As a Young Parent, Team USA Star Jayson Tatum Keeps His Role Model Close By
MELBOURNE -- Jayson Tatum didn’t know what to say, much less what to do.
“I found out,” the Boston Celtics forward says while on a panel with American former pro-turned-media personality Corey “Homicide” Williams at The Timber Yard in Melbourne in late August, “and, like, my heart dropped.”
The then-freshman sensation at Duke cut off the music in his dorm room, so he could sit and think in silence for 20 minutes. He then went to pick up his mother, Brandy Cole, who was in Durham to support her son, but he could barely muster a word to her the whole night.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he said.
“You know what?” she replied. “When you’re ready to talk, just let me know.”
Jayson dropped off his mom at her hotel and went back to his room. It was midnight, but he couldn’t sleep. The news he’d received—and what it might mean for his future—wouldn’t let him. So Jayson turned to Harry Giles III, his roommate and teammate at the time, and shared it with him through the shakes in his voice.
“Yo, do I tell my mom?” Jayson asked, before answering his own question. “I can’t tell my mom. I can’t tell my mom.”
“You got to,” Harry said.
Jayson waited until three in the morning. Then, he picked up the phone.
“Ma, you up?” he said.
“I am now,” Brandy answered.
“What you doing?” Jayson asked nervously.
“What do you want?” Brandy asked back.
“Uh...uhhh...uhhh...I’m,” he stuttered, “I’m gonna have a baby.”
Jayson thought about what his mom went through for him—how she passed up a scholarship offer to play volleyball at the University of Tennessee after she learned of her pregnancy on the 4th of July in 1997; how she had given birth to her baby boy during her spring break as a 19-year-old college freshman at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and returned to take her midterms the following week; how she had rebuilt their lives after they lost everything when her house in St. Louis' Lafayette Square succumbed to an electrical fire in 2000; and how she worked multiple jobs and picked up side gigs (including cleaning houses and public bathrooms), so she could pay the utility bills and keep little “Chump” (as Jayson was known) fed and cared for.
Jayson, too, would soon be a teen parent, and while his projection as a top pick in the 2017 NBA draft meant he likely wouldn’t have to endure quite the same struggles with his own child, he didn’t know how his mom would react to him following in her footsteps this way.
“She could tell, like, how nervous and scared I was. I thought she was gonna like cuss me out, like punch me through the phone,” he says. “But she didn’t.”
“Just go to sleep and we’ll talk about it tomorrow,” Brandy told him.
“And we figured it out,” he says now.
On Jayson Tatum's left calf is a tattoo of his mother, Brandy Cole. (Charles Park and Anthony Chang)
Jayson and Brandy have been inseparable from the start, partly out of necessity.
With Jayson’s father, Justin, playing basketball at a high level—first in college at St. Louis University, then professionally in the Netherlands for a club called Aris Leeuwarden—until 2006, Brandy cared for their young son as a single mother.
She brought Jayson to class with her while pursuing undergraduate degrees in political science and communications at UMSL. His presence occasionally drew rebukes from her professors, even though he kept quiet by her side in the back of the classroom.
When Brandy continued on to law school, Jayson would wile away his mom’s classroom hours in the lounge, either doing his homework or playing around on his Game Boy. That didn’t stop her classmates from recruiting her sprouting son onto the National Black Law Student Association's softball team, wherein some of the players pitched with beers in hand.
Mother and son often parted ways in the evenings, when Brandy went to Cingular Wireless to earn commission selling cell phones. Jayson came under the care of friends and family, including Brandy’s mother, Kristie Jursch. And though Justin built a strong relationship with Jayson—and coached him in AAU ball until he was 14—the younger Tatum lived and always laid his head at Brandy’s two-bedroom, one-bathroom house in the University City suburb of St. Louis.
As Jayson’s game and frame grew, to the point where USA Basketball brought him into the program’s talent pipeline, Brandy became the one who tagged along in his life.
In 2013, she traveled with him to Maldonado, Uruguay, where he averaged 10.0 points and 4.6 rebounds per game during Team USA’s 5-0 run to gold at the FIBA U16 Americas Championship. In 2014, she was by his side in Dubai as he and the Americans went 7-0 to capture gold again, this time in the FIBA U17 World Championship. The following year, it was the same story for Brandy and Jayson (a 7-0 record en route to gold) at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup in Heraklion, Greece.
“It was, like, ‘Wow, these are countries we would’ve never been able to go to without USA Basketball,’” Brandy tells CloseUp360.
For Jayson, trotting the globe with Team USA in the summers was as educational for his life as it was gratifying within the confines of the game.
