Basketball is a sexy game. The breakneck pace, the jarring thud of the ball against the ground, the high-fives, the shape of a body elevating in a split second to dunk and swing around the rim. The dribble is the athlete’s metronome, each one’s signature way of keeping time and balance. Dribbling is a clumsy business when you’re first starting out, but you can tell when a player has done it a million times. The ball will look like a yoyo, effortlessly controlled, low to the ground or a high swing. The best players are a special kind of hero.
Today, December 9th, 2014, Coach Justin Tatum pulls on a pair of pressed black slacks and a purple collared shirt with the letters “CBC Basketball” embroidered on the front. Head coach of the basketball team at Christian Brothers College High School (CBC) in St. Louis, his alma mater, he prepares to take on their biggest rival, Chaminade College Preparatory School.
Standing 6 foot 6, he’s a commanding presence, built like a combination between a linebacker and an Olympic sprinter. His players know not to mess with him; it’s not uncommon for them to throw up or cry in his practices. “My job is to break you, and to mold you to how our team needs you–not to what you think you are,” he says, his voice a low baritone. “Then their teammates lift them up, and they start to change.” That’s his favorite part. But now, it’s almost game time. He takes a deep breath, turns on Pandora, and switches the station to old school Jay-Z.
CBC and Chaminade are both highly structured, Roman-Catholic, all-boys high schools, which also have a track record of churning out professional athletes. Justin’s son, Jayson, plays for Chaminade. He’s sixteen years old and a towering 6 foot 8, almost 6 foot 9. On the basketball court he transforms into a warrior exploding up and down the court, averaging at least 27 points per game. In person he is polite, humble, and a bit shy. There’s something almost delicate and vulnerable about him–perhaps youth. This is about the only way you can tell he’s just sixteen, and it disappears almost entirely come game time. Neither Jayson nor Justin enjoy playing each other. “I want him to win his games, and he wants me to play well. But that night, somebody has to lose,” says Jayson. “I don’t get a kick out of it,” Justin agrees.
At home, Jayson’s mother, Brandy Cole, used to track how quickly he grew. He’d lean his head up against the wall and then she’d mark where it hit, writing the date next to it. “I’ve always been pretty tall for my age, but I think–I want to say in 8th to 9th grade–I grew six or seven inches,” says Jayson. Eventually there was a huge gap between the marks, and now most people have to sharply crane their necks towards the ceiling when they talk to him. Brandy, a tall woman with long dark hair and brown eyes, had Jayson when she was a teenager. She was terrified–she and Justin were no longer together when she found out. For most of Jayson’s childhood, she raised him by herself in a quaint University City home.
Jayson is now a few inches taller than his father, and often teases him about it. “I remember after first grade, he was always taller than his teachers,” says Brandy. He also frequently hits his head on things–mostly doorways when he’s walking to class. Last week he was walking backwards while talking to somebody and bashed his head, again.
Ever since he was little, when his dad put a basketball in his crib, he dreamed of going to the NBA. Jayson now gets so many calls from college coaches across the country that he had to get a second cell phone. All of the top programs in the country want him: Arizona, Connecticut, Duke, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Mizzou, North Carolina, Michigan State. “When I was younger, it seemed far-fetched. But the older I get, it seems more like reality,” he says. According to ESPN’s 60, which ranks the top recruits in the nation, he came in at number one for the Class of 2016–number one, out of every other kid in the country in his class.
In 2010 it was Harrison Barnes, who now plays for the Golden State Warriors. In 2011 it was Anthony Davis, starting center and power forward for the New Orleans Pelicans. 2012, Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers. 2013, Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves. 2014, Jamal Okafor, freshman center at Duke. In 2015 it was Ben Simmons, who signed a letter of intent to play for LSU. 2016: Jayson Tatum. “He has almost every accolade a kid could have,” says Justin. “If he stays healthy, he’s prospected to be one of the top picks in the 2017 [NBA] draft.”
Brandy says they had basketball hoops on the tub, on the back of every door in the house, a basketball laundry chute–you name it, they had a hoop on it. When Jayson was three, maybe four, she asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he told her he wanted to be Kobe Bryant. “I said, ‘You can’t be Kobe–you want to be a basketball player?” she remembers. “And he was like, ‘No, I want to be Kobe.’ I said, ‘Well, Kobe is Kobe, so you can’t be him. Why don’t you be better than Kobe?’ He was like, ‘No, I want to be Kobe.’”
