ST. LOUIS — There was nothing unusual or out of sorts about Sunday, Jan. 26 for Jayson Tatum and his father Justin Tatum.
Jayson was on the road in New Orleans and Justin was in town for the game, a chance to see his son, one of the league’s rising stars as well as another rising star for the Pelicans, Zion Williamson, who like Jayson was one-and-done at Duke University.
Father and son usually go out somewhere before the game and grab a quick bite to eat.
“We’re creatures of habits,” Justin said.
On this day, it was a quick walk outside the team hotel to Popeye’s Chicken.
As the two sat together talking about anything and everything, Jayson’s phone began to start buzzing … a lot.
And as Justin describes, when he read the messages, there was an awkward, painful silence that moved in like storm clouds on the precipitance of what would soon become a watershed of emotions for Jayson Tatum, who had just learned that his mentor, basketball icon Kobe Bryant, was killed in a helicopter accident along with eight others including Kobe’s 13-year-old daughter, Gigi.
“Everybody knows how much he meant to me,” Tatum told reporters shortly after Kobe’s death. “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."
Tatum added, “it’s been a tough couple of days.”
Justin Tatum has seen his son emotionally moved before, but this … this was different.
“I just (saw) his soul leave,” Justin Tatum told NBC Sports Boston in an exclusive interview. “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.”
As time moves on, there’s a strengthened connectivity that fathers often share with their sons, who steadily make the transition into manhood.
But these are the times when, no matter how Teflon-tough that bond may be, there’s a certain feeling of helplessness for all involved, trying to make sense out of a tragedy whose pain exists on levels few can fathom, let alone fully understand.
“Just seeing my son there, one of my son’s idols, somebody he cared about and loved, passed away abruptly and to see how it affected him … it was tough for me; it was tough for me,” Justin said.
But in what was clearly a time of need and support, Justin takes solace in the fact that they got the news together and he was there to comfort and console Jayson as best he could.
“I was glad I was there to comfort him and just be around him, let him know, Dad is still here, Mom is still here, and knowing that you lost a significant icon in your life,” Justin said.
As the painful silence began to fade away and the two began to talk and process the news, Justin’s message to his son was succinct.
“What you need to do is play through him and do what Kobe would like you to do,” Justin recalled telling Jayson. “And that’s become a great player.”
* * * * *
The news of Kobe’s death came just days before Tatum was selected to his first All-Star team, getting that first nod within his first three years in the league … just like Kobe did.
While most point to the moment Jayson took a picture with Kobe Bryant more than a decade ago as the beginning of their connection, Justin says it began much, much earlier than that.
Back when Tatum was just learning how to play basketball, Justin tried to steer his son towards playing more like Celtics legend Paul Pierce, who played at a slower pace and relied more on footwork than finesse to be an impactful scorer, finishing his career as one of the greatest to ever play for the Celtics.
“He (Jayson) wasn’t hearing it,” Justin recalled. “Once he saw Kobe’s drive, and his work ethic, the way he played the game … it’s tough to get a kid at six years old not to shoot a fadeaway on the block or do Kobe’s move.”
Justin had seen and heard enough about Kobe to know that his success involved him working on his craft non-stop, a message Justin instilled in Jayson at an early age.
“I said, ‘Don’t just pick up his moves, pick up his work ethic. Pick up his demeanor.' ”
Jayson continued to watch Kobe in games, but added video clips of him as well as interviews and commercials to his playlist, soaking it all in.
That was all good, but Justin also implored him to understand that the work Kobe put into all those other things, he also put into his craft to not just be better — but be the best version of himself whenever he stepped on the floor.
“He took that and ran with it,” Justin said. “He (Jayson) said, 'I understand what you meant by that.' Like Kobe, nobody had to beg Kobe to go to the gym or do something extra. I don’t want to do that to you to reach that goal. So Jayson took that. He’s like a sponge. Kobe was a big influence on his life at that time. I’m glad he found something that helped drive him to where he’s at today.”
But the influence of Kobe on Jayson isn’t over.
Tatum’s play has shown dramatic improvement at both ends of the floor, especially his defense which has drawn the praise of many — including San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, who worked with Tatum this past summer when Tatum was a member of the Team USA squad.
“There are very few two-way players in our game,” Popovich, head coach of Team USA, recalled telling Tatum. “And you have the opportunity to be one of them. You could be like Kawhi (Leonard) and Paul (George).”
And there will be many who have contributed to that growth we all have seen in Tatum; among them being the late Kobe Bryant, whose impact on Tatum lives on.
“I think Kobe is going to bring that … competitive nature out of him on the defensive end,” said Justin Tatum. “Offensively, he has it. Just that will to win is something that Kobe has left with him.”
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