“For me, traveling the world, traveling in general has always been big for my development as a person, on and off the court,” he tells CloseUp360. “You just learn so much more traveling, I think, than you can learn in a classroom—just really getting a hands-on experience and to meet new people, different experiences, different foods and things like that. So it’s something I’ll always remember.”
Jayson’s itinerary only intensified after he graduated from Chaminade College Preparatory School in St. Louis—whose alumni include NBA All-Stars Bradley Beal and David Lee—as a Missouri state champion and the No. 1 player in the high school class of 2016. At Duke, he criss-crossed the country with a Blue Devils squad that won the ACC tournament, but lost to South Carolina in the second round of the 2017 NCAA tournament. Upon joining the Celtics as the No. 3 pick in that year's draft, Jayson was baptized into a life that, while luxurious, brought the demanding travel of an 82-game regular-season schedule.
On December 7, 2017—the same day Jayson contributed 17 points and 10 rebounds to a 97-90 Boston win over the Dallas Mavericks at TD Garden—his high school girlfriend, Toriah Lachell, gave birth to their son, Jayson Christopher Tatum Jr. The arrival of “Deuce,” as he’s been nicknamed, brought with it a whole new set of challenges for Jayson, who, at 19 years old, became a father at the same age Brandy had him.
How is it, then, that he’s been able to balance his development as a budding star in the NBA with his duties as a dad?
“Well, he has me,” Brandy says with a laugh.
When Jayson first joined the Celtics, he and Brandy moved into the same apartment complex—son on the second floor, mother on the fourth. Brandy has brought Deuce to Boston’s home games, where he’s become a fixture around the famed parquet court. Despite her son’s rookie-contract riches, she’s continued to practice law, doing compliance work related to Medicare and Medicaid, with Toriah taking her turns looking after the little one.
And though the training and film study required to become a high-level hooper can be time-consuming, Jayson has found ample opportunity amid his professional obligations to bond with his son.
“You’ve got a lot of free time in the NBA, and he spends it all with his son,” Brandy explains. “So he goes to work, practices, works out, gets treatment, but then he comes home and spends the rest of the day with his son.
“I always knew he would be a great dad, but again, I was a teen parent. I know it’s not easy the struggles that come with it, but he’s handled it like he does everything else: he just knocks it out the park."
It helps that Jayson has had Brandy’s example to emulate. If he didn’t fully understand the sacrifices she made for him at the time—from giving up some of her own food to risking the loss of utilities in her home, so she could pay for Jayson to play in youth tournaments—he certainly does now.
“I just try to follow my mom's modeling of parenting,” he says. “Obviously, different circumstances. I'm a lot more fortunate in what I can do for him than what she was able to financially do for me. But just loving your child unconditionally and supporting them in whatever they want to do.”
In December 2017, Brandy became a grandmother at the age of 38 when her grandson, Deuce, was born. (Charles Park and Anthony Chang)
Basketball has brought Jayson a long way from his humble beginnings.
The now-21-year-old’s professional riches ensure that he and Brandy won’t have to worry about keeping up with gas and electric bills, or avoiding eviction. Any concerns he might’ve had as a kid about copping the latest and greatest basketball sneakers have been assuaged by his endorsement deal with Nike’s Jordan Brand, which affords him all the Jumpman gear he could ever want. Where once his mom had to scrimp and save for slices of Imo’s Pizza, Jayson is now a spokesman for the St. Louis chain.
He even has his own cologne, called Fierce, through Abercrombie & Fitch.
Last summer, Jayson visited Beijing as part of a promotional tour with Nike. This year, the game has had him on the move yet again.
On top of a vacation to the Caribbean, he’s worked out in Los Angeles with longtime skills trainer Drew Hanlen, appeared in Paris during Fashion Week with the rest of the Jordan Brand family—including Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Kemba Walker, Carmelo Anthony, Maya Moore and, of course, Michael Jordan himself—and joined USA Basketball on its journey through Australia en route to China for the upcoming FIBA Basketball World Cup.
“To think that I’m in Australia, being from St. Louis, it’s so far away,” Jayson says. “And at such a young age, to come over here and have such a great experience and so many fans, it’s really a dream come true.”
In Melbourne, Jayson met hundreds of his supporters during a stop at the popular Culture Kings streetwear store. He stopped to pose for photos with everyone who lined up along the graffiti-strewn walls of Hosier Lane—which included a portrait of his idol, Kobe Bryant—then did some shopping for himself and Deuce.