Chaminade and CBC are part of what is known as the “Big Five” all-male high schools in the area, joined by Saint Louis University High School, Vianney, and DeSmet. Whenever any of these schools play each other, you know you’re in for a serious high school game. Tonight’s game will be played at Chaminade; tickets went on sale weeks ago and quickly sold out. Jayson guesses the gym holds about 500, but 900 tickets were sold. CBC arrives at 5:10, walking through the main gym and into the locker room with an unmistakable basketball swagger: black sweatpants and hoodies, new shoes, headphones jammed into their ears. They silently walk through calls of “Boo!” and “Go home!” emanating from Chaminade’s student fan section. Someone in the stands has secured a drum, beating it in the background as kids cheer and shout, the sound of warring battle cries.
At 5:20, Chaminade begins warming up. They wear red and white uniforms, leaping and doing squats across the court together. Jayson gracefully bounds up and down the court, as though this simple exercise is the most fun thing he’s done all day. “I crack jokes. I’m more loose,” he says of how he tends to be before games. A gaggle of middle school boys, ranging in age from 11 to 14, point to the court and coyly whisper, “That’s Jayson Tatum.”
Tension sucks up all the air in the room–you can’t move a millimeter without hitting it. The players and coaches are like musicians sharpening their instruments. Chaminade and CBC students are each tightly packed into their respective student sections, both bursting out at the seams: CBC’s bleachers vibrate purple and black, and a swath of red and white covers Chaminade’s.
At 5:22, a man in a black suit wheels out a grey cart with a large orange Gatorade-emblazoned water cooler. A few minutes later is the first sign of Justin–Coach, or Coach Tatum, as he’s known around here, inconspicuously walking through the crowd on the floor. Right now, he’s Justin. He keeps mostly to himself, his face obscured by a black cap. A large pair of purple headphones cover his ears. Walking across the court, he playfully greets a Chaminade player with an enviable flat top–number one, Reggie Crawford–before disappearing again.
Two legendary college coaches have flown in just to see Jayson play: Mike Krzyzewski, or Coach K, of Duke, and Roy Williams of UNC. Jayson remembers when he used to watch them on TV, and now they’re here to watch him. “I remember my dad told me–I used to play up two grades, and at first I was nervous. He used to tell me, ‘The other guys, they put their shoes on the same way you do.’ Nobody’s different,” says Jayson. Justin coached at Soldan High School for six years before coming to CBC, where he led them to a state championship in 2012. He began his first year of coaching at CBC last year, in 2013. The team won state that year, which they hadn’t done since Justin was a senior in 1997.
At 5:25, CBC begins warming up on their half of the court. Justin returns to the gym floor, still wearing purple headphones over the black cap, but this time he’s carrying his daughter, seven-month-old Kayden. She lives with him and his fiance, Marie. Kayden’s hair has been pulled back into a twist, and she wears a white shirt with a colorful tutu. At first, Kayden would only let her mother, Justin, and Jayson hold her without crying. “Jayson is head over heels in love with her,” says Justin. He remembers when Jayson came and held her before one of his games, telling her, “I’m gonna play hard for you,” and “You’re gonna have the best sweet sixteen birthday ever!” When she’s sixteen, Jayson will be 32, close to his father’s age now, and hopefully in the NBA. “I told him I want him to babysit her sometime to see what he and his girlfriend better not have,” Justin jokes.
30 minutes before the game is scheduled to start, the gym is almost completely full. Fans have noticed the famed college coaches in the stands. “Coach K! Coach K!” they chant. For the players, this is it–the opportunity for Division I coaches to watch them, even though they’re here for Jayson. Seventeen minutes before the game and there’s not an open seat in the house. Spectators have jammed tightly into the bleachers and spill out on all sides–those who couldn’t get a spot line the walls. 15 minutes until game time, official warm-ups begin. CBC runs out onto the court–each kid jumps up and hits the backboard, rattling it with a succession of thuds. At 14:41, Chaminade’s team shoots out of the locker room to uproarious cheers from the student section. Jayson visibly exhales, lips pursed, and takes a deep breath in.
