Jayson Tatum was having doubts. It was the beginning of the 2021-22 season, and the Celtics were struggling. After starting the season with heavy expectations, the team he was supposed to be shepherding to the promised land was a few games under .500, and Tatum found himself unsure as to whether or not he could be the leader the Celtics needed.
“I was 23, playing for the biggest franchise in the NBA, with the expectations of being the best player, being the best leader, being the best teammate, and being the guy that can take a team to a championship,” Tatum told Graham Bensinger during their multi-day interview, which will be featured on this weekend’s episode of ‘In Depth with Graham Bensinger.’ “And it was just the toughest start to a season that I’ve had. I think part of our profession is being honest and being candid: There are times where I doubt myself in those moments.”
Bensinger followed up: What are those doubts, specifically?
“You think about, ‘Can I be the best player on a championship team?’,” Tatum responded. “Because not many guys can. It’s only the best of the best of the best, but that is where I aspire to be. And there were moments at the games where I was like, ‘This is just not working.’ But I think I’ve always stayed with it.”
A litany of revelations like this one can be found in the latest episode of “In Depth,” in which the seasoned and curious Bensinger spends three days with Tatum and those close to him — including the star of every show, Tatum’s son Deuce — and uncovers some of the Celtics’ stars secrets, insecurities, and innermost thoughts related to his young NBA career. Debuting in full in broadcast syndication across the U.S. this weekend, Tatum does, indeed, go in depth on everything from fatherhood to the Finals.
In those Finals, Tatum felt the impacts of fatigue caused by the lengths of a full, extended season like never before. He finished fourth among all players in minutes played during the regular season with 2,731, but after the postseason, he was far and away the league leader. Tatum played 983 minutes this postseason, 63 more than Jaylen Brown (920) who played the second-most minutes). It was 191 more minutes than the first Warrior on the list, Klay Thompson (792). And it was the most minutes played in a single postseason since LeBron James played 983 in 2012.
Tatum’s response to this fatigue? Changing his habits off the court. “I want to eat better, I want to change my diet,” he said. “I’ve never been on a diet. I’ve always been able to eat what I want, but I’m just trying to find ways to get myself an edge… like eating more consistently, eating better, losing body fat, trying to gain muscle.”
Tatum thinks more about this now not only because it should serve his career longevity and play in an immediate sense, but because, of course, he’s a father. His son, four-year-old Deuce, is one of the most recognizable NBA children in years, and his bond with Jayson is palpable every time the two share time in front of the camera, or even behind the scenes — like when Jayson recently showed off Deuce’s digs on his Snapchat.
But in conversation with Bensinger, Jayson admits to “selfishly” keeping his girlfriend’s pregnancy a secret from the NBA and Celtics staff for roughly seven months. It was only a week before Deuce was born that he finally shared the news with then-head coach Brad Stevens.
“I was more worried about getting drafted than I was about being a dad, because my whole life I had dreamed about going to the NBA and the best day of my life was two months away,” Tatum said. “I didn’t tell anybody – I didn’t tell my teammates, the coaches, anything.
“I didn’t want it to impact where I got drafted. I thought that if teams knew I was about to have a kid, they were gonna think I wasn’t focused and that they wouldn’t pick me – so I was terrified. I didn’t want anybody to know, which was extremely selfish.”
But when Deuce was born, Tatum’s life changed for the better. “He made me grow up faster,” he said, “I wouldn’t change it for the world. It motivates me. Seeing him come to all the games, practice, watch me work out... he motivates me to be the best player, father, best role model that I can be.”
Part of Jayson’s journey has undeniably been impacted by his relationship with his own father, Justin. While he is quick to credit Justin’s tough love as a driving force that propelled him to the NBA, he reveals specific details regarding their tumultuous relationship during Jayson’s childhood. Bensinger asks Tatum about the time when his father pinned him against a locker, held him up by his underarms, and called him a bitch. While Tatum knew that, in his father’s eyes, this was about fostering toughness, it both difficult and motivating.
“I was scared of him, and he would grab me by my shirt and pin me up against the wall, and cuss me out in front of everybody, and I would be bawling,” Tatum recalls. “But then I would come out at halftime and I would outscore the rest of the team and we would win. So in his mind, he needed to push my buttons to get me to a certain point.
“As a kid, I couldn’t separate coach and dad – there was just one. He would always tell me I was soft, I wasn’t gonna make it, I wasn’t gonna be nothing, and he would take it to the extreme. But part of me working out at 5:30 in the morning was because I wanted to prove him wrong.”
As Tatum continues to rise in the NBA, it’s fuel from memories like this one that push him. But he’s fueled by criticism, too; in their interview, Bensinger reads a quote from a Boston Globe article published soon after the Finals in which Christopher L. Gasper wrote, “The Celtics young superstar flopped on the NBA’s biggest stage. His failure to launch and deliver when it mattered most was a cruel ending to a breakthrough season for the forward.”
“I averaged 22 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. For anybody else, that would’ve been a hell of a series,” Tatum noted, “But, I’m not anybody else. I don’t wanna be anybody else. I hold myself to the highest standard. So, when I don’t play well and they say I flopped or whatever, it doesn’t bother me, because that’s not why I play the game. People that I don’t know writing articles about me – good or bad – doesn’t bother me because it’s like, ‘I don’t know you. I don’t value your opinion.’”
Tatum’s mother, Brandy Cole, adds, “It was really hard to watch, knowing the pain he played through for the entire playoffs and even before. His wrist had been bothering him and, just to not have people appreciate.”
But one thing she is sure to note is certain: “We don’t get to the Finals without Jayson Tatum.”