- Senior writer for ESPN.com
- Spent seven years at the Los Angeles Daily News
- Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. She previously wrote for The Kansas City Star and The Omaha World-Herald.
JON SCHEYER HAS done enough recruiting to know how ridiculous this story sounds, but he swears every word of it is true.
It was 2013. Scheyer was 25 years old and just getting started as a special assistant at Duke. One weekend in July, with Mike Krzyzewski off coaching Team USA, Scheyer was dispatched to an AAU tournament outside Chicago to watch a player they’d offered a scholarship to the week before, a sharpshooter named Luke Kennard.
Scheyer’s job, essentially, was to show up and make sure Kennard saw him in the stands. But as a wide-eyed novice on his first road trip, Scheyer couldn’t help but take a look around.
That’s when he saw Jayson Tatum.
“I’ll never forget it,” says Scheyer, who became Duke’s head coach this spring after Krzyzewski retired. “All the courts were right next to each other. Luke was on Court 3. So as I’m walking into the gym, the games are going on beforehand, and on Court 1, I’m walking through and I stop and I look, and I see this skinny 6-7 kid, who has the biggest baby face you’ve ever seen, just dominating. …
“From that point on, it was my mission. I felt like he belonged [at] Duke.”
Scheyer had enough self-awareness to know he might have been getting a little ahead of himself. Who spots a future NBA superstar 10 minutes into his first recruiting trip? But he did his best to convince Krzyzewski and the rest of the staff that the 15-year-old wing was special. Eventually, he established a rapport with the family, and soon Tatum’s mom, Brandy Cole, was texting Scheyer after Tatum’s high school games, typing things such as, “He needs to f—ing rebound!”
The Blue Devils wound up winning the 2015 national championship, and a few days later, Scheyer, Krzyzewski and associate head coach Jeff Capel traveled to Tatum’s 900-square-foot home in University City, a suburb of St. Louis. Cole made her famous tacos, and the Bud Lights flowed. It was the first and last time Scheyer had seen Krzyzewski drink beer — “he’s a big wine guy.”
Krzyzewski was giving his pitch, he was rolling, and Tatum was so overcome with nerves that he didn’t say a thing.
Eventually his dad, Justin Tatum, chimed in.
“Just so we’re clear,” he told them, “he’s coming.”
The coaches’ jaws dropped, Scheyer says. By then, Krzyzewski had recognized what Scheyer had seen in that fieldhouse in Chicago, and it was a victory to bring him to Durham.
“He has such an inner belief in himself,” Scheyer says. “You can’t teach that.”
Everyone who knows Tatum seems to come back to this. He might be naturally gifted, he might work on his game obsessively, but what seems to distinguish him in the biggest moments — and there have been many during these playoffs as he’s led the Boston Celtics to their first NBA Finals in 12 years — is his belief in himself.
It’s not something he outwardly shows; about the closest you’d get to anything loud from Jayson Tatum was the fashion-forward pink-and-patterned multicolored jacket he wore to Chase Center for Game 1 of the Finals, which are tied 1-1 as the series with the Golden State Warriors heads to Boston for Game 3 (9 p.m. ET, ABC and on the ESPN App). But the conviction is there, and it has been built as solidly as his game in large part by a woman who gave up her own dreams so that Tatum could live out his.
BRANDY COLE COULD not bring herself to tell her mom she was pregnant. She was 18 years old and supposed to go to college and play volleyball. Kristie Jursch had Brandy when she was she was young, and reared her as a single mom. She wanted more for her daughter, and Cole knew it.
So she kept the pregnancy to herself as long as she could, trying to figure out the right way to broach the subject with her mom. She knew the glances that the news eventually would bring from others — Poor Brandy. She’s ruined her life — and was determined to prove them wrong.
“I just didn’t want to be a statistic,” she says. “I didn’t want to take a semester off because I was afraid I would never go back. I just put my head down and I just dug it out the whole way.”
But when Cole was 3½ months pregnant, her body forced the issue. She collapsed from anemia while working at the photo counter at a Walgreens. She was in college by now, but still couldn’t tell her mom at the hospital and asked a friend to do it. Jursch walked in to the room and hugged her daughter. “We’ll get through this,” Jursch told her.
Jursch cried for about a week, then showered that baby with love. Cole would be sleeping, and she’d pull the covers off and start talking to her daughter’s belly. “My mom loved really hard,” Cole says. But Cole was independent. She didn’t want Jayson calling her mama “mama.” She wanted him to grow up knowing she was his mom.