Coach Tatum re-emerges, sans hat and purple headphones. One of his assistant coaches brandishes a new pack of gum and hands it to him to open, which he does before every game. Justin is superstitious: if he wears a shirt and his team loses, he probably won’t wear that shirt again, or he’ll switch the green band he wears from one wrist to the other. “I think he has a lucky pair of underwear,” says Jayson. When asked about this, Justin laughs and explains there was a long stretch when he was coaching at Soldan where his team didn’t lose a game for months. He wore the exact same pair of shoes, socks, and underwear for each game. For districts, it was the same thing: the same slacks, shoes, and t-shirt, and he’d listen to the same songs in the same order beforehand.
He makes the transition into a public figure quite smoothly, shaking hands with people and saying hello to everyone. Within minutes he’s fully morphed into Coach Tatum–behind the bench, there’s a receiving line waiting to say hello to him. The national anthem rings over the loudspeaker and booms throughout the gym. Justin firmly stands facing the American flag on the wall, his hands behind his back. It hangs near the jerseys of Bradley Beal and David Lee, two Chaminade alums who now play in the NBA, Beal for the Washington Wizards and Lee for the Golden State Warriors.
Jayson is good friends with Beal, and they’ll often play or work out together when he’s in town. “I look at a guy like Brad who’s already in the NBA–third pick in the first round–and when he comes back in the summertime, he works out twice a day. A guy that already made it still works like he hasn’t. That gives me a lot of motivation,” says Jayson.
The game officiator reads a prayer, citing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the rich tradition of Chaminade’s rivalry against CBC. Players take their marks on the court. Justin posts up on the bench, and Jayson stands across from CBC’s tallest player. This is the moment before the battle begins. Honor, tradition, bragging rights, and full-ride athletic scholarships are at stake. “We’re both different guys when the game starts,” Jayson says of Justin and himself. “You have to be.”
In 2003 at age 24, Justin found himself on a cross-Atlantic flight to Amsterdam. He’d played at CBC with his best friend, Larry Hughes, and they’d graduated together in 1997 with a state championship title. They went on to play together at Saint Louis University, where Justin had to sit out his first year because his ACT score hadn’t been high enough. After their first year in college, Hughes was the eighth pick in the 1998 NBA draft, picked by the Philadelphia 76ers.
One day during the summer after his senior year, Justin was playing for practice and jumped up to catch the ball. His knee snapped. It was a ruptured patellar tendon and a broken kneecap–it’s very rare for both to happen at the same time. Horribly painful, he later had to have reconstructive surgery on his knee and had a rod put in his leg. “It was something you don’t wish on your worst enemy,” he says. For a full year, he had to sit out and rehab it.
Hughes went on to play for the Golden State Warriors, Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Sacramento Kings, Charlotte Bobcats, and Orlando Magic. In the summer of 2005, he signed a $70 million contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers. For Justin, after his injury, he knew his dream of playing in the NBA like his friend was unlikely. “I knew those aspirations were down the drain, because of the type of surgery I had. But I knew I could still be competitive, and get paid playing,” he says. In high school he remembers sitting at the lunchroom tables, talking about how he wanted to play professionally. “God had different plans,” he says. “It took a while for it to really kick in all the way, that I wasn’t going to accomplish my dream in the NBA. But I could still accomplish one of my dreams–that’s to get paid playing the game.”
Hence, the plane to Amsterdam. For just over two years, Justin played for a professional team called Aris Leeuwarden. The fans and the town were excited and supportive of the players who came to represent their city: the league put him up in a house and provided him a car, though he also had a bike, because the land was flat and easy to ride on. Jayson was five when he left for the first time. Justin came home for the summers, and Jayson even visited once, but it wasn’t the same. “He was understanding, and he knew what was going on. But deep down, with a kid that age, he’ll ultimately act out because he’s missing something. And it was me.”
