It’s been an eventful week for Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, and not for all the right seasons. While the 22-year-old was named to his second All-Star team and his commercials for Ruffles potato chips debuted, the Celtics are mired in perhaps the worst slump of his career.
He said early in the week that the All-Star invitation wasn’t as exciting because the Celtics have a losing record, and many NBA pundits have questioned whether the Celtics should have two of the 13 Eastern Conference All-Stars (Jaylen Brown is the other Celtic).
Tatum has tried to focus on leading the team back to prosperity while also enjoying the benefits of his success. He donned the front of Ruffles packages this past week with the new “Flaming Hot BBQ,” a nod to his St. Louis roots and love for spicy food.
For a player considered quiet among his peers and in the Celtics organization, Tatum has turned himself into quite a product endorser with a series of commercials for a St. Louis pizza restaurant to a plug for “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” a 2019 animated movie.
“It’s been great; I enjoy doing things that are genuine and are organic,” Tatum said. “I love chips. I’ve been eating Ruffles since I was a kid, and seeing Anthony Davis partner with this and have his own chip, that was pretty cool. So if the opportunity presented itself, I would jump at that, and I did and I’m excited about this.”
Tatum’s 3-year-old son, Deuce, has become a local celebrity himself and even made an appearance to cheer on his dad in the NBA bubble. Tatum said one of the thrills of his marketing endeavors is his son seeing him in different dimensions off the court.
“He noticed it every time I’m in TV or a commercial,” Tatum said. “He always points to the TV, especially if we’re at home and the commercial comes up. He’ll be like, ‘Look, it’s Daddy,’ and I’ll be like, ‘I know.’ He gets excited, but I think he sees it so much, he gets used to it. Every time he sees me on TV he points it out like it’s the first time he sees me on TV.”
What isn’t lost on Tatum is his rise to success. Less than a decade ago, Tatum was in middle school and also seeing LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Chris Paul in commercials. They were his heroes. The script has flipped. There are kids who view Tatum as their superstar. That is humbling.
“It still doesn’t really register because I still feel the same as when I was 15 and I was living in St. Louis,” Tatum said. “I definitely understand the feeling of someone you look up to that is your favorite player and you walk into a store and see them on a bag of chips and how exciting that can make you. It still takes time to register, seeing my name on a bag of chips. I’m still like, ‘Man, is this really my life?’ But I think it’s really cool.”
Tatum said he tries to not only increase his brand but place his personal touch on products, such as his own chip flavor. It’s a testament to how today’s athletes have more control over their image and reputation.
“I think if you look at everything I’ve been a part of or partnered with, there’s a story behind or something organic behind it,” he said. “I’m pretty quiet, but I do get excited about things that I genuinely enjoy and have some type of story behind it. I genuinely love eating Ruffles.
“I like being a part of the creative idea, seeing it come to light. I love spicy food. Anything I eat, I can make spicy and give it that extra kick, and I’m going to do it every time. Being from St. Louis, one thing we’re known for is barbecue, making the combination was a no-brainer.”
Tatum is polite with the media but guarded, showing little of his personality. But he said when the cameras aren’t rolling, he’s a fun-loving, affable guy. The commercials allow him to show a different part of his personality, and these days, doing something other than playing basketball can be therapeutic.
“I like doing things that are fun, like to smile, like to show my sense of humor, I really enjoy doing things like that,” he said. “I like seeing the response from my family and from fans, people all across social media. I enjoy doing all those type of things.
“I would love to be one day in a TV show or appear in a movie. I’m open to all ideas. Just taking on new challenges. I’m sure that’s a challenge, being in a TV show or appearing in a movie. I know how hard actors work on that. I’m sure one day I’ll get an opportunity.”
For now, the off-court endeavors are a temporary salve for his and the Celtics’ struggles. Tatum said he wants team success first. He wants his play and the team’s play to be exceptional so there are never any questions as to whether he deserves an All-Star appearance.