Shortly after Jayson was born, Cole left home. She knew her mom would want them to stay, so they slipped out when Jursch went to work. Cole was determined to do this on her own. And it was a struggle while she was juggling work, school and motherhood.
“There was a time we didn’t have any heat in the wintertime and we would have to turn the stove on to try and heat the house,” Tatum says. “I was sleeping in bed with my mom, ’cause we had one space heater, and we had to close the door.”
They were in it together in every sense. Cole brought Jayson with her to class, then did homework at night after she put him to bed.
His dad, a forward for Saint Louis University, played overseas after college. He was the first one to put a basketball in Jayson’s hands when he was a baby. By elementary school, when Jayson was telling people he was going to play in the NBA, it was kindly suggested he develop a backup plan.
“I would always tell them, ‘I don’t. I don’t have one. I’m going to make this work regardless of who thinks so or not, or the circumstances,'” Tatum says. “If I don’t, it’s either this or die. Nothing else matters.”
When Jayson was 13, Cole wanted him to train with Drew Hanlen, a St. Louis-based 21-year-old former college basketball player-turned-training guru. Hanlen was working with Bradley Beal, who’d committed to Florida and would soon be the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft. Cole begged Hanlen to train her son, but there was one problem: Hanlen didn’t work with middle school players.
She reached out to Beal, whose mom, Besta, happened to have been her volleyball coach in high school. Beal put in a good word for Jayson. Though they were five grades apart, Beal would work out with him and give Jayson rides. Whenever Cole tried to repay Beal with whatever she could, be it gas money or a gift card for Imo’s pizza, he would say, “Stop it. That’s my little bro.”
Beal’s recommendation meant something to Hanlen, but what moved him even more was Cole. She said she’d take out a loan to pay for the training; whatever it would take, as long as he gave her son a chance to prove he was worthy.
“That to me was when I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to train this kid because I see how much his mom is willing to do anything and everything for Jayson,” Hanlen says.
But she didn’t want handouts. Her son would work for everything. There was one point she was firm on: Nothing would be given to her or her son. Not free lessons, not opportunities he didn’t earn. She didn’t want to owe anyone anything.
“She always believed that I would get to where I am,” Tatum says. “And she never wanted somebody to have something to hold over my head. That was something that always stuck with me — if my mom couldn’t get it for me, then we just had to go without, and we would figure it out.”
That first session, Hanlen worked Jayson so hard he had to leave the gym twice because he was about to vomit. The second one, he brought in Scott Suggs, who was playing for the University of Washington. He says Suggs “destroyed” him in a game of one-on-one, and Hanlen was watching the 13-year-old, wondering how he’d respond to adversity.
Hanlen focused on Jayson’s mental game. Cole wanted her son to have humility; Hanlen was trying to make him a steely-eyed, arrogant winner. “I kept telling her even as a freshman, ‘He’s got to be an a–hole,'” Hanlen says, “And she was like, ‘No, I want my baby to be a humble star.’
“Junior year in high school, Jayson loses the state championship. And he had got a technical for dunking on somebody, hanging on the rim, and it was just really the ref kind of screwed him over, but they end up losing — that’s the point that matters. And after he lost the game, Brandy’s first thing is ‘Yo’– because we didn’t think he was aggressive enough — and she goes, ‘Man, turn him into an arrogant a–hole.'”
WHEN A DRAFT pick sneaks up on you, makes a bold move seem like an obvious choice, history is not always kind to the teams that come out on the wrong end of it. In the case of Tatum and the 2017 draft, the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers are left to rue their decisions.
The Celtics had the No. 1 pick, but traded down with Philadelphia, which coveted University of Washington guard Markelle Fultz. (They used the first pick to select Fultz). The Lakers sat at No. 2, and were fixated on UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball. They didn’t even bring Tatum in for a workout. The reasons for these decisions are painful to revisit for those who made them, and somewhat lost to history because the principals — Bryan Colangelo (Philadelphia) and Magic Johnson (Lakers) — are no longer in their roles.
Tatum saw them as slights and used them as motivation.
“The Lakers were my favorite team, and Kobe was my favorite player,” says Tatum, who wore a purple No. 24 wristband to honor Bryant in Boston’s win against the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. “So it was crazy that the Lakers had the second pick and I was so close to a dream come true. But it was just like they didn’t want anything to do with me at the time.”
The Sixers at least worked him out, but simply preferred Fultz’s skill set — he was seen as a better shooter and passer — to pair with their budding young stars, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
And at the time, many draft analysts saw it as a sound decision. Meanwhile, the Celtics turned some heads when they let it be known they had Tatum rated as the top player in the draft the whole time.
