Justin Tatum remembers how his then-6-year-old son, Jayson, used to sit in front of a television and become enchanted as Kobe Bryant did just about whatever he pleased on a basketball court.
Jayson was rapt at Bryant’s wizardry, but he was also studying it. Within about two years, he started trying to mimic Bryant’s approach — his shot, his drives, his swagger. And yes, he was just 8, but if you squinted, you could already see some Kobe in him.
“He’d just emulate the moves he saw Kobe do to the best of his ability,” Justin Tatum said. “Jayson’s coordination was really good for a young kid.”
The signature fadeaway jump shots came with time, but early on, the focus was more on footwork and simple pull-ups. Tatum’s fascination with Bryant only sprouted from there. He sometimes sat in middle school classes and pulled up YouTube clips of his favorite player, giving himself his own kind of history lesson.
“And it wasn’t just about seeing clips,” Justin Tatum said. “He’d actually try to do those things out there on the court at that young age then. He obviously had some of the moves down in high school. It was a passion of his.”
It was no surprise, then, that Jayson Tatum was almost breathless last week when he called his father to tell him that he had just worked out with Bryant. After a mesmerizing rookie year, Tatum is entering his second season with the Celtics, and he could not think of a better way to prepare for it. And this time there was no need for television or YouTube, because the former Lakers star was right there in front of him, in living color.
“We had over an hour, hour-and-a-half conversation,” Justin Tatum said. “He was like a kid in the candy store. It was like he was 20 years old going back to 12, or even 9.
“It was just good to hear your son on the other end meet his idol, talk to his idol, and hear his idol say a lot of good things about him. It just gives him more drive. That’s just more fuel to a kid that’s already ready to go. It was a blessing to hear how happy he was.”
The connection between Bryant and Tatum actually started to develop from afar during last season’s playoffs. When the Celtics were facing the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals, Bryant released a segment from his ESPN+ program “Detail,” in which he critiqued parts of Tatum’s game.
Tatum was honored to be a subject, and a day after the video came out, he somewhat sheepishly said he had already watched it about 25 times.
“That was really cool for me,” Tatum said in May. “Growing up, [Bryant] was my favorite player. That was really a special moment.”
Tatum has been working out in Los Angeles for much of this summer, and his trainer, Drew Hanlen, helped arrange the meeting with Bryant. Justin Tatum said the two players sat down and talked for a while before taking the court together.
“It’s just a testament that dreams come true, man, and just to see him fulfilling his is special,” Justin Tatum said. “It’s surreal, but I mean it’s more that I’m happy that it’s something more to keep him going and keep challenging him, because some players stop being challenged. He’s just finding way more things to do to get better.”
After last season, Tatum said he wanted to add muscle to his relatively thin frame. His father said that in addition to on-court workouts, Tatum has been “relentless” in the weight room this summer, and that he has altered his diet a bit to bulk up, too.
In Los Angeles, Tatum also has been working out with some of Hanlen’s other clients such as 76ers center Joel Embiid and Wizards forward Kelly Oubre Jr. Back in St. Louis, he still has access to his high school’s gym whenever he wants it, and he has brought former teammates with him for one-on-one sessions.
“If you think Year 1 was really good, get ready for next year,” Justin Tatum said. “That’s just something that fuels him.
“A lot of other rookies or other players probably took, like, more than a month off. He maybe took a couple weeks, and right now he’s trying to learn from the top-notch people. I think it’s just going to really enhance his game with a bigger leap to next year.”