“It’s a big deal and I’m excited, don’t take anything for granted, but it’s hard to really celebrate something like that knowing the team and how we are,” he said. “We’re not where we want to be. I think it’s just part of life, part of the process.”
Ownership change best for franchise
The Atlanta Dream were just another WNBA franchise until then-US Senator Kelly Loeffler from Georgia, a minority owner, came out against the Black Lives Matter movement last summer. Several WNBA players, including members of the Dream then began openly supporting her Democratic opponent, Raphael Warnock.
It was an uncomfortable position for the WNBA, but one that exemplified the power and passion of the league’s players regarding social issues. Soon after Loeffler lost the runoff to Warnock in January, she was approached about selling the team.
And this past week, the franchise changed hands, with former WNBA player Renee Montgomery, an ex-UConn star, joining an ownership group headed by real estate developer Larry Gottesdiener.
Montgomery, 34, was one of the first WNBA players to opt out of the 2020 season because of the desire to pursue social justice efforts. She had thoughts of returning to the floor until a conversation with LeBron James and WNBA star Diana Taurasi, who each said ownership was the next level for professional athletes.
Montgomery officially retired, then joined the Gottesdiener ownership group, making her the first former player to own a WNBA franchise.
“When I opted out, I didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said. “But the basketball community reached out to see if I was OK. For me, I’m excited because that connection has already been made. As [Gottesdiener and I] talked we began to see our visions aligned so easily right away. For me, that was important. He already mentioned women empowerment and social justice and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s my life.’ ”
Montgomery jumped into her post-WNBA life by becoming a commentator on Hawks broadcasts, and also part of TMZ Sports.
“For me to be in a media space and have a platform where I can speak about the Dream and talk about women’s sports, not just the Dream, the WNBA,” she said. “I’m going to take advantage of those opportunities. I reached out to [James] and I said, ‘Hey, if you guys are serious, then I am as well. If you could help me get to the next step,’ and the next step was [WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert]. I told her I would love to be in that conversation [with ownership]. They were very welcoming.
“Once we started talking, I didn’t know what their viewpoints for the team and what they saw in the Dream, but I was so thankful to see that we have the same vision.”
James, as well as WNBA standout Candace Parker, has championed players investing in sports franchises and becoming front office power brokers in retirement.
“[Taurasi] said [ownership is] where the real decisions are made, and I was still trying to play,” Montgomery said. “Even seeing people like LeBron James and he’s talking about what ownership means. That kind of fueled me, and I continued along that journey.
“I feel like I’m always going to be a player and yes, I still could be able to play if I wanted to, but I recognized this opportunity, the same way I recognized when I opted out in 2020 that there was something happening here. This is what I need to be doing. I wanted to be more than an athlete. It does mean being in these type of situations. I was crying thinking about all the memories I had as a player. I was crying out of excitement.”
Montgomery’s decision to pursue ownership and pass on playing another season or two is a testament to how former players are viewing ownership and front office positions as a legitimate objective.
“Last year started the ball rolling as far as people recognizing the women of the WNBA are not just great at basketball, but they are advocates,” Montgomery said. “I talked about what’s up next for athletes. We’ve always been great at our sport. We’ve always been great role models, but next up is, ‘OK, can we be great leaders at executive positions?’ From Naomi Osaka to Candace Parker to all the other women that are buying into women’s sports, it’s proving to be true.”
Engelbert did not want to disparage the Loeffler ownership group, and Montgomery refused to even mention Loeffler’s name. An owner criticizing a movement that represents most of the players was embarrassing for the league. Loeffler never wavered from her stance, and the WNBA found a way to give the Dream and the league a boost with a fresh start.
“Mary Brock and Kelly Loeffler were the first women to own a professional sports team in Georgia and they did make significant contributions and we thank them for that,” Engelbert said. “That’s in the past now and we’re looking toward the future.”
Minnesota’s move leaves bad taste
The Timberwolves made a coaching change last Sunday, as general manager Gersson Rosas fired Ryan Saunders after parts of three seasons and quickly replaced him with Raptors assistant Chris Finch.
