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Appreciating Jayson Tatum

Jayson Tatum is 24, living his best life, and having the best season of his career.

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

Being the face of the Boston Celtics franchise comes with a certain amount of pressure and expectations, all of which are fair and are given on merit. However, sometimes, it feels like those expectations are enshrined in a mentality of years past.

On Friday, long-time Celtics beat writer Dan Shaughnessy wrote about Jayson Tatum, particularly on what he hasn’t done rather than what he has. To his credit, Shaughnessy has seen everything. He covered the team during their heyday in the 80’s with a no-nonsense Larry Bird as their leader. And after nearly a decade of basketball winter in Boston, he was there when a veteran-laden squad fronted by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen raised Banner 17.

However, things have changed. Shaughnessy comes from an era where work was placed above everything else life had to offer. In modern-day life, work is a means to an end for 95% of people. You work to live, not live to work, and herein lies my first gripe with his piece:

“He missed a game to go home to St. Louis for his son’s birthday party in December. Just before the All-Star break, he missed an important game in Milwaukee with a “non-COVID illness” (the Celtics subs lost in overtime), then came back to play the next night at home against the lowly Pistons.”

In an era of load management and player empowerment, Tatum has been ever-present for the Celtics. Not once has he refused to play, nor has he brought scandal to the team’s locker room. Tatum is a consummate professional who, until this past summer, had barely taken any time away from basketball since being drafted in 2017.

Should missing two games be worthy of criticism? Is it not OK to send a message to millions of people around the world that family comes first? Even above your job?

Let’s look at this in another light. We all know the sacrifices a player makes when chasing their dream in the big leagues. We hear all the stories about missing prom, not going out with friends, and long nights at the gym. But what about being the child of a professional basketball player? Seeing your parent leave the house and not return until the end of their road trip? The never-ending lack of privacy and countless nights when they’re not at home to tuck you into bed, read you a story, and make you feel safe?

So, is it really such a big deal if Tatum missed a game to be with Duece, given all that Duece likely deals with simply for being his son? Of course, there is the flip side to this argument. Professional players' children live a lavish lifestyle and can experience more in their first few years than most of us do in a lifetime. Yet, as parents, we all want that for our kids, so passing judgment seems illogical.

As for missing the game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Tatum wasn’t the only one on that injury report. In fact, it appeared to be a tactical move on Boston’s part in order to limit the additional film Milwaukee’s scouts could have compiled. It just so happened that as a byproduct, the Celtics bench unit ran the Bucks close, and now, the Celtics own a small piece of real estate in Milwaukee’s heads.

Choosing to berate Tatum for being a father and also for missing a game that so many others on the roster did too feels like nothing more than having an issue simply to have one. Unfortunately, there is more to this article that I found unreasonable.

“This feels like a time when he needs to show us that the team comes first, and that he can succeed on the big stage. One year ago, he shot 37 percent and was a turnover machine in his first NBA Finals

Last season, for an unspecified amount of time, Tatum played through a non-displaced wrist fracture. Even when he hurt his wrist further during the post-season, Tatum didn’t miss a single game, nor did he make the public aware of the pain he was playing through.

“I had a non-displaced fracture in my wrist. It was small, but it was a non-displaced chip – I had chipped the bone, but it didn’t leave the surface. It showed the bone had grown over and it had healed, but it would still hurt because I kept getting hit and falling on it. So, I guess I played with somewhat of a fracture for two months, and then in the playoffs, there was a play against Milwaukee in game three – I dunked it, Giannis (Antetokounmpo) chased me down and I fell into the crowd and that was the most painful it’s been since the day that I hurt it…After each game, I had to wear a brace, but I would take it back off before the cameras saw me,” Tatum told Bleacher Report’s Taylor Rooks.

Instead, Tatum knuckled down, did his job, and helped lead his team to the NBA Finals, all while being named the first Eastern Conference Finals MVP.

Does that sound like a player who isn’t putting his team's needs ahead of his own? Who isn’t showing that he can succeed and sustain success on one of the biggest platforms basketball has to offer? Because, to me, that sounds pretty darn impressive.

The Boston Celtics Vs. The Milwaukee Bucks at Fiserv Forum Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

It also shouldn’t be lost on us that Tatum was playing in his first NBA Finals against a Golden State Warriors team that is coming toward the end of a dynasty that has seen them sweep aside all challengers and define modern basketball. Now, I’m not making excuses for Tatum, but if there was ever a time to lay a goose egg, facing down the Warriors in the Finals is certainly an understandable time to do so.

We are still five days away from Tatum turning 25 and perhaps another three years away from him hitting his prime. Yet, he carries the expectations of Celtics Nation on his broad shoulders with a smile on his face. Celtics fans are lucky to have such an immensely talented player in their ranks — and they’re even more fortunate that another incredibly talented wing lines up right alongside him.

So, rather than continuing to punch down on Tatum for what he hasn’t achieved, perhaps we should embrace all that he brings to the Celtics, all that he’s already done, and the incredible things that are still to become part of his legacy.

“Tatum said, ‘To be able to wear my signature shoe today and break the record and take home this award of somebody that I idolized [Kobe Bryant], it’s a hell of a day.” Swell. But how about MVP of the Finals? Now that would be something.”

Whataboutism is rife in sports these days. And given all of the current vitriol being levied Tatum’s way for enjoying the process and embracing the individual accolades coming his way, I for one will be cheering for Tatum when he finally helps Boston raise that elusive 18th Banner. That championship is coming, and Tatum is leading the charge.

But for now, I’m just going to appreciate having the luxury of watching a genuine superstar in the league operate on a night-to-night basis without feeling the need to continually question his motives. Because, when his time in Boston is done, we will miss those crazy 20-point quarters or those wholesome moments where Duece is running up to Tatum post-game. I’m just going to appreciate what Tatum brings to the Celtics and how he’s elevating them to new levels. I hope you choose to join me.

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