By Ben Frederickson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Jayson Tatum didn’t have to come.
He could have sent a video instead. Could have shipped some autographed gear. Could have said he was too busy when this idea started to get off the ground.
But there he was Saturday morning, unfolding his prototype NBA frame from the passenger seat of the car his friend parked at the Herbert Hoover Boys & Girls Club.
Saturday morning, he flew home to St. Louis for just a few hours on his off day.
“I was in this building about 10 years ago, playing,” he said after he walked through the doors at 2901 North Grand.
Believe it or not, a 19-year-old can be reflective. And the soft-spoken Tatum has always seemed wise beyond his years. Add Saturday to the long list of examples.
I first met Tatum the morning of the 2013 NBA draft. I sat on the couch at his mom’s house and asked the 15-year-old super recruit how he would handle the attention and the pressure that were piling up on his doorstep faster than big-name college recruiters.
“It’s probably something I’ll learn how to manage, as it gets bigger and bigger,” he said.
He figured it out.
Since then he has led Chaminade to a state championship and claimed Gatorade’s national player of the year award. He averaged 16.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks for Duke in a one-and-done season that helped the Blue Devils reach the NCAA Tournament’s second round. He convinced the Celtics to trade away their shot at Markelle Fultz and draft him instead. He’s thrown out the first pitch at Fenway Park; heard Paul Pierce say his game reminds Pierce of … Pierce; and listened to new teammate Kyrie Irving call him a “beast.” His rapidly approaching official NBA debut will come against LeBron James. He will share a court with St. Louis native Bradley Beal, his mentor, on Christmas evening.
“It’s everything I could have dreamed of,” Tatum said.
Being here for days like Saturday is also a part of that dream.
What called Tatum home was a promise to the Boys and Girls Club of Greater St. Louis. He told the area’s 10 clubs that he would host a lunch for the winner of a supply drive that helped hurricane-ravaged clubs in Houston and Florida. The Riverview Gardens club came through. The 100 kids swarming around this gym convinced parents, friends and community members to donate everything folks to the south might need: diapers, water, canned goods, sports gear and more. Forty cardboard boxes — one with a construction paper cutout of Tatum’s No. 0 jersey taped to a side — sat in the corner. More could be found down the hall, awaiting delivery.
“There are a lot of things that go on in St. Louis that are not always positive, especially in the inner city,” Tatum said. “For these kids to come together and do something positive, that’s great for St. Louis, and for them. Because there’s so much they see outside of the building — like I saw when I was younger — that’s not always what’s best. For them to come together and have an impact on somebody else, somebody they will probably never know, that can go a long way.”
The kids delivered. So did Tatum. He signed big, loopy autographs for shy girls who hid behind their posters as soon as he handed them back. He flashed his signature smile for countless photos. He pulled his phone from his pocket just once, to capture a dance that was practiced just for him.
Pull up, shoot. Jayson Tatum.
My money’s tall. Jayson Tatum.
I’m balling on you boys. I think I’m Jayson Tatum.
It must be something, sitting there listening to a song about your son as you watch him hold court on the court he played on as a kid. Little Jayson Tatum’s fall and winter leagues called this place home. Justin Tatum, sitting quietly in the bleachers, smiled.
Imo’s Pizza, compliments of Tatum, arrived. Time for lunch. Time for Tatum to head back to Boston.
One more day to make first.
Jammie Payne, 11, had won the knockout competition. His prize was a video-game showdown against the man himself.
The two headed for the PlayStation. Tatum rolled with the Celtics, of course. Payne picked the Spurs.
“Are you nervous?” Tatum asked. “You should be.”
Payne didn’t flinch. With his friends chanting his name from the bleachers, he grabbed an early lead and didn’t look back. Tatum’s potential game-tying 3-pointer clanked off the rim. (He’s better in real life.)
Payne, proud new owner of a signed Celtics hat, beamed.
“I was kind of nervous,” Payne admitted. “I thought I was going to lose. I beat him, straight up.”
Everybody won Saturday, thanks to some kindhearted kids and a rising star who will not forget where he came from.