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‘That could have been me:’ Jayson Tatum saw himself in Michael Brown, and he hasn’t forgotten

Jayson Tatum is in his third season with the Celtics.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

ORLANDO, Fla. — It has taken Jayson Tatum essentially two years to break out of his self-imposed shell. Known for his three-word answers to media questions early in his Celtics career, Tatum has realized the importance of his voice in the NBA and social justice circles.

And for the first time publicly, Tatum discussed witnessing the aftermath of the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb just 10 minutes from where Tatum lived.

The Celtics forward was to wear “Black Lives Matter” on his jersey when Boston took on the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks on Friday at The Arena at Walt Disney World. It was the Celtics’ first official game of the season resumption.


“Black Lives Matter” wasn’t Tatum’s first choice. NBA players were informed they couldn’t wear the names of victims of police brutality or police incidents on their jerseys out of respect for the families.

If Tatum had his choice, he would have worn “Michael Brown,” the 18-year Ferguson native who was shot by police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014, sparking weeks of protests and riots in the streets of the city. Tatum was a 16-year-old rising junior at Chaminade College Prep when the incident happened and Ferguson became the center of the country’s attention. It affected him profoundly.

“That’s something that very close to me, being from St. Louis,” he said Thursday. “Actually remembering vividly during that time, I was in high school and all that was going on, 10 minutes from where I live, so if I could have chosen that, I would have put that name on the back of my jersey.”

Tatum was a major Division 1 basketball prospect then who was likely to leave his native St. Louis for college in less than two years. Yet Tatum said he saw himself in Brown, who was shot six times by Wilson. Wilson was not indicted because he said he shot the 6-foot-4-inch Brown in self-defense after Brown was walking in the middle of a Ferguson street after allegedly taking some cigars from a grocery store.


Another Black person dead at the hands of the police altercation sparked the St. Louis suburb. Nine days after the killing, the National Guard was called in to control the riots.

“I remember all the protests, the riots at nighttime, seeing tanks, the National Guard brought in tanks being driven down the highway,” Tatum said. “Honestly, that might have been the first time I’ve ever seen a tank in real life. It kind of was like eye-opening to myself because unfortunately when these things happen, a lot of times it’s in another city or another state, so it’s like you feel connected being a Black man but when it happened in St. Louis …

“I’ve been in that neighborhood, I knew who he was. He was only two years older than me, it happened 10 minutes away. It really hit me like, damn it can happen anywhere; that could have been me, not too far removed. It was not another state. It was 10 minutes away. It really was like, I had so many array of emotions at that time. It was just really unfortunate.”

Ferguson made national headlines for weeks. Tatum watched as celebrities and activists converged on the suburb to protest and support the new Black Lives Matter cause. Tatum said he internalized that support, promising he would use his influence if he ever reached celebrity status.


Now he has. He is fiercely proud of his St. Louis upbringing and over the past few months has become more vocal about social issues and more knowledgeable about matters that affect his community. Tatum is growing into a polished man, unafraid to express his feelings, realizing his impact on those who admire him for his basketball prowess.

“I remember so many people actually came to St. Louis, that happened in August and I remember so many entertainers and activists and rappers came to St. Louis and protested with the people and that meant so much to me, just to have that kind of support from the outside world,” he said. “St. Louis is a small city. We don’t get a lot of attention.

“To see that really made me think that if at the time if I was ever in a situation where I had that influence and that type of platform, how I would use it. Not wanting to have to be in the same situation six or seven years later, just knowing I have a voice, have a platform, a following, that people will listen to.”

Tatum now has that opportunity here in the NBA bubble, the power to deliver his message to a worldwide audience. He is becoming more than just a prolific scorer. He is taking steps toward becoming impactful off the floor and that’s what this resumption is about, just as much as chasing a championship.


Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.