While Justin was overseas playing, Jayson had been working out in the gym to get better too, and he wasn’t even ten years old yet. “People were pulling and tugging at his mom, like, ‘I want to train him,’” Justin remembers. He then vowed to finish up the season in Amsterdam, and return home to work with Jayson. “Nobody can teach him better, or want to teach him better, than I can. That’s what ultimately brought me back home,” he says. “I got paid playing this game, and I wanted to go back and be a part of my kid’s life.” His professional career was over.
Jayson, still in elementary school at the time, remembers the exact day he came home. Justin’s mother picked him up in her van, and drove him home as a surprise. “My mom told me that my grandma had a gift, or like a surprise for me outside,” Jayson says. “I remember I was playing a game, and I rushed outside–it was night time. And my grandma was like, ‘It’s a big gift, are you ready?’ She opened the van door and I couldn’t see a face because it was dark. I just remember it was a tall guy with a black coat. He just grabbed me, and I started screaming, ‘Momma!’ And then he called me Chump–that’s my nickname. He was like, ‘It’s me, Chump.’ I think I might have started crying or screaming or something.”
Recounting the memory, he looks down at his hands, clasped together on the table in front of him. “I was just happy to see him … we have a great relationship. He’s been in my life my entire life. He’s a great mentor, and not just with basketball. We’ll always be close.” Justin worked as an assistant coach for one year at CBC, and then coached at Soldan. Soon after, he also started up a summer basketball team and began coaching Jayson.
Watching Jayson play is akin to watching a Ferrari race down a highway. He was meant for this game. The ref throws the ball in the air and scurries out of the way, as Jayson leaps up and swiftly wins the tipoff. Within 30 seconds Chaminade has already scored their first point: 2-0. “It can be a packed gym, and I always find a way to hear my mom, for some reason,” says Jayson. “She comes to every game and sits in front. I can just hear her every time she says something.” She can be even tougher on him than Justin. “My dad, when he has the chance to come watch me, doesn’t yell or scream anymore. He’ll just sit and watch quietly, then he’ll probably call me after the game. My mom sits front row–she’s the one yelling and screaming.”
With 5:41 left in the quarter, it’s Chaminade 4, CBC 2. Jayson is confident and aggressive, but not the kind of player to hog all the glory. The ball smoothly cuts through the air like a bullet each time the players throw it; catch it in the face and you’d easily break your nose. One of CBC’s players fires a great pass. “Use it!” Coach Tatum shouts from the sidelines, his brow wound into a tight furrow, where it stays for most of the game. After Chaminade scores point 6, he stomps on the ground. On defense, he sees CBC has left an open man, and yells at his defense to cover him. It’s number 22, his son. Jayson sinks his first basket–Chaminade 10, CBC 6.
Coach frequently yells “Jordan!”, number four, junior point guard, and “Sam!” number 12, sophomore Sam Orf. “Jordan Barnes is the leader of the team. You stay on your best players the most, then others see the standard,” says Justin. “Sam has the potential to be really good, but his confidence is like a roller coaster. He frustrates me the most sometimes. I’m very intense, very competitive, and I love to win.” Then there’s junior Christian Willis, senior Kenny Lesley, and freshman Kale Catchings. “Practice, repetition, and the environment they grew up in. That’s where you get your confidence.”
He yells, “Aggressive!” from the sidelines, pacing up and down the bench a few times before sitting back down, constantly yelling at his team to cover his son. One minute and 42 seconds remain in the first quarter, and Chaminade leads 12 to 6. Coach is not happy. The players are already covered in sweat–as one comes off the floor, a trickle rolls down his left cheek like a tear. At the end of the first quarter, Chaminade 17, CBC 8, a woman in a pink shirt and puffy vest from a local news station holds a camera over her head and films the huddle. Coach Tatum knows they can do better than this. “Wake up! This is NOT our plan!” he says, pointing to a play on a clipboard.
Resetting on the court, one of his players quickly makes a three-pointer. Coach looks as though he doesn’t even notice. It’s good, but not good enough–they’re not winning yet. Jayson gets fouled at 19-11. He places both palms on his forehead, squints, and blinks a few times. “I’m actually much harder on him … that’s probably one of the reasons why his skin is so tough now,” says Justin, of when he used to coach him. “I physically, literally, verbally just gave it to him.”
