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Jayson Tatum and his path to NBA legend status

Jayson Tatum’s admiration for the NBA legends was on full display at All-Star Weekend and his desire to be included among them as he turns 24 this week.

Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Jayson Tatum unveiled new artwork of him and his favorite player, Kobe Bryant, on social media over the weekend. He watched Muse, a film about Kobe, between the Celtics’ games in Detroit and Indiana. At All-Star Weekend, he gushed about his love for his idol.

Tatum entered the league being mentored by Bryant and has remained one of the chief torch bearers of Kobe’s legacy since he tragically died in Tatum’s third season. Now, turning 24-years-old on Thursday in his fifth season in the NBA, Tatum has progressed far enough in his young career that being mentioned in the same sentence as his childhood hero as one of the NBA’s greatest ever could be a reality.

Tatum showed up to his third consecutive weekend with a t-shirt featuring Michael Jordan and Kobe battling one-on-one. The NBA would honor both as members of their 75th anniversary team. The event also brought Celtics greats Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale to Cleveland too, giving Tatum his first opportunity to align himself with numerous Celtics legends in one setting.

It seemed fitting in his first season that he’s indisputably taken the reign of the franchise and embraced leadership and accountability that has included constant speculation about his future aspirations with fellow star Jaylen Brown.

“It’s big. It’s huge for guys in his position,” Ime Udoka said of Tatum being at the NBA 75 ceremony. “Young guys coming up, aspiring to be that, to obviously see that guys within the organization that have had that success, but also just be around greatness in general. Anytime you’re at an All-Star Game, you’re amongst the elite in the game, but when you take it to that level in the Top 75, I’m sure he’s rubbing shoulders and sharing stories with many of the greats. It’s good for him to be around them, but them to recognize who he is and what he’s been doing. A.I. and certain guys talk to him all the time, and that’ll only instills confidence in him and what he’s doing and the direction he’s heading. So, it’s all good for him, a young player, to be around that all the time.”

The desire for Tatum to become legendary has flashed through his polished skillset, Duke pedigree, and NBA familial connections. He was so ready, and joined a cast of players ready to contend for an NBA championship before finishing his rookie season dunking on LeBron James in the closing minutes of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Further success felt inevitable.

As talent faded around him in the coming seasons, his own responsibility grew and the promise of long postseason runs and national relevancy faded. It became apparent the success he achieved early in his career wouldn’t come so easily anymore.

“When you’re in those moments, when you are that close, you really have to hone in (on), you got to think that this might be my last chance,” Tatum said, discussing the team’s 2020 Eastern Conference Finals appearance with J.J. Redick on The Old Man & The Three. “I was 21 at the time. I remember when we lost, I was pissed, because I felt like we could’ve and should’ve beat them, but they were a really good team. There was a part of me that was like, ‘I got 15 more years.’ I blinked and it’s Year Five, and I said, ‘Ah. This s*** go a little faster than I thought.’”

Nearly two years removed from that conference finals run in the Orlando bubble, Tatum (and Brown) are truly the foundation of the franchise and are being treated as such in Boston and in the media. Tatum’s quest for greatness can’t be questioned. His desire to achieve it in Boston? Less certain.

How can it be a sure thing he’ll stay when players of his stature hold more leverage to dictate their future than ever before? His predecessors, Bryant and Pierce, eventually reached points with LA and Boston where they decided enough was enough and wanted out.

Brown and Tatum never fully addressed the reality of life without each other until the team concluded a disappointing 2020-21 season and fell to 18-21 this year after a 25-point collapse at Madison Square Garden in January. The pair, Brown noted later that week, had to get on the same page. They talked and affirmed they’re commitment to each other and the team.

“I think we can play together,” Brown said. “We have played together well for the majority of our career and things like that. The last year or so hasn’t gone as expected, but I think a lot of the adversity that we’re kind of going through now is just going to help us grow and get better in the future. If we get over this slump and continue to learn, I think there’s a lot of good basketball on the other side of this. So, I only can control what I can control ... but me and J.T. talk. We talked after the game, communicated with each other and things like that. So we’re on the same page ... as long as I’m on the same page with him and he’s on the same page with me, I think that’s what we’re more so most focused on.”

Detroit Pistons v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Brown handed Tatum the ceremonial ball commemorating Tatum’s All-Star starting nod, despite Brown’s frustration over being snubbed personally. The pair now regularly pass the game ball to each other too, after their connectivity and ability to play together became an early-season concern.

