Ready For Prime Time
ESPN The Magazine|October 29, 2018

He is a rookie starter and much is expected, yet as Jayson Tatum warms up with his teammates before his first NBA game, he appears impervious to the noise and the lights and the pulsating anticipation inside Quicken Loans Arena.

Jackie MacMullan
This is the home of the Cleveland Cavaliers—LeBron James’ house—and while Tatum is a teenage visitor, he prides himself on one particular basketball trait: He is rarely jittery on the basketball court.

I’ve played this game my whole life, Tatum thinks. This is what I do.

He playfully pokes the ball free from fellow Celtic Shane Larkin in the layup line. He launches smooth long-range jumpers in between conversations with his mentor, Kyrie Irving. As the minutes count down before the 2017 tip-off, the fans bellow as the Cavaliers sprint onto the floor. Derrick Rose, the former MVP, leads the charge. Trailing him is Dwyane Wade, the future Hall of Famer. Tatum doesn’t intend to gawk, but as he fixes his gaze on them, his mind wanders.

I wore both of their jerseys growing up, Tatum thinks to himself.

He waits, as the crowd does, for his childhood hero to emerge. James jogs out last, his lips pursed, his jaw set. Tatum searches for a hint of recognition, but James looks straight through him.

“He was so much bigger than I thought,” Tatum says. “I felt like a kid. I mean, I guess I was one. I was only 19. After that, he was the only thing on my mind. As long as I can remember, he’s been the best or one of the best in the league. And that’s when it hit me: ‘That’s LeBron. What am I doing out here?’”

The game unfolds at warp speed. Tatum has an open lane to the hoop and Irving fires the ball into him. Tatum reminds himself to go up strong but not too strong, then elevates with an ease that is initially comforting until … Ah! Too late! Lying in wait is James, who springs up and swats away Tatum’s first NBA offering like it’s an annoying gnat.

Tatum’s NBA career is exactly 69 seconds old. He’s certain this night can’t get any worse, but four minutes after that, teammate Gordon Hayward crumples to the floor, his ankle contorted grotesquely out of its socket, his season over.

Immediately, the Celtics need more from the rookie to hang with the Cavs. Immediately, it is too much. Tatum short-arms a layup. Wade blocks another of his shots. Tatum goes 0-for-5 from the floor in that first half, and his team, in shock from the gruesome injury to Hayward, trails by 16 points.

Justin Tatum winces as he witnesses his son falter. Jayson had been coached by his father from an early age to regroup in moments like this. When he was in fifth grade, Justin threw him into high school scrimmages with college-level talent. Jayson would fail—repeatedly—but eventually recover, then flourish. On this night, in an NBA forum, Justin believes the result will be the same.

“What I wanted to see,” Justin says now, “was for him to fall on his ass, then get back up and do his thing.”

Justin’s faith is rewarded: His son bounces back with 14 points and 10 rebounds in a 102-99 Celtics loss. Yet the LeBron block gnaws at Jayson. “You set me up,” he tells Irving after the game. Irving places his hand firmly on Tatum’s shoulder. “You should have dunked it,” he says. Tatum nods. He knows Irving is right.

“That,” he says, “was the last time I was nervous the rest of the season.”

THE CELTICS ARE the favorites to win the Eastern Conference this season, and Jayson Tatum’s trajectory is a significant reason for that optimism. The Celtics have emerged as a relatively conflict-free collection of rising stars, with Tatum and his uncommon poise representing the epitome of their potential.

The challenge will be how to continue his progression on a team with so many talented veterans who need shots too. Tatum is in a hurry to be great, but he might have to wait his turn on a roster that already features Irving and Hayward.

“He’s very composed,” teammate Al Horford says. “It’s weird to see someone that young pull that off.”

He was not born that way. Tatum’s unflappable demeanor has been cultivated by two vigilant parents, both college athletes, who raised Jayson separately but who were united in molding their son’s future. Yet even they could not have envisioned how quickly his maturation process would need to accelerate. In rapid succession, he was asked to become an integral part of a contending NBA lineup, became a father before his 20th birthday and now has to live up to the sophomore NBA hype that has landed him coveted endorsements that include Gatorade, NBA2K, Fanatics and Beats.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM ESPN THE MAGAZINEView All

Who Is The Future Of U.S. Women's Soccer?

Introducing the marvelous Mallory Pugh

10+ mins read
ESPN The Magazine
June 2019

Marks of Strength

A catastrophic accident took so much from Seth Hanchey, including his ability to speak. Weightlifting gave so much back: the motivation to recover, the drive to compete, the power to inspire. Here, his mother tells his story.

7 mins read
ESPN The Magazine
July 9, 2018

Ninja, The Biggest Gamer In The World

How did Ninja become gaming’s first crossover star? The Fortnite legend is relentless about one thing: He’s always on.