He used to tell him, “If this is what you want to do, if this is what you want to be, you cannot act like this. You cannot think like this. You’ve got to compete all the time,” Justin remembers. “It was a lot of, ‘Daddy, I hate you!’ But he keeps coming back. And now, I don’t need to fuss at him. He reads my facial expression.” Jayson also remembers it. “He knew what kind of player I could be,” he says. “I probably was lazy sometimes, or didn’t want to get in the gym. There were some days where I wanted to quit, because he was yelling at me so much. Sometimes I felt like I couldn’t take it anymore. I’d go home to my mom and cry to her. She had to talk me out of it.”
CBC sinks a layup, and Coach Tatum looks at the scoreboard: 19-13. Chaminade fires back and all of a sudden it’s 25-13. “Me coaching, I think, was a blessing for him, because right now he’s at a level, mentally and physically, that some of these kids probably won’t ever get to,” says Justin. When Chaminade hits 25 points, Coach Tatum jumps up in the air and exclaims, “Sweet Jesus!” He glances at the scoreboard again: 27-15. Sweat trickles down his brow. He’s sweating just as much, if not more, than the players on the court, hunched low over on the sidelines and crouched in a squat. 29-16. He wipes sweat off his nose with the front of his purple collared shirt as Chaminade fans chant “This is our house!” and stomp. Boom, boom, boom boom boom.
In 2000, Brandy received a call from the local fire department, informing her that her house was on fire. Jayson was two and a half. At first, she thought the call was a joke; surely this was not how people were informed that their homes had erupted in flames. That morning, she’d dropped her son off at daycare and gone to work, and then came the call from the fire department. They wanted to confirm she wasn’t in the house. Immediately, she called her father. Oftentimes she’d have two jobs at once while going to school, but sometimes it just wasn’t enough. “He would always pick up the slack,” she says of her father. “I had a lot of support.” Her mother raised her, but her father had always been a provider.
Brandy is a warm, big-hearted woman, the kind who agrees to have mid-afternoon dessert with a journalist while being asked probing questions about her personal life, and foots the bill. She met Justin for the first time while working at Fannie May in the mall. High school sweethearts, she remembers going to the prom with him junior and senior year. She was 18 when she found out she was pregnant–Justin was on his way to the barber shop when she called to tell him. “It didn’t kick in ‘til probably later on that day. I had to talk to her again. I just said, ‘Oh … my God,’” Justin remembers.
A talented volleyball player, she’d planned to play volleyball in college on scholarship. But after finding out she was pregnant, none of the teams would let her play. “No matter who you are, especially when you’re not together, it’s different for the mom than it is for the dad. The level of responsibility, and the way that your life changes overnight,” says Brandy. “She was about to get a volleyball scholarship, and couldn’t do it,” says Justin, regretfully. At the time, he was preparing to start school and the upcoming basketball season at Saint Louis University. “I was selfish. Probably didn’t think too much about it. But now, years back, she had to sacrifice to raise our son—what she had to put on the back burner, what I didn’t have to put on the back burner. It speaks volumes of who she is.”
People criticized her. “You’re never going to finish school. You’ll never be a lawyer,” Brandy remembers them telling her. She worked many odd jobs in her late teens and twenties: working concierge at the Galleria wrapping presents and selling gift cards, cleaning public bathrooms, cleaning houses, selling cell phones at Cingular Wireless. “Whatever it took to make ends meet,” she says. Now, she has an undergraduate degree from UMSL in political science and a law degree from Saint Louis University. She took great pride in being a mother, and jokes that Jayson should have college credit because he came to so many classes with her. “That shows so much to him,” says Justin. “His mom had to go through all that and still accomplished her goal. That’s where he gets all his strong will from–my parents can do it, I can do it.”
The day of the fire, Brandy’s father told her to stay where she was. She immediately left work and drove to her home, an older building in Lafayette Square. Coming up the street, she could see the flames and the fire department trying to put them out. Later, it was determined that it was an electrical fire caused by a heating and cooling unit on the roof. Talking about it now, Brandy says “we lost everything” several times. The things with sentimental value meant the most to her, things they can never get back.
