Bills were left unpaid for months, utilities were turned off, and for a few years, Jayson Tatum would sleep in the same bed as his mother. They didn’t have any furniture at all. His mother didn’t let him worry about the everyday struggles of being a single mom at the age of 19, and was determined to help Jayson become a success. Her goal was always to show him that they were moving towards a good life. But one day, when Jayson was in 5th grade, there was no shielding him from reality.
Brandy Cole, Tatum’s mother, had moved out of her own mother’s house when Jayson was 6 months old because she wanted a life for the two of them. She bought a tiny 2-bedroom, 900-square-foot house in St. Louis. There was a postage-stamp backyard and a chain-link fence and most importantly, a roof over their heads. But on that aforementioned day, they returned home and Tatum saw a pink piece of paper taped to the front door – a notice of foreclosure.
Tatum remembers his mother crying, but he said he didn’t know what to do but feel helpless. He was just 11 years old at the time. It was a low point that he remembers very well, but not just because of the feeling of hitting rock bottom – also because of what happened next.
When Tatum was in 1st grade, a teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. When he said he wanted to be an NBA player, the teacher laughed and told him to pick a realistic profession. Change your dreams, she said to him.
His mother didn’t take too kindly to that, and went to the school the next day to talk to the teacher. She told the teacher, “With all due respect, I don’t think it’s appropriate to tell him that’s something he can’t achieve when I’m at home telling him anything he can dream is possible” and the thing is, their 2-bedroom household wasn’t about dreaming – it was about executing those dreams.
Tatum’s mother was a couple months away from going to college when she found out she was pregnant. But she didn’t drop out like many people thought she would – instead, she gave birth during spring break and was back in class the week after. Then she brought baby Jayson to class with her. Undergrad, law school, business school – he kept coming to classes with his mom. He used to lay across the foot of her bed while she studied and tell her he never wanted to read those kinds of books – he wanted to play basketball. And she replied, “Well, you better work really hard”
So he did. Every morning, he’d pop his head into his mom’s room at 5:30 in the morning, tell he was leaving, and went off to the gym for a 90 minute workout before class. His HS coach, Frank Bennett, said Jayson was already there every morning before he showed up. And the only day he took off was after they won the state championship. That was his ONLY day off.
Tatum’s dad remembers the moment he realized his son was a special talent. He was in 5th grade playing in a league with grown men, and he averaged 25 points a game.
Jayson’s mom raised him, but his Dad was always around. He called him every day. When his Dad was playing professionally in the Netherlands, Mom took Jayson overseas to visit his dad. By the time his international basketball career was over, he came back to St. Louis and was one of Jayson’s primary coaches.
Soon enough, he would be a silky-smooth wing, consensus top-5 recruit and the centerpiece of what recruiting experts called Coach K’s best recruiting class ever.
Tatum’s measurables speak for themselves, but it’s the intangibles that separate him. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas remembers seeing Tatum right before Duke’s preseason pro day, and noticed how ridiculous his skillset was. He figured Markell Fultz and Lonzo Ball may have been drafted before him, but he was one of the first to know that he was undoubtedly the best player in that draft.
Brandy Cole, Jayson’s mother, did exactly what she said she would – she applied for a loan modification and was able to save their house at the last minute.
That lesson of overcoming, of putting in the work with the hope that the dividends will someday pay off, is a lesson that Tatum has internalized. The 5 AM alarms, the 250 shots he put up every morning before high school. All of the little things, are what lead him to where he is today. Leading his Celtics team to the NBA finals.