As Jayson Tatum stood in the right corner catching passes and firing up shots in October at Madison Square Garden, warming up the morning of the opening game of his seventh NBA season, he heard a familiar sound out of his left ear. Jay Z’s “The Prelude” switched into the Frank Sinatra sample that opens up “I Did It My Way” off Jay’s 2002 album The Blueprint II. Tatum, still shooting, turned his head toward mid-court, where Celtics trainer Isaiah Covington stood in front of the scorer’s table next to a massive JBL speaker controlling the music from an iPad.
“I’ll give you this one,” Covington yelled over to Tatum.
“I was waiting on you to say that,” Tatum replied as Jay Z began his verse. “You didn’t know this before you met me.”
That’s become a familiar sight around the Celtics in recent years, with Jay Z as Tatum and Covington’s shared favorite artist becoming the staple artist played at team shootarounds, practices, workouts and other gatherings. The moment they shared hours before the Celtics beat the Knicks in October recalled the one in January, 2021 when Covington arrived in Boston as the team’s new performance coach hired from the Warriors’ G-League affiliate, where he spent parts of the previous four years after beginning his NBA career with the Pacers. Covington learned about Jay Z through his older brother Kyrie, like Tatum learned to love him hearing his mother Brandy listen to him growing up in St. Louis. They connected when Tatum, then the team’s unofficial DJ, played “I Did It My Way.” Covington swore he’d heard every Jay Z song. Tatum found a new one.
Check out the rest of Covington’s story in Boston Sports Journal (interview originally conducted in May, 2023 during the Eastern Conference Finals)
What has the team been playing recently?
Covington: “We’ve been going Rick Ross a lot, obviously. Usually, whenever we’re on the road, we try to find like an artist that’s from that city and usually play like the songs that we like from there. This series has pretty much been like a lot of Rick Ross, DJ Khaled type of music that a lot of these guys know. Kodak for sure. We were playing Kodak at shoot around the other day yesterday.”
How did that end up becoming a thing?
“Me, Jayson, we’ll talk, we’ll be like, alright, who’s from Atlanta, who’s from Philly? So we always try to find like the best artists and the best songs that usually come from that. It’s hard, especially when you got guys like, Rick Ross has so much music in his catalog. To try to feel like the best songs and then the ones that are like hype, try to get the guys going because that’s the biggest thing. A lot of these guys can be motivated from just hearing music and stuff like that, and then after playing them guys a bunch of times in the regular season, we know what songs that guys like to hear.”
When did that start?
“That pretty much started my first year. So I started January 2021 and that’s really how me and him actually really kind of got close was through music, you know, talking about it, finding out we both, our favorite artist is both Jay Z. So that’s really how it started. So I’ll say January 2021 and it’s been going literally ever since.”
How did you become a Jay Z fan?
“So for me, it was my older brother got me. I have an older brother that is 15 years older than me and he grew up listening to Jay. So we yeah, he’s 15 years older than me. So that was, that’s his favorite artist as well. So he was growing up, that’s really all I heard all the time. I was listening to it as a kid and as I got older and really kind of starting to understand what he’s actually talking about. That’s why I really started to like him even more besides just hearing him growing up. So that’s kind of how that started and then my first day here, literally, my first date was a game. And when I, since I got here, I think JT was coming in to like warm up and he was going to be playing like a Jay Z song that I’ve never heard before. I was like, hey, like, I never heard that song before and then like that literally, it was like our first conversation and it was, it was, it was, oh man, I did it my way off the blueprint off the Blueprint II. And I’ve never heard that song and I swear I heard every Jay Z song before. I was, oh, what’s this? Ever since then, that’s literally like how we kind of built our connection. So when I came in, he had the iPad and like, you know, he was picking on the songs that he liked and it was like multiple Jay Z songs and like old school Jay Z songs, like not commercial and different things like that. So I was like, oh, ok.”
What is your main role with the Celtics?
“I’m a performance coach. This is my third season. What that entails is strength and conditioning and the sports science, so I have a dual role in that sense. Before the Celtics, I spent two years with the Warriors’ organization heading their G League trend conditioning program, doing that for two years, and being able to assist, once that season was over, with Golden State. So that was nice from 2018 to 20 January 2021. Before that, I got my start in the league 2017 to 2018 season with the Indiana Pacers as a performance coach intern. So this is like my sixth year total in the league. Prior to this, I was a GA at LIU Brooklyn and I graduated from Delaware State University in my undergrad. So it’s kind of like my road, but everywhere I’ve been, I guess when I was running my own teams, when I was in college, I would always make playlists, because I always just felt like even for me, I played sports in high school and music for me is something that always kind of just got me in my zone and I feel like whether you’re a professional athlete, whether you’re just going to the gym to get a workout and you’re going on a run.”
“I feel like music has a unique way of motivating people and I always wanted to put my athletes in the best opportunity to train, whether we’re blasting music, we doing competitions. I want everybody to be engaged and to really feel it. I started making playlists there and then that kind of followed me to the league when I was interning with the Pacers, nobody would put anything on. So I was like, hey, you know, I’ll do it. So, I kind of started there from when I was an intern and then I was doing the same thing when I went to the Warriors organization, I was making playlists. I wish I had my phone on me. I still have playlists from like playoff games with the Pacers, playoff games with the Warriors. Even now here, so that’s kind of how it started. I have a nickname here, Sleep, that everyone calls me. So like, whenever we get to the arena, I’ll hear like JT or somebody say like DJ sleep, what are we listening to? So that’s kind of how it always happens and now it’s like that’s just my unofficial role.”
What’s your process like?
“Yeah, so like during that time when I first got here, I didn’t want to like step on any toes like I was just new. So I didn’t know and then there was a few times on a road where either him or other guys would be like, what are you listening to? Or it is like quiet. Nobody has an ipad. Everybody looks at me like, oh what’s going on? What are we doing? What are we doing? So I’m like, alright from now on I know like this is another one of one of my roles, so it’s something I enjoy, I like it. I don’t like the backlash sometimes, because it’s, it’s hard trying to keep everything, we got 17 guys, then we got like 10-12 coaches. So obviously everybody has different opinions and stuff like that, but I embrace that, because it’s just cool like seeing what everybody likes, what everybody doesn’t like, and I’ve also like learned stuff too, like I grew up listening to hip-hop and R&B, but since I’ve been here, I’ve been learning about different like country songs, country artists. Like I learned who Morgan Wallen was this year. Luke, Blake and Sam, so we’re listening to like a lot of that more of that than we were in the past. So that’s just an area for me to grow and be able to learn and expand my horizons with their music. So that’s been cool even like some rock like, Bon Jovi and Journey and just different bands and stuff like that. I’ve been able to learn, because that’s what some of these guys like. So I always want to appeal to them and like I said, put them, put them in position to feel good going into a practice or a game.”