The Celtics have ripped off 18 wins over their last 22 games after that epic collapse in New York that questioned Tatum’s partnership with Brown and whether he could be the face of the franchise. Patience has paid off on the floor and in Tatum’s first year of his $163 million extension, we’re also seeing his personal growth off it. From media scrutiny about his leadership style to difficult losses, from locker room turmoil in the Kyrie Irving era to a difficult bout with COVID, Tatum has matured considerably over the last two years.

Tatum — younger than rookie Chris Duarte of the Pacers, who he faced on Sunday — has the experience of a seasoned NBA veteran and now speaks like it. The added dimension of fatherhood has given him a great appreciation for his own growth while also raising a young child, too.

Tatum welcomed Deuce on the court for a game this month to shoot a basketball between his arms. Celtics color commentator Cedric Maxwell noted that that would’ve never happened during his playing days the 1980’s. Maxwell, who’s also closely watched Tatum’s evolution into his mid-20s, loves to tell a story of when the star yelled out to Maxwell, “Cornbread, Cornbread!” earlier in his career. Knowing his nickname from his playing days surprised Maxwell until Tatum told him that he had just watched Maxwell on ESPN’s “30 for 30: Best of Enemies,” noting that Max was a “baaaad man.”

That’ll endear Tatum with the old souls who appreciate recognition of NBA history. TD Garden changed after the departure of Pierce and Garnett, who had relationships with legends before them like Maxwell, and others who have recently passed like Jo Jo White, Tommy Heinsohn and John Havlicek. Now, it’s Tatum holding together those Celtics ties between the present and the past.

Pierce and Garnett, who will have his #5 retired this month, discussed the fact that they’re now Boston’s alumni, and barring an everlasting feud with Allen, Pierce hoped that the three could become more consistent staples on the parquet and a mentoring presence for Brown and Tatum as they head into the primes of their careers. We all remember Tatum high-fiving Pierce along the sideline after a big shot against the Bucks in 2019. There may not be another NBA city where history matters so much and to see it in real time is special. Pierce and Garnett know that. Tatum knows that.

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Two years ago, Tatum made the superstar leap with a 30.7 points per game February, putting him on the path towards becoming one of the league’s top-selling uniforms, a commercial star and one of the league’s marquee young brands. Ego typically follows such a rise, but Tatum remembers not feeling like he belonged in that rarified air until entering the All-Star locker room for the first time that season. Despite a max contract, flashier clothes and a Rolls Royce, he’s still the humble kid from St. Louis who hesitated to move away from his mom after being drafted into the NBA.

“That was the first time in my career I felt like I belonged in this room,” he reminisced last year. “I was in the locker room with them. I was on that team. I think ever since then I’ve kind of taken the approach of, I belong in that locker room.”

But despite overcoming the confidence hurdle, Udoka still saw too big of a glow in Tatum’s eyes when facing off against stars he looked up to like Kevin Durant. He’s maintained a friendship with Irving after the star and teammate abandoned Boston. His hometown ties with Bradley Beal are repeatedly brought up. Zach LaVine and others who share offseason workouts alongside trainer Drew Hanlen round out a large circle of friends for Tatum.

Udoka talked to Tatum about turning off that friend switch and turning on a competitive one, providing his own dose of an old school approach into the mix of Tatum’s influences. Udoka had a front row seat to see Tatum rip one win away from Durant and his Nets last season in the first round when he was an assistant coach in Brooklyn. While he was impressed with Tatum’s talent, Udoka has spent his first season in Boston trying to harden the young superstar’s overall mental toughness and consistency.

“I gave Jayson examples of what I used to say to Kawhi as a young rookie and respecting guys too much at times,” Udoka said after Tatum scored 42 points in a bounce back win against the defending champs back in December.

“I told him, ‘these guys aren’t your older brother. Don’t treat them like that,’ and he took it to heart and came out in attack mode tonight, but it’s across the board. Our whole group, we know what we have to do to be effective. And if my guys know me, I said, ‘I’m the most competitive guy,’ and I want to see that reflect on you guys.”

That may be the next evolution of Tatum. Tatum could very well be part of the NBA 100 team in twenty-five years, but to get there, he’ll have to learn another valuable lesson from the old guard. Kobe, Pierce, Garnett — the legends didn’t just want to be great, they wanted to beat the greats. Now, with a young core surrounding him and Brown and the Celtics on the rise, Tatum knows that the only chance of being considered one of the best of his contemporaries is to be the last one standing.