On Thursday, there were just two NBA games on the last night before the All-Star break. One of those drew the eyes of just about the entire NBA world, as two of the league’s best teams met in Boston and the Celtics and Clippers delivered a double-overtime classic. Boston pulled out the victory in the end behind some big plays by several of their key players, but no one shined brighter than first-time All-Star Jayson Tatum.
He scored 39 points on 14-of-23 shooting, but it was more than just those impressive numbers. After showing so many flashes throughout his young career, on this night with the world watching, Tatum became a superstar.
In addition to the scoring, Tatum made several huge defensive plays against Kawhi Leonard. He had a big pass late in the game to Gordon Hayward for a big shot. Most important of all? Tatum had the look. You know the one. The one that says “Give me the ball. We aren’t losing. I’ve got this.”
The Celtics have had a lot of great players over the years. They’ve also had some players who became “our guy”. Jayson Tatum is the first one who is simultaneously a superstar and “our guy” since Larry Bird.
To be a superstar is a high bar, but you know it when you see it. There are only a few of them, but they shine brighter than the rest. To be “our guy” is a lot harder to define. It’s more of a feel thing. Once a player is “our guy” there is nothing you wouldn’t do for that player. You defend him vociferously on social media and message boards. You might even come to blows when someone argues with you about their talent or meaning to your team and city.
“Our guy” is usually homegrown, but every once and a while, he comes in and grabs the city and becomes a hero. You live and die with their growth. Their career becomes something you measure milestones in your own life by. Marriage? Move to a new city? Birth of a child? You know those times in your life and you always know exactly what was going on with “our guy” and your team at the exact same moment. “Got married and moved to California? Oh yeah, that was 2007. Same year the Celtics traded for KG and Ray to put them with Paul. 2008? That’s the year we moved back home and Boston won Banner 17. 2010? Boston should have won Banner 18. That starting five never lost a playoff series! Oh...and we had a baby too!”
Working backwards, the Celtics had Kyrie Irving. Undoubtedly, Irving was a superstar during his time in Boston. We wanted him to become “our guy” eventually. Heck, he even said he wanted to put his #11 in the rafters and we all know how that ended.
Isaiah Thomas was absolutely “our guy” during his time with the Celtics. He captured the imagination of Boston fans like few others. But he was never really a superstar. An All-Star? Absolutely. Superstar? He was never quite at that level despite that one MVP-caliber season.
Before IT, Avery Bradley became “our guy.” We loved AB because he was all we had for a while. And he came in as a non-shooter who looked barely playable for a long time. Then he started to hit jumpers to go with his excellent defense. That block on Dwyane Wade at the rim was when AB became “our guy.” But he was certainly never a superstar.
What about Rajon Rondo? For a while he pushed the heck out of being “our guy,” but was never a superstar. Cross him off the list.
Paul Pierce? Kevin Garnett? Ray Allen? Let’s go in reverse order. Allen leaving the way he did made him as much a villain in Boston as he was a hero. Not “our guy.” KG? He was 100% “our guy.” He always will be and his #5 gets retired next season. But he wasn’t a superstar during his Boston years. Matter of fact, it was that battered warrior gearing up for one more run at glory that made KG “our guy.”
That leaves Paul Pierce. That one is complicated. During Pierce’s absolute best seasons in the NBA, he fell a little short of being “our guy.” The team stunk and Pierce was often sullen and unhappy. For a while, it looked like he’d be traded away. By the time Pierce became “our guy,” he was no longer a superstar. Beloved? Absolutely. All-time great Celtic? Definitely. But not a superstar and “our guy” at the same time.
Sadly, Reggie Lewis was the guy who should have bridged the years from Larry Bird to Paul Pierce. Lewis was 100% “our guy” and superstardom was burgeoning. Reggie was taken from all of us far too early.
So…that takes us back to Larry Bird. The Legend was a superstar from day one and “our guy” from day one. There is no question of that. Larry Bird and Bill Russell sit in a pantheon of Celtics greats alone. But where Russell is mostly legend and lore, because few current Celtics fans saw him play, Bird created an entire region of basketball fans throughout the 1980’s.
What makes Jayson Tatum so special to already put him in this prestigious company? He doesn’t turn 22 until early next month, but it’s all already happening. He was drafted and developed in Boston. By the time Tatum dunked on LeBron James in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals, you knew he was going to be special. He’s only continued the ascent from there.
This weekend, Tatum will appear in the first of what will be many All-Star games. Following that, Tatum will be a huge part of however this Celtics season goes. If Boston is going to make a deep playoff run, it will be on the back of Tatum. Then this summer, Tatum will sign a max contract extension that will keep him in green for years to come.
During that time, Jayson Tatum will have the chance to capture Boston as the city’s number one athlete. Mookie Betts is gone. Who knows what will happen with Tom Brady? If Brady comes back, he’s number one in Boston, and all of New England, for however long he stays. But that run is clearly closing in on its end.
Tatum is both young enough and good enough to be the next athlete to own Boston. He’s got enough talent around him that his team should be plenty good for years to come. As Boston looks for the next hero, Tatum is right there to grab the mantle.
Jayson Tatum has been nudging superstar status for a while. He became one on Thursday night. Just as importantly, he’s “our guy” and that rare and special combo is not going anywhere for a long, long time.