better players in this league (now); he’s an All-Star. And yet we’re still talking about how young and how much better he’ll be. It’s gonna be amazing.”