Out of high school, Tatum had been the 2016 Gatorade National Player of the Year. But he fell out of any No. 1 discussions when he missed the first month of his freshman season at Duke because of a foot injury.
“You miss the first part of the season, that’s when you’re getting a feel for the speed of the game and the spacing, and there’s an adjustment period that’s there,” Scheyer says. “But really, the last six weeks of the season, he was the best player in the country, and I don’t think it was even close. I think people just got caught up with [what happened] earlier in the season.”
But Danny Ainge, then the general manager of the Celtics, had gone to New York in March to watch Tatum play in the ACC tournament. He saw him score 24 points in a win against North Carolina and collect 19 points and eight rebounds in a victory over Notre Dame for the championship.
For a while, Ainge had strongly considered Fultz as the top player — everybody did. Then, according to a league source, Fultz came in for a workout, missed numerous shots and didn’t seem healthy.
It made Ainge think hard about Tatum, especially after the Celtics worked him out in Los Angeles. Long considered a midrange shooter, Tatum, who’d worked with Hanlen on his perimeter game, impressed the Celtics by sinking 3-pointer after 3-pointer. Up close, he was bigger and could make a variety of shots in different ways.
The only question was whether to take him No. 1, or roll the dice on a trade with Philadelphia or L.A., bet that they wouldn’t take Tatum and pick up another asset.
“After my workout, I remember one of the [Boston] scouts came up to me and said, ‘That was a great workout. I’m excited for you. But we got the No. 1 pick, so we’re not going to pick you,” Tatum says with a laugh. “He still works for the Celtics now, so I f— with him all the time.”
The scout, whom Tatum politely declined to name, can laugh about that comment now. So can former Sixers coach Brett Brown. Well, sort of.
After the Celtics swept the Sixers in the first round of the 2020 playoffs, Brown, according to league sources, passed Tatum in the hallway on his way to the bus. He complimented Tatum on how his game had developed and noted all of his hard work.
Tatum appreciated it. Both of them knew how different their careers might have turned out had the Sixers gone another way in 2017, but there was no reason to dwell on it. Brown simply ended the conversation by telling Tatum that Philadelphia’s mistake in not drafting him had become obvious over the years, and he wished he’d had a chance to coach him. But Brown was glad he’d found a good home in Boston.
Brown was fired a day later.
OF COURSE IT seems obvious now. Tatum has led the Celtics to the NBA Finals after the most complete season of his pro career.
Tatum, 24, dished out 13 assists Thursday in a Game 1 victory, which was the most for a player in his NBA Finals debut, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. He also scored a team-high 28 points in Game 2 Sunday, but he struggled to find his rhythm in the second half of a 107-88 loss. From the All-Star break to the end of the regular season, he was one of three players to average 30 points, 50% on field goals and 40% from beyond the arc. He also has improved his defense, stifling Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant in the first round of the playoffs and limiting an albeit injured Jimmy Butler in the Eastern Conference finals against Miami.
He was a first-time All-NBA selection this season, and MVP of the conference finals. But even Tatum’s most ardent supporters concede his path to superstardom hasn’t exactly followed a straight line.
He showed flashes during his rookie year when Boston made the conference finals ahead of schedule in 2018. But the following seasons were marked with inconsistency. So it was hard to calibrate the expectations for him and Boston’s other young star, Jaylen Brown. But Tatum never lost faith.
“I think when you’re not confident, it’s because you don’t believe in your craft,” Tatum says. “But when you work so hard and you constantly put in the work, it’s impossible not to be confident and believe in yourself.”
Tatum grew up idolizing Bryant. It wasn’t the typical No. 24-wearing childhood infatuation, either. Kobe was everything to Tatum. He was 10 years old when Team USA went to Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, and Bryant was showing up with ice bags on his knees while the team was just sitting down for breakfast. “That dude was pushing himself harder than any human being I had ever met — waking up at 4 a.m. to hit the gym,” Team USA teammate Chris Bosh told reporters at the time. “That meant all of us were gonna push ourselves, too.”
Tatum was going to outwork everyone, just like Kobe. Tatum would wake up at 5:30 every morning, armed with the key to the Chaminade College Prep gym, and work out with Hanlen before class. His mom was by no means an early riser. “I can’t want it more than you do,” she’d tell him. So if she had to wake him up, “you don’t want it enough.” She knew he got it when she’d wake up and he was already gone.
Still, he was school-kid anxious when Bryant reached out to him to discuss an episode of his ESPN+ series “Detail,” which he’d produced on Tatum during the 2018 Eastern Conference finals.
