Jayson Tatum was glowing after he and Jaylen Brown combined for 50 points for the second consecutive night back in December of 2019, beating the Pistons in a blowout. They’d do it again the next night vs. the Hornets, then unload 64 combined on Cleveland, as the Celtics won 8-of-9 into the new year, with their stars connecting on run outs, threes and dunks. A win over the Nuggets featured shared haymakers through a decisive third, with both players finishing the frame with 20 points.
“We different,” Tatum told me that month. “You can probably tell (Brown’s) stronger than me, more athletic, faster, he can jump higher. We do a lot of things similar, we’ve been playing with each other for a while, so we’re just trying to feed off each other. We know what each other can do on the court, it’s still a learning experience. Hopefully we can continue play with each other for a very long time, but right now, stay in the moment.”
Brown and Tatum averaged 22 points per game in tandem that December, before Tatum’s 30 points per game in February seemingly propelled him to stardom. Brown made a similar statement to begin last season, with 28 points per game in the first month. They had both arrived.
They have both signed with Boston long-term, been named All-Stars, and made the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals as the team’s core duo. And yet, their relationship has constantly been topic of curiosity. Brown opened this year’s training camp asserting that mutual respect unites the Celtics’ stars, and poked back at the media for creating the Batman & Robin narrative.
“It’s definitely grown a lot,” Brown said of his bond with Tatum. “I think it’s centered around respect. There’s a respect there. Jayson respects my work ethic. I respect his. We both put a lot into this game, regardless of what I do off the court ... I put my everything, my heart and soul into this game ... I respect Jayson, he’s one of the best players in this game regardless of 25, under, over, he can be one of the best players when it’s all said and done. I think the same about myself.”
Brown and Tatum acknowledge where they don’t align. In a 2019 All The Smoke interview, Brown called themselves polar opposites as personalities and different players — Brown outside the box and Tatum more simple — but they lean on that understanding, that mutual respect mentioned this week in camp.
“In a weird way, it kind of works, because we lack what each other has,” Brown said. “We different, like we got different mindsets, but at the same time, I think we respect each other for it.”
The Jays originally knew each other loosely from college camps and Brown, then a rookiem recommended Danny Ainge draft Tatum over Josh Jackson. That year, Tatum found himself playing off Brown’s athleticism, as the pair aimed to formulate roles next to Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward.
Brown soon became more known as a social activist alongside his basketball exploits, while Tatum became a father and formed a bond with his Pure Sweat collective that included trainer Drew Hanlen, fellow St. Louis native Bradley Beal and Philadelphia star Joel Embiid. Brown grew up a prodigy in Atlanta, taking on the city’s expressiveness, with an initially-shy Tatum acclimating to the spotlight slowly.
“I’ve gotten to know him very, very well. We have different interests. We respect our different interests,” Brown told SI in 2020. “I’m into education and all that stuff. He cares about all that stuff, of course, but that’s not necessarily him, you know? The things I like to talk about, he likes to talk about other stuff. We respect each other’s differences.”
There’s that word again: “differences.”
Kobe and Shaq. Bird and McHale. Jordan and Pippen. Even Curry and Durant recently won championships despite their “differences.” The Wolves have buddies in Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, but they haven’t spun a friendship into wins yet. Anthony Davis and LeBron James did, when health didn’t get in the way. Friendship doesn’t represent a perfect barometer and even distaste can be navigated on the floor.
“You’ve got to have that respect from the beginning,” Al Horford told me Thursday. “You don’t have to be best of friends, but they do acknowledge each other. They do respect each other and you can see it, that kinds of sets a tone. We’re here to support them.”
Jeff Goodman, who’s covered Tatum’s entire career, says Brown and Tatum aren’t buddies, but get along. Tatum told the Globe they share a relationship fixated on figuring out winning. The word friends doesn’t come up in these conversations though.
The sole relevance of that question, in the future, becomes the Jays’ desire to share the parquet long-term. That decision appears some distance away — Brown still has three guaranteed years on his contract, Tatum four — even in this world where contract length may not represent the timeframe for a star’s time in town.
Winning has built up expectations, allowing Brown and Tatum to learn lessons earlier than most other stars who took longer to win in this league. However, it’s easy to forget they probably didn’t learn everything and their experiences shouldn’t raise the expectation that they’re ahead of schedule on everything, including their bond with each other.
Brown congratulated Tatum on his gold medal on Twitter this offseason, with Marcus Smart following in succession. Tatum did the same for Smart’s extension. Brown appeared in Las Vegas to watch Summer League and celebrate his teammate’s Olympic achievement. Optics, however tacky, build a narrative that the media will either embrace or reject. The Celtics have affirmed each other more often since last season ended — supportive if not friends.
The time they shared in Vegas. The tweets. The quotes. They affirm Brown and Tatum can address the narratives. New head coach Ime Udoka steers clear of social media, unable to provide the same guidance there that he can in their passing game. They did it themselves.
While the relationships may not matter as much as becoming better teammates who accentuate each other’s strengths on the court, their efforts in that area inspire confidence in their ability to figure the chemistry out. Their awareness of concerns about their relationship seems like another example of two young stars navigating a complicated space where optics matter immensely.
“The media wants to kind of sometimes write the story that pulls us apart,” Brown said. “We talk a lot. We don’t let it bother us. We hear a lot of the things, comparisons, but at the end of the day I want the best for him, he wants the best for me. Regardless of everybody saying of what everybody’s saying that we can’t coexist and we don’t play well together or whatever. I enjoy playing with Jayson. I really do. He’s a guy I trust out there to make plays.”