10+ mins read
ESPN The Magazine
October 1, 2018

The Greatest Dad On Earth

The Lakers are poised to be an NBA high-wire act. So what better place to prep their new big man, JaVale McGee, and his baby girl than at circus school?

7 mins read
ESPN The Magazine
October 1, 2018

NFL- The Smart Money Is On Defensive Backs

Slot Machine Miami placed a premium on inside coverage when it used a top pick on Minkah Fitzpatrick. If a team is smart, it will follow the Dolphins’ lead.

3 mins read
ESPN The Magazine
October 1, 2018

'I Want To Make Her Proud'

Devastated by the suicide of his older sister earlier this year, 49ers defensive end Solomon Thomas opens up about his lossÑand shares his newfound dedication to fighting America’s mental health crisis. —AS TOLD TO MOLLY KNIGHT

8 mins read
ESPN The Magazine
October 1, 2018

How Pitchers Get A Grip On Hand Woes

Pickle juice? Superglue? Peeing on their digits? This is the gripping tale of how far pitchers go to get an upper hand.

10+ mins read
ESPN The Magazine
October 1, 2018

Ready For Prime Time

He is a rookie starter and much is expected, yet as Jayson Tatum warms up with his teammates before his first NBA game, he appears impervious to the noise and the lights and the pulsating anticipation inside Quicken Loans Arena.

10+ mins read
ESPN The Magazine
October 29, 2018

Breaking Big

Ken Roczen thought he might never race again after two horrific crashes. But his incredible comeback is almost here.

1 min read
ESPN The Magazine
December 2018/January 2019

Novak Djokovic's Return To The Elite

In the spring, he was in the worst slump of his career. Two grand slams later, he’s back to No. 1. Writer Michael Steinberger takes us inside Djokovic’s return to the elite.

7 mins read
ESPN The Magazine
December 2018/January 2019
RELATED STORIES

WHATSAPP PUSHES PRIVACY UPDATE TO COMPLY WITH IRISH RULING

WhatsApp is adding more details to its privacy policy and flagging that information for European users, after Irish regulators slapped the chat service with a record fine for breaching strict EU data privacy rules.

1 min read
Techlife News
27, November 2021

NEW MEXICO EES TV TECH AS ONE FIX TO K-12 INTERNET DIVIDE

Internet problems continue to slow down many students in the U.S. state of New Mexico, but a pilot project using TV signals to transmit computer files may help.

2 mins read
Techlife News
27, November 2021

NASA SEEKS IDEAS FOR A NUCLEAR REACTOR ON THE MOON

If anyone has a good idea on how to put a nuclear fission power plant on the moon, the U.S. government wants to hear about it.

2 mins read
Techlife News
27, November 2021

JAPAN, VIETNAM LOOK TO CYBER DEFENSE AGAINST CHINA

Japan and Vietnam signed a cybersecurity agreement as the two Asian nations rapidly step up their military ties amid concerns over China’s growing assertiveness.

2 mins read
Techlife News
27, November 2021

US FUND KKR INTERESTED IN ITALIAN TELECOMS GIANT TIM

The Italian telecommunications company TIM is assessing a non-binding “indication of interest” by the U.S. investment fund KKR to acquire the entire capital share, a potential 11 billion-euro deal.

2 mins read
Techlife News
27, November 2021

ITALIAN COMPETITION WATCHDOG FINES APPLE, AMAZON $225M

Italy’s antitrust watchdog has fined Apple and Amazon a total of more than 200 million euros ($225 million) for cooperating to restrict competition in the sale of Apple and Beats branded products in violation of European Union rules.

1 min read
Techlife News
27, November 2021

NASA LAUNCHES SPACECRAFT TO TEST ASTEROID DEFENSE CONCEPT

NASA launched a spacecraft Tuesday night on a mission to smash into an asteroid and test whether it would be possible to knock a speeding space rock off course if one were to threaten Earth.

2 mins read
Techlife News
27, November 2021

AFRICAN INTERNET RICHES THREATENED BY LAWSUIT AND CORRUPTION

Outsiders have long profited from Africa’s riches of gold, diamonds, and even people. Digital resources have proven no different.

7 mins read
Techlife News
27, November 2021

IS TRAVEL SAFE DURING THE PANDEMIC THIS HOLIDAY SEASON?

Is travel safe during the pandemic this holiday season?

1 min read
Techlife News
27, November 2021

LAUNCH OF NEW NASA SPACE TELESCOPE DELAYED AFTER INCIDENT

The European Space Agency says the launch of a new NASA telescope to replace the famed Hubble observatory is being postponed to allow experts to check the device for possible damage following an incident at its spaceport in French Guiana.

1 min read
Techlife News
27, November 2021