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Celtics star Jayson Tatum had only mild COVID symptoms, but mentally, the virus took its toll

Jayson Tatum played 31 minutes and scored 24 points in Monday's win over the Bulls in Chicago.Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

CHICAGO — In the final seconds of the first half of Monday’s game against the Bulls, the Celtics got a defensive stop and had time for one more possession. Jayson Tatum, playing his first game in 17 days, thought he was done for the half until he was summoned by coach Brad Stevens to help the Celtics end with a score.

Tatum sprinted to the scorer’s table, ripped off his shooting shirt, then dished an assist to Daniel Theis for an easy bucket to extend the Celtics’ halftime lead over the Bulls to 10.

Having Tatum for such a situation is a luxury the Celtics never want to take for granted, and playing basketball at a high level again is something Tatum could only imagine as he missed two weeks with COVID-19.


Tatum is in the early stages of what looks like the best season of his NBA career, and he had just finished beating longtime buddy Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards when he found out he had tested positive for COVID-19 on the morning of Jan. 9.

He returned to score 24 points pretty flawlessly in Monday’s 119-103 win, the Celtics’ second in a row after losing three straight. He was a welcome sight to give the Celtics that 1-2 punch with Jaylen Brown.

And while he appeared to show no ill effects from such a deadly virus, mentally it took its toll. COVID-19 has everyone, even fine-tuned 22-year-old professional athletes, pondering their mortality, especially after a positive test.

NBA players have seen the damage COVID-19 has inflicted on the world, their country, their community, and even their family. So testing positive, regardless of the few symptoms you have and how quickly you bounce back, is a frightening experience.


“Mentally, I can’t lie to you, it’s tough,” Tatum said. “Especially your initial reaction, once you find out. I don’t know if it’s panic, but you definitely worry because everything you read about and hear how many people it’s affected or didn’t make it, especially the first four days or so.

“It bothered me. It was on my mind, thinking, ‘Do I feel OK? Do I not feel OK? Can I smell this? Does my chest hurt? Or am I just overthinking?’ ”

Those of us who have tested positive for COVID-19 completely understand Tatum’s concern and mental consumption with the virus. We expect these athletes to return from this setback quickly, after the minimal quarantine time, because they are elite and invincible. But that’s not the case.

“You’re on lockdown for two weeks, so mentally it can be tough, especially at first,” Tatum said.

Tatum said he had only mild symptoms — headaches, fever — on the first night after he tested positive. The rest of the time was spent in seclusion, watching Celtics games but not picking up a basketball. He was cleared to begin workouts last Wednesday, his first day out of quarantine.

He was not on a minutes limit, but Stevens didn’t want to push his young All-Star too far. So Tatum left Monday’s game after playing 31 minutes and scoring 24 points on 10-for-21 shooting along with 5 assists and 4 rebounds.

“I was extremely happy with the way he came out and how he played,” Stevens said. “I thought he had some moments where he looked a little bit more gassed.


“At a stretch at the end of the game, he wasn’t happy with me. That’s a surefire way of knowing you’re the coach — is when you take him out on a minutes restriction, he’s going to make some type of nasty gesture your way.

“That’s not easy to do, to be out 10 days or whatever it was and score what he scored.”

Tatum scored 7 consecutive points in one first-quarter stretch, and it appeared he was back to normal, but you could imagine him wearing a bathrobe in quarantine watching the Celtics lose twice to the 76ers. The only thing he could do then was take notes, remind himself how much of a difference he makes in the lineup, and get healthy.

“As you probably would expect, just laidback and watching the game,” he said. “I am watching it from a different lens, knowing our team.

“I definitely watch it differently than just watching a normal game, just dissecting our team. I’m not animated, but I am definitely thinking when I’m watching.”

And there certainly was a sense of relief when he returned to form, because Tatum had been afflicted with a potentially life-threatening virus, and you tend to think it’s easy to bounce back when the symptoms are mild, but mentally the mind works overtime pondering what-ifs.


Tatum was no different, but he was able to overcome that anxiety and regain his prowess, which is an achievement that should not be overlooked.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.