Her friends gathered old baby pictures of Jayson she’d sent them–the originals had burned. They helped her wash things out and salvage what they could from the burnt, ashy carcass that had been her and Jayson’s home not long ago. She recovered his first pair of shoes–size three Reebok Classics. “You can tell that they’ve been in a fire,” she says. She kept them anyway. “He knows that it happened, but I don’t think he has a vivid memory of it.”
They lived with her mother for a few months before moving into a cozy house on a residential street in University City, where they live now–insurance money helped cover the costs. “You know how people have a trunk, and they might have the outfit they brought their baby home in? Or blanket, or something? All that’s gone,” says Brandy. “But it’s ok. It could have happened in the middle of the night.”
Jayson dribbles right past his dad, who is yelling instructions to the other team. Chaminade is winning, but he has missed several shots and his confidence has been rattled. When the half is over, he’ll have made only eight points, which is low for a player who averages 27 points per game. He’s covered in a sheen of sweat, and the span of his palms make the ball look like a tiny fake caricature of a basketball. Coach Tatum praises a call by one of the refs and turns away from the game, just for a moment. Fans cheer, beat their drums, and lean their heads around the people seated in front of them to catch a clear shot of the action. A player flings the ball halfway across the court, and in seconds it’s halftime: Chaminade 33, CBC 23.
The tension and anxiety deflates for a few moments before the players bound back onto the court. Chaminade quickly scores again and it’s 35-23, then 38-25. Again, Coach Tatum isn’t happy. He wears a green rubber wristband and a large gold ring on his right hand, which colorfully vibrate in the air when he waves his arms about, motioning to his team. Jayson gets fouled and Justin watches his son’s free throws from the bench, examining his form. Fans have run out of crafty insults to chant at this point, so they’ve begun randomly screaming to throw players off their game. A CBC fan yells, “You’re so ugly!” to a Chaminade player.
To play defense well, players have to stalk each other on the court like an unwelcome ex-spouse. Each will mark his man and stay on him, following him around, watching his every move, anticipating the next pass or potential basket, which could occur in less than a second. When Jayson does it, he slightly bends his knees and plants his hands on his hips in preparation to hold his arms out when the other team moves in.
Every weekday morning, he wakes up at 5:45 am and hits the gym before school with his trainer, Drew Hanlen, at 6:30 am. Hanlen also trains many NBA players, including David Lee and Bradley Beal. He then takes a quick shower and goes to school, bombarded by papers, projects, and tests, and then meets with another trainer directly after school. After a two-hour practice, he heads back home to U-City, where he eats dinner and finishes homework, going to bed around midnight or 12:30. “The highlight of my day is going to practice. For that hour, I don’t have to be by my phone or listening to anybody else. I’ve just got that basketball and my teammates. Or when a game comes around, that’s the only thing on your mind, for that hour and a half. In between that line, that’s all that matters. That’s all you have to think about.”
“Jayson’s really good,” says Brandy. “I don’t have issues with curfew. He rarely ever gets punished. He gets good grades. He doesn’t stay out late. It doesn’t seem real sometimes.”
When Chaminade reaches 63 points to CBC’s 40, Jayson nails an epic dunk. Chaminade’s entire fan section goes nuts–people lift up off of the bleachers, screaming. 65-40. But CBC isn’t the type of team to give up. They’ve been trained better than that. Soon CBC has scored 9 points, and it’s 67-49. Coach Tatum rarely sits, and tends to act the same way whether his team is doing well or not–he’s always pushing them to do better. He looks at the scoreboard again: 73-51, 4 minutes and 18 seconds left.
Time is running out, and the insults from Chaminade’s fan section are starting to hit below the belt. “Chaminade! Chaminade! YOU can’t spell that!” hundreds of them shout together in unison to CBC. “YOU are bankrupt!” they shout, banging on the stands with their feet: boom, boom, boom boom boom. “C-B-SEE YA!” boom, boom, boom boom boom.
At 78-53, Chaminade still in the lead, Coach sits calmly sits on bench. The crowd roars, “IS THIS JV?” clap, clap, clap clap clap. “IS THIS JV?” clap, clap, clap clap clap. 80-59, and Coach rests his hands on his knees. 30 seconds left before the buzzer hits and it’s 81-59, the final score of the game. The second the buzzer sounds, Justin walks towards Chaminade’s coach and shakes his hand, leading the way for the rest of the team to do the same. When he gets to Jayson, he gives him a hug. Recruiters talk to each other. Players cordially, wordlessly high-five each other. The energy immediately deflates to something much more tolerable–everyone can breathe normally again.