Teams are not supposed to begin coaching searches when they still have a head coach, but the Timberwolves obviously did, and there has been criticism of Rosas for not conducting a thorough search and also passing on Saunders’s’ assistant, and longtime NBA coach, David Vanterpool as a potential interim.
Rosas released a statement that Vanterpool’s “time will come,” but the move still angered many NBA assistants and current and former players who believe the system for selecting coaches is based more on comfort than talent. Finch and Rosas worked together in Houston when Finch coached the Rockets’ G-League affiliate.
It’s not often that the National Basketball Coaches Association, whose president is Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, releases a statement about a hire. But the Finch situation, the timing of it, and the lack of a legitimate search compelled the association to admonish Rosas.
“It’s always bittersweet when one coach is fired and another is hired,” the statement read. “But this is not about individual coaches. We would be remiss not to acknowledge a deeper concern and level of disappointment with the Minnesota head coach hiring process. The NBCA understands and respects each organization’s right to hire and fire whomever and whenever it chooses. But it is also our responsibility to point out when an organization fails to conduct a thorough and transparent search of candidates from a wide range of diverse backgrounds.”
Rosas and the Timberwolves won’t face any repercussions, but they should. There is no Rooney Rule in the NBA, although commissioner Adam Silver encourages teams to conduct thorough searches. But of the 10 coaching openings since the end of last season, seven were filled by white males. Doc Rivers and Tyronn Lue, each of whom has won an NBA championship, were two of the Black coaches hired. Stephen Silas (Rockets) was the lone first-time Black head coach.
The Finch move may be what was best for the Timberwolves, but it won’t likely help their reputation as a dysfunctional franchise. Saunders appeared to be unqualified when he was named coach at age 33, just 10 years after being a graduate manager at the University of Minnesota.
He lost 94 of his 137 games with the Timberwolves, so the firing was not a surprise. But Rosas swapping him for Finch just a few hours after the firing was an unscrupulous move.
Two more players hit the free agent market this past week when the Rockets parted ways with center DeMarcus Cousins and the Lakers waived guard Quinn Cook before his contract became guaranteed. Cousins, 30, played in 25 games for the Rockets, starting 11, but shot just 37.6 percent from the field and averaged 9.6 points. Houston, which is in rebuilding mode, wants to play recently signed center Christian Wood and didn’t have a need for Cousins. The Rockets signed Cousins and acquired point guard John Wall when they were trying to retool and accommodate James Harden. But Harden was moved and the Rockets are struggling. The question is whether the league has passed Cousins by. He missed most of the past two seasons with an Achilles’ injury and torn ACL, robbing him of some athleticism. And since he isn’t considered a stretch-5 because of his inconsistent 3-point shooting, only a handful of teams are likely to show interest. Cousins is now more an enforcer than a productive post presence. But there could be a team in need of a veteran backup to serve as a space eater in the paint. Cook, on the other hand, won titles with the Lakers and Warriors, but Los Angeles is trying to increase roster flexibility and didn’t have a use for Cook with the emergence of second-year guard Talen Horton-Tucker … Meanwhile, the Knicks have held Austin Rivers out of the lineup as they attempt to trade him to a contender. Rivers signed a three-year, $10 million deal with the final two years not guaranteed, meaning his contract could serve as a sweetener in future deals. Rivers could help a club and likely wouldn’t command more than a second-round pick. Rivers was supposed to back up Elfrid Payton, but the development of rookie Immanuel Quickley, along with the recent acquisition of coach Tom Thibodeau favorite Derrick Rose, leaves Rivers expendable. As has been a pattern recently, Rivers was removed from the rotation and told the team is shopping him …The Kings also did not guarantee the contract of recently waived swingman Glenn Robinson, who could help a contender with his shooting and defensive skills. Robinson is a career 37.3 percent 3-point shooter, but the Kings are preparing for another trip to the draft lottery.