Andre Iguodala said that “his heart dropped” when he previously asked Jayson Tatum who the best player in the world was — his answer wasn’t himself. Instead, Tatum named Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Tatum interjected, noting that Iguodala had asked himthe question soon after Giannis’ 2021 Finals run: “I got a lot of respect for guys that get to the top of the mountain, get over the mountain.”
Last week, Tatum sat down with Iggy and his co-host, former Celtic Evan Turner, on SB Nation’s Point Forward podcast, and spoke about the pressures of playing in a championship-or-bust city like Boston, his growing up, raising Deuce, playing against his childhood idols, and more.
Upon Iguodala’s reaction to him naming Giannis the world’s best basketball player, Tatum clarified: “When I step on the court, I don’t step on the court and be like, ‘uhh, I’m the second best player.’ Every time I step on the court, I know and feel that I’m the best player on the court.”
On growing up and raising a son of his own:
Jayson Tatum grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of Justin Tatum, who was well-known in the area after having played basketball at the University of St. Louis. He picked up the nickname of ‘Le Jay’ and often felt he was perceived as his father’s shadow.
“Le Jay was a kid who was clumsy, skinny, always played two, three grades up, was getting pushed around by the high school kids,” Tatum said of his younger self, who often trailed his 6‘6 father as the two walked into gyms. “They always saw the potential, saw that he could be special one day — but he just had to grow up.”
Tatum has discussed his complicated relationship with his father on multiple occasions. Justin played professionally overseas and was the first person who put the basketball in his son’s hand. He also served as the younger Tatum’s trainer until he was in 8th grade.
“It was a Jesus Shuttlesworth type of relationship — we definitely got closer as we got older, but it did put a strain on our relationship,” Tatum said. “He pushed the limits at times, but looking back on it, that is a big reason why I made it, in spite of what he thought. Whether he meant it or he didn’t, the things he’d say to try to push my buttons motivated me.”
Now, as Tatum raises his own kid in the public spotlight, he reflects on how he felt like he had big shoes to fill as a kid, and therefore can’t imagine the pressures that his six-year-old son Deuce could feel in the future growing up in the shadows of an NBA star. Tatum hasn’t yet figured out how he wants to parent Deuce as it relates to basketball, but he does want to ensure that however he chooses, he doesn’t strain their relationship.
“Do I take that route? First of all, I got to know if you love it,” Tatum said. “If he loves it and wants to try and pursue it, it’s something I got to think about. I don’t want for me and him what I had with my dad. Even though it worked — I am who I am in large part because he pushed me so hard — it put a strain on our relationship.”
On competing against his mentors and heroes at the highest level:
Kobe Bryant texted Jayson Tatum after the Celtics won Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2018, his rookie season. Bryant praised his performance and asked him to work out with him over the summer, a moment that felt surreal.
“That was my biggest inspiration,” Tatum said. “It sounds cliché, it’s crazy that someone thousands of miles away, didn’t know me from a can of paint, can inspire me to chase my dream the way that he did, to work out at 5:30 in the morning, to watch all these highlights and interviews, even his postgame interviews. Everything about him, I wanted to be.”
Kobe, who Tatum has famously idolized, is far from the only star he’s had the opportunity to match up against during his six-year NBA career.
“So many guys that I looked up to, when you first come into the league, there’s a sense of being starstruck,” Tatum said. “My first game in the league was Kyrie’s first game back in Cleveland, and we played LeBron. We had a back-to-back and we played Giannis at home. 12 games later, we played in OKC and I was at the free throw line with Melo and Paul George. I was like ‘Oh my god.’ Then, a few years go by, and that’s your matchup.”
Tatum named his seven all-time best players: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Steph Curry, and Shaquille O’Neal. He’s gotten the chance to compete against three of those guys in his young career.
On the 2022 Finals run, which ended in disappointment but taught him everything:
Tatum came close in 2022, when the Celtics fell to Iguodala’s Warriors in six games in the Finals, and credits his then-coach, Ime Udoka, for helping strengthen his mentality.
The Celtics faced the 7th seed Brooklyn Nets in the first round, a team spearheaded by Kevin Durant, who Tatum was matched up against. While other top-seeded teams tried to avoid the match-up, the Celtics embraced them and ultimately swept the star studded Nets group many predicted would beat them.