Jayson runs up behind number 42 in celebration, wrapping his arms around his torso as they head to the locker room. A young kid comes up to him and reaches his arms around Jayson’s waist, who pats him on the back. People flood onto the floor of the court: local TV stations waiting for interviews, cameras, families and friends. When Jayson comes out of the locker room, his dad is waiting for him, ready to give him a hug and a slap on the back.
Justin grew up in St. Louis and was raised by a single mother, a sergeant in the military and a public school principal for over 30 years. They moved to Jennings in North County when Justin was 8, where his mother still lives. “She was a strong-headed, strong-willed–still is a strong-headed, strong-willed–woman. She’s done a great, fabulous job to raise me and my sister, pretty much on her own.” By middle school, Justin had started acting out. His grades were up and down, he got into several scuffles, and was suspended a few times. “There were times that you’ve either got to defend yourself, or show that you’re not going to be taken advantage of,” he says.
His mother moved him to CBC for high school, which had just the structure he needed. At first, he didn’t want to switch to the predominantly white high school in the wealthy suburb of Clayton. “I was thinking, I might have to defend myself about the race thing. But I didn’t have to. They just opened up and embraced me. They wanted to get a chance to know who I was, where I came from,” says Justin.
His father was absent from their lives for about twelve years during Justin’s childhood. Now, he comes to Jayson’s games, and has a relationship with him. “Better late than never,” says Justin. On the right side of his chest, Justin has his mother and sister’s names tattooed next to a basketball, and on the left side he has the names of two of his three children: Jayson, and Jaycob, who is 10. “I still need to get Kayden,” he says. “I want to be dominant in their lives. I thought, whenever I have a son or a daughter, you will always know me for the rest of your life, and I will do whatever I can to help you. That’s what I’ve learned the most, because this is my heart,” he says. “It would stop beating if I don’t see them.”
While Jayson and Kayden are in St. Louis, Jaycob’s mother moved him back to New Orleans, where she’s from. “I can hear it in his voice when he misses me,” says Justin. “It’s very tough. That’s one of the most troubling things that I go through: not being able to have Jaycob here everyday.” He calls Jayson and Jaycob “two different peas in the same pod.” “They do the same things, or they sit the same way. I get a kick out of that. But they’re also different. Jaycob is country, he’s a New Orleans kid. He’ll eat oysters, he’ll try anything, and Jayson won’t. Jayson loves scary movies, Jaycob hates scary movies. Jayson loves basketball video games, Jaycob loves the fighting war games.” At this point, there’s a possibility that Jaycob might come to St. Louis for high school, live with Justin, and attend CBC. “I’ll probably be in college, or in the NBA. Hopefully,” says Jayson.
Fan culture in basketball is notoriously heated—sometimes all in good fun, sometimes not. Brandy and Justin have supported Jayson through constant taunting and heckling. “There are some times where I feel like, is it this important?” says Jayson. “When you hear some of the things that people say in the crowd, or some of the things the other team does to you while you’re playing–you think it’s just a basketball game, but sometimes people take it to a whole other level.” At this point he has amassed a loyal army of trolls–Google his name and you’ll see their carnage. In one highlight video from March 2013, people have commented: “What’s good about him? He’s 6’5 and slow as shit,” “he’s trash,” “yeah ur another person who thinks the only requirement to being a good basketball player is being tall,” “Slow. Not even that good,” and “think hes overrated.” When it was posted, Jayson was a freshman in high school and had just turned 15.
“I know when he feels that it’s tough on him,” says Justin. “That’s when he opens up to me, his mom, or his friends–that might be easier to do now, because he’s a teenager. Kids don’t always want to go to mom and dad for advice. He may want to talk to Brad Beal, or another teenager or something like that–which I’m fine with, as long as he’s expressing himself.” In an article on SBNation.com reporting on Jayson’s first official visit to Duke, someone commented, “Sure the young man can dunk a basketball, but can he form complete sentences?? probably not,” and “Can he spell? I’m sure he knows how to spell MONEY.”