Tatum didn’t know Bryant was focusing the episode on him, and when he finished practice one day, he looked at his phone and it had a bunch of messages with the video attached. He watched it at least 20 times.
“I went and I had a text message from him,” Tatum says. “He was like, ‘Hey, what’s up? This is Kobe. You’re playing great. I’m excited for you. Keep it up.’ He was like, ‘This summer, if you’re ever in L.A. and you want to connect, just reach out.’ At the time, I was 20. I had just turned 20.
“It was one of the coolest moments of my life.”
He took a screenshot of the text. That summer, Tatum took Bryant up on the offer. He called Kobe as soon as he landed in L.A.
To this day, Tatum watches clips of Kobe when he needs inspiration or a boost of confidence. This season, there were a lot of those moments.
The Celtics were in 11th place in the Eastern Conference in mid-January, and there were renewed calls to trade him and/or Jaylen Brown. Critics said they didn’t distribute the ball enough and couldn’t coexist. Were either of them good enough to be the best player on a championship team? Did they still need a third star to put them over the top?
Tatum says there were times throughout the season when he wondered, “‘Damn, am I good enough? Am I good enough to be the guy on the championship team?’ Like, ‘Man, maybe I’m not ready.’ But I just kept believing myself, kept doing what got me here, and just trusting that it would change around.”
Hanlen, who also trains Embiid, says Embiid will quickly fly him out at a moment’s notice when he’s struggling. But Tatum has a tendency to suffer in silence. One time earlier this season when Tatum sputtered, Hanlen didn’t even wait for him to call. He hopped on a flight at halftime, and they got back into the lab.
Whenever Tatum needs motivation, he thinks about his mom, who got her bachelor’s, master’s and law degrees while juggling motherhood and jobs.
“She dropped me off at school every day,” Tatum says. “She picked me up every day. She took me to every practice. She came to every game, even if she would be sitting in the car, studying for the bar exam. She just did it all. She inspired me, because my mom, she always gave me confidence. She told me that she would always support me in whatever I wanted to do, but she was always tough on me. She never let me make excuses.”
BRANDY COLE STILL makes the hard-shell tacos that Jon Scheyer calls “high-level.” Tatum will arrive back in Boston at 2 a.m. from a road trip, and he’ll text his mom that he’s landed. He’ll stop at her house, and she’ll warm up tacos for him.
Cole lives in a Boston-area townhome next door to her son.
They share a driveway, and when Tatum is on the road, Cole and her husband will make Tatum’s bed and do his laundry. And it’s by no means strange that they’re so connected, not when Tatum was trudging along to college classes with his mom as a little boy, and watched her clean houses for people with money and suits, then saw Cole become one of those women with a briefcase and a power suit.
They’ve been through everything together. There was a joke they had when he was growing up, when he was so quiet, yet so focused, and the only one who believed in his greatness was his mother. She’d go into his room and put two fingers on his wrist, and he’d ask what she was doing.
“I’m just checking for a pulse,” she’d say, “making sure you’re still here.”
She’d teach him to be a person who would say thank you, even if it was a personal chef making his meals, or someone moderately shocked that an NBA star could show such appreciation. She believed that she and her son could talk about everything.
Then one time when she visited him during his one year at Duke, she noticed something was off. She wondered whether it was the transition of a young man finally out on his own. She wanted to give him space, but it was hard for her. She’d cried and cried when she dropped him off at college, when she knew he’d be going to the NBA soon after and was never really coming home to St. Louis.
But on this trip to Durham, there was a disconnect. He dropped her off at the hotel that night, and she gave him a hug. “Listen,” she told him, whatever it is, I got your back.”
At 3 a.m., he called her. He told her he was going to be a father. For a moment, she was quiet, and felt what her mother felt all those years ago. She reassured him. Most teenage parents deal with financial issues, she told him, but soon, he probably wouldn’t have that problem. She told him there was nothing he couldn’t get through, and that she’d be there to help.
Jayson Tatum Jr. was born Dec. 6, 2017. Tatum’s rookie season. He says 2017 was the biggest year of his life. He calls his son Deuce, and Tatum and Deuce’s mother, Toriah Lachell, co-parent. Senior and Junior spend much of their time at Cole’s house because Tatum says she’s the one who has all the toys and the food.
Cole will watch her son play, holding Deuce in her lap, and it’s hard not to think of the symmetry of it all, but Cole really doesn’t.
“I come from a long line of strong women who just didn’t make excuses,” she says. “It didn’t seem like a huge accomplishment or anything. It’s just what we do.”
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