“His approach to the game, to us, that mentality — we would watch film, and he would pause it and it’d be a time when I was guarding Bron and I let him get past me, and he would be like ‘yo, y’all not friends, y’all not homies, you’re trying to get to where he’s at.’ It was that mentality every day,” Tatum said. “It just ran through everybody, we were on that, ‘we’re not running from nobody, whatever it takes, whoever we got to play, that’s how it’s got to be.’”
The Celtics went on to defeat the Nets in four games, the Bucks in seven, and the Heat in seven.
“I remember going through that playoffs, I was mentally drained after each series,” Tatum said. “I thought, if we play the Nets and I beat KD, I’ll be fulfilled, like we did something. And they were like ‘they were banged up, can you beat Giannis?’ And then it’s ‘Khris Middleton wasn’t there, can you go on the road and beat Jimmy Butler?’ And I did all those things, and after each time, it’s like, I’m supposed to feel something?”
Ultimately, Tatum and Co. weren’t able to get the elusive 18th championship banner the Celtics organization has been pursuing since 2009. They fell to Iguodala’s Warriors in six games.
“It don’t mean nothing in Boston if you don’t win the championship,” Tatum said. “We lost to y’all and I didn’t play well enough, and it’s like, as much as you can say you don’t pay attention to that stuff, you hear it [the criticism], it’s there. Even the toughest minded person, subconsciously, that’s on your mind.”
Tatum said that in the future, if he could win the finals against any team, he’d choose the Warriors, who handed him the most substantial loss of his career.
“I already had a lot of respect for the Warriors — their tradition, everybody on the team, Steph and everybody,” Tatum said. “ It just went so much higher after we played y’all in the Finals. It made me realize how hard you have to work to get there, and how much tougher, and more together, and smarter you have to be to win.”
On the 2023-24 season so far:
Tatum is not the biggest fan of the In-Season Tournament’s point differential system, which led to him playing in the fourth quarter of a blowout win against the Bulls last week. Teammates Jaylen Brown and Jrue Holiday also criticized the format, as have many other players across the league.
“It wasn’t Joe’s fault or our fault,” Tatum said. “We were in the game, and I tapped Torrey Craig and I was like ‘yo bro, I don’t really want to be out here right now.’ We were up 30 going into the 4th. If it was a Wednesday, I would’ve been sitting on the bench, the younger guys would’ve gone in. It just didn’t feel right.”
And as for his thoughts on the team’s first loss of the season to Minnesota Timberwolves on November 6th? He named Anthony Edwards one of the players he most enjoys competing against, a list that also includes Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, and Bam Adebayo.
“That was a good game,” Tatum said. “He [Edwards] played his ass off, he made plays on both ends. I was pissed because up until that point I had never lost to Minnesota. I had my first 50 point game against them.”
On winning a championship for Boston:
Jayson Tatum already has impressive career accolades, but what drives him now is the pursuit of a championship.
“I know I can average 30, was first time All NBA a couple of years in a row,” Tatum said. “I know I can do that. Now, I’ve just got to win one.”
There’s immense pressure being one of the faces in the league and having to be ‘on’ each and every night.
“There’s only so many guys that have been in that situation that you’re in, or trying to be in, and everybody’s going to try and deal with it in their own way,” Tatum said. “Mentally, it can be a lot — just the idea of being young, and every single night, there’s 20,000 people who came to see you be superman. They don’t know what you’re dealing with at home, family problems, you argued with someone back in Saint Louis, something wrong with Deuce, or whatever. It’s like ‘No, I’ve seen you do this before, I want to come see you do it tonight. I don’t care what else you got going on. Be that person we want to see.’ And you’ve got to learn to navigate that.”
He’s working on that, and all in the hopes of winning a championship in Boston.
“Honestly, I didn’t understand how special of a place Boston was until I got here,” Tatum said. “I didn’t like Boston. I felt like them beating the Rams ended being the reason the Rams ended up leaving. They beat Kobe in ‘08, so I was sick about that. But this is a special place. They love their sports teams, they love their guys. I feel like they’ve been embraced, I feel like they’ve accepted me as one of their guys. There’s a sense of pride, there’s an edge you have to have to play here. I can only imagine the love, the reception, if you hung one of those banners up. It would be incredible — it’s going to be incredible. I know it.”