Justin went through similar bouts with sportsmanship-challenged fans. “They’ll try to do whatever it takes to throw you off your game,” he says. But with social media, trolls have better tools than ever. “We were talking about this before he even got to high school: that you’re gonna hear people look up things and talk about your mom or your grandparents, or stuff like that. You’ve just got to keep your focus and make sure you prepare yourself mentally and physically, because it’s not going to be easy. Those are fans–sometimes they go overboard. But nobody’s going to stop them.”
Some commenters are neutral or nice: “He is a Tatum–enough said.” Others are vulgar: “go to Kansas and fuck them hoes.” Random people who don’t know him, who constantly point out his flaws or making judgments about things they can’t possibly know, is a lot to process. “Sometimes I feel like I can do it myself, which isn’t always the best thing. But I feel like I have to take it upon myself to block everything out of the way, or don’t show any weaknesses,” says Jayson. “When you’re on Jayson’s level, people expect for you to come out every night and have 40 points, because they want to watch the number one player,” says Brandy. “But he’s human.” On January 24th of this year, he tweeted a photograph that said, “Confidence is not, ‘They will like me.’ Confidence is, ‘I’ll be fine if they don’t.’”
On Friday, January 23, 2015, Chaminade and CBC will face off again at Lindenwood University. Several scalpers line the front doors, there’s almost nowhere to park, and tickets have been sold out for over a week. Lindenwood’s Hyland Arena, which holds 3,270 occupants, will likely reach capacity. Before the game, Justin wears a black sweatsuit and stands outside the Chaminade locker room, which has been labeled with a typed 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper. There’s another game going on beforehand: Visitation versus St. Joe’s Academy, two all-girls schools, and the gym is already buzzing.
Hundreds upon hundreds of people are in the crowd tonight. Justin picks up a practice ball on the metal rack next to him during warm-ups, swings it around his back, and dribbles it through his legs a few times. He chews gum, claps, and swings his hands from side to side before heading over to the CBC bench in front of the Chaminade players, where Jayson is warming up. He watches by himself. A group of girls in Chaminade’s fan section with blond highlights and polished nails take pictures of Jayson on their iPhones and Snapchat them to their friends, screaming “Jayson!”
About two minutes into the first quarter, CBC leads 9-0, but Justin still paces up and down the sidelines, per usual. Even when losing, Chaminade’s head coach, Frank Bennett, remains calm–he squats on the sidelines next to the court, but doesn’t yell. Jayson gets fouled and struts back to the free throw line. Just a few minutes into the game, beads of sweat collect on his brow. Bending down into position, hundreds of people watching him, he takes his first shot–a miss. The entire CBC fans section bellows “Airball! Airball!” He makes the second one. He will end up making 20 out of the 22 free throw shots he takes this game. Someone in the crowd murmurs, “Jayson looks just like Justin out there.”
Around 65-56, Chaminade is in the lead and Justin has resumed his measured pacing back and forth across the sidelines. Chaminade fans shout in unison, “Sit down Justin!” boom, boom, boom boom boom, “Sit down Justin!” boom, boom, boom boom boom. CBC puts up a good fight, but Chaminade closes in with the win, a final score of 80-73. Jayson breathes all the way in and all the way out for the first time. He high-fives the other team, hugs his dad, and pulls his long-sleeve white jersey over his head, absorbing sweat and blocking his face.
Larry Hughes, Justin’s old friend and Jayson’s godfather, was here tonight to see him play. He’s clean-cut, wearing pressed gray pants, a black flat bill hat, and black Converse. A young girl clings to his arm. He greets fans who are in awe of him; kids ask to have their picture taken with him. He obliges, resting his hands on their shoulders, towering over them. Justin and Jayson glide through the sea of fans dressed in purple and red, congratulating them and shaking their hands.
When all of this goes away in an hour or so and it’s just them, they’ll talk about something completely different. “He’s more than just a player,” says Justin. He’s confident that later down the line, when Jayson picks a college and if he gets drafted into the NBA, “he’ll still be the same guy, the same kid he is now. But he’ll be a man.”