Jayson Tatum was just 8 years old when his mother Brandy saved up to take him to his first NBA All-Star weekend, in Las Vegas in 2007.
She couldn’t afford tickets to the game, but knew how much it would mean to her son just to be in the same city as the best basketball players in the world. They went to some fan fests together, and Brandy waited in line for six hours at one of them so Tatum could play a shooting game against Heat superstar Dwyane Wade.
Tatum won, of course, although he still believes Wade had the final say in that. Tatum got to stand in Yao Ming’s size-18 sneakers, and his mother bought him the only keepsake that he really wanted: A red-and-gold Kobe Bryant All-Star warm-up jacket.
“I just kept telling myself that weekend, ‘Man, one day I’m going to be here,’ ” Tatum said in a quiet corner of TD Garden late Thursday, after his team’s 119-104 win over the Warriors. “I was so young, probably a bunch of kids say that. But I just had so much fun. It was one of the best times of my life.”
Earlier Thursday, Brandy Cole received word that her son had been named an NBA All-Star for the first time, selected as a reserve by the Eastern Conference coaches. She tried to surprise him by sending his 2-year-old son, Jayson Jr. — known as Deuce — into the locker room before the game wearing a ‘My Daddy is an All-Star’ shirt. Tatum already knew by then, but that did not make the moment any less sweet.
“Once you finally hear, I wanted to cry,” Tatum said. “I didn’t cry. I might cry later, though. But I’m just so grateful. It’s something I’m not going to take for granted.”
Tatum said that when he wore his Bryant All-Star jacket as a child, it made him feel like an All-Star himself. He still has the keepsake at his home. As time passed, Bryant went from being an idol to a mentor and training partner. Tatum cherished the time he spent with the former Lakers star, and it hurts him that he will not be able to talk to him about this special moment, following Bryant’s death Sunday in a helicopter crash.
“I think today is bittersweet,” Brandy said. “Jayson was in shock for the first couple of days [after Bryant died]. The bittersweet part is this is a time when I think he would probably get a call from Kobe, or he would see him in Chicago, and I’m sure Kobe would tell him he was proud of him. So I’m sure he’ll miss all of that, and Kobe knowing that he made his first All-Star team.”
But Tatum takes solace in the fact that Bryant saw him flourishing this year, and he was lifted up by the outpouring of support he received from others on Thursday. He said that when he got back to his locker after the game, 255 text messages were waiting. He also missed plenty of congratulatory phone calls, including one from Oklahoma City Thunder star Chris Paul.
Brandy said that in recent weeks her son had hardly stopped talking about how badly he wanted to become an All-Star. And as the Celtics continued to win, and Tatum continued to soar, it started to look more like a reality.
This season Tatum is averaging 21.5 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists, and the Celtics have an 11.3 net rating with him on the floor, the highest among the team’s regular rotation players.
Tatum’s hometown, St. Louis, is just a four-hour drive from Chicago, and Brandy said that friends and family will swarm to the city to see his big moment.
“Anytime he plays within eight hours of home he always has a big turnout,” his mother said with a chuckle. “It’s just really something special when you have kids and they have dreams, and you can actually witness them come true. It’ll be very special and a night we’ll always remember it.”
Tatum will be joined on the All-Star team by Celtics point guard Kemba Walker, who was previously selected as a starter. Forward Jaylen Brown was not chosen as a reserve on Thursday.
“I’m not disappointed,” Brown said. “I think it’s a lot of guys that they have to choose from, a lot of guys having a good year. It is what it is. Just start gearing up your mind, getting ready for the playoffs.”
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The Celtics did not play their most crisp game, but against the 10-win Warriors it did not really matter, as they hit enough 3-pointers and grabbed enough rebounds to take the victory anyway.
Gordon Hayward scored 25 points, Marcus Smart had 21, and Tatum had 20. The Celtics won despite committing 22 turnovers. They outrebounded Golden State, 51-30, and made 15 of 35 shots from beyond the arc.
“We weren’t a great offensive team tonight,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “We’ll have to play a lot more crisp on Saturday [against the 76ers] if we want to generate good looks.”