“I take him everywhere I go, everywhere I can,” Jayson says. “He’ll look back and see that he’s lived a great life so far. He’s gotten to travel all over the world and experience things. It’s cool for me to experience that with him, and it makes for some great pictures and memories. He’ll really appreciate it when he gets older.”
At his age, Deuce is as oblivious to his surroundings as he is in awe of his dad. The two are practically inseparable, just like how Jayson has long been with his own mom.
“We always tease him because when Jayson comes in the room, [Deuce] just jumps up, no matter what he’s doing, who he’s with. He takes off running,” Brandy says. “And we’re always, like, ‘What are we? Chopped liver?’ And he cries when [Jayson] leaves.
“It’s just a good thing because, you know, sometimes there’s a negative narrative in the culture as far as black fathers, so just to be able to see him have that experience and change the narrative, and show people that you can be young, you can be successful. But he still knows what the priority is.”
Jayson and Deuce traveled together during USA Basketball's tour through Australia. "I take him everywhere I go, everywhere I can," Jayson says. (Charles Park and Anthony Chang)
For Jayson, the goal isn’t just to be a great father or a great basketball player, though both of those matter immensely to him. He also wants to give back to his community in St. Louis, and has already made moves in that direction.
Jayson and Brandy have made a habit of refurbishing homeless shelters around Christmas time, with hands-on help from family and friends to provide supplies and patch up the structures themselves. In the past, they’ve partnered with established philanthropies to donate floors to recreation centers in St. Louis, and provide kids with backpacks full of school supplies.
With the establishment of the Jayson Tatum Foundation last summer, mother and son can forge ahead with their own initiatives. From sponsoring 100 boys and girls in the St. Louis area to attend their annual basketball camp and leadership program, to soliciting holiday donations through the “Daddy & Deuce Toy & Coat Drive,” to supporting single moms back home with rent-free housing, they’ve been able to enlist family, friends and other community members to find causes to back and use Jayson’s name and platform to push those plans forward.
“That's something I've always wanted to be remembered for—is giving back,” Jayson says. “And it starts where I grew up, where I'm from, and just helping out people that I can, in any way possible.”
But Jayson’s dreams, philanthropic and otherwise, extend far beyond the Gateway City’s limits. Through his travels, he’s been able to meet people all over the world and learn about the issues that affect them, all while sharing his vision for St. Louis with folks who might never set foot under the Gateway Arch.
“I want to be known as the greatest from St. Louis, and as I’ve gotten older, building my brand internationally has been the focus,” he says. “It’s so much bigger than just the U.S. I’m trying to tap into that.”
"When Jayson comes in the room, [Deuce] just jumps up, no matter what he’s doing, who he’s with," Brandy says. (Charles Park and Anthony Chang)
As much as Jayson loves Deuce and does to keep his toddler in tow, the two disbursed once Team USA left Australia. Daddy headed to Shanghai to embark on his quest for a fourth FIBA gold medal with USA Basketball, while the little one will return to the U.S. with Brandy, before she doubles back to China to meet Jayson in Beijing for the World Cup finals.
“She's been there every step of the way, literally,” Jayson says. “I wouldn't be here without her, so it's only right that she continues to go on the journey with me.”
But before father and son split, they got to spend some quality time together at the Melbourne Zoo, where Deuce proved to be more precocious than his dad in some respects. By and large, Jayson initially shied away from the animals he encountered.
“It’s funny because Jayson doesn’t really do animals,” Brandy says. “He has this thing about not infringing on their territory and their space.”
Deuce, on the other hand, had no such reservations about interacting with the fauna before him.
“He got to feed some kangaroos, pet some lemurs, feed a giraffe,” Jayson says. “He’s fearless. He doesn’t know what’s going on, so he had fun.”
“He was completely fearless,” Brandy corroborates, “and Jayson has this hesitation and this look of anxiety in his face.”
Jayson and Deuce Visit the Melbourne Zoo
Jayson will have no such fear when he steps on the court—be it in red, white and blue with Team USA or green and white with the Celtics this fall. Nor will he hesitate to share any updates about Deuce with Brandy or anyone else, for that matter. He’s as proud of his son as he is secure in his own fatherhood. He’s even let Nike incorporate Deuce into the company’s campaigns around him.
Some day, Deuce might appreciate the extent to which his life has become a matter of public record. For now, the nearly-two-year-old can enjoy watching daddy play on TV from more than 7,200 miles away, and look forward to another joy-filled reunion when Jayson returns to Boston in mid-September.
On-site reporting by CloseUp360 Founder and President Jared Zwerling.
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.