Tuesday April 21st, 2015

This story originally appeared in the April 13 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

March 14 was one of those almost-spring Missouri mornings that flirts with warm, and two lines, each 100 people long, snaked through the parking lot. It was an hour and a half before tip-off at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, and the queue wasn’t moving yet. Each time the sun slinked behind a cloud, two teenage boys shivered, clutching their arms to their chests. But they wouldn’t dare budge.

“Have you seen his girlfriend?” one asks the other. “Do you know what kind of car he drives?” No detail of Jayson Tatum’s life is too mundane to ponder. He is the reason they—and everyone else—are here. His Twitter account, @Im_that_dude22 has more than 15,000 followers. A highlight clip from his sophomore season has been viewed 40,000 times, and when he made his official visit to Duke in early March, the Cameron Crazies chanted his name. Jayson is the best high school basketball player in the class of 2016, and some analysts say he is the most talented player to come out of Missouri. (Other notable hoopsters to emerge from the Show Me State include Naismith Hall of Famers Ed Macauley and Bill Bradley, as well as current NBA players Tyler Hansbrough and David Lee.) Today his team—Chaminade College Prep, an all-boys’ school from suburban St. Louis—is playing in a state quarterfinal game.

Then Jayson arrives, unfolding his 6' 9" (and still growing) frame as he steps off Chaminade’s bus. At just 200 pounds, he’s downright skinny, and though his legs are solid, his spindly arms are reminiscent of a young Kevin Durant. His play, too, draws comparisons to the Thunder forward’s. On this afternoon, the show he puts on will be worth the chilly wait. Although his 18 points in three quarters don’t come close to his season averages—26.1 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists—he shows the flashes of dominance that leave college coaches starry-eyed. A combo guard, Jayson is known—and sometimes chided—for his selflessness, and there are still moments in Chaminade’s 70–47 victory when he has an open shot but defers. On several drives, though, he’s unstoppable, pushing the ball up the court, shedding his defender and dropping in a perfect step-back jumper.

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A week later Jayson’s high school off-season will begin two days too soon, when Chaminade loses in the state semifinals, but he has USA Basketball activities to attend, AAU ball to play—and a college to pick. He has narrowed his list to 10—Arizona, Connecticut, Duke, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Saint Louis and Wake Forest—and he’ll soon cut that number in half, with the goal of committing before November. Tar Heels coach Roy Williams has attended several of his games, and the Blue Devils’ Mike Krzyzewski has called him a “special player.” The biggest names in basketball want Jayson in their uniforms, and the pull to go to an elite program is strong. But to spend even a few minutes at one of Jayson’s games is to realize: St. Louis is tugging back just as hard.

*****

Jayson’s father, Justin, was a basketball star at Christian Brothers College High (CBC) in St. Louis. He played at Saint Louis University, as did his best friend from high school, Larry Hughes, who was selected eighth by the 76ers in the 1998 NBA draft. Jayson’s mother, Brandy Cole, had just graduated from University City High when she learned she was pregnant, and she and Justin had already broken up. Passing up volleyball and academic scholarship offers at Tennessee, among other schools, Cole opted for an affordable education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, putting her savings toward day care and car insurance.

Jayson Tatum of St. Louis's Chaminade College Prep is the top player in the class of 2016.
Jayson Tatum of St. Louis's Chaminade College Prep is the top player in the class of 2016.
David E. Klutho for Sports Illustrated

When Jayson was born on March 3, 1998, SLU was preparing to play in the NCAA tournament. Cole had sole responsibility for Jayson in his early years, which is why her little boy’s first memories of basketball are not of watching his father’s games, but of playing some aquatic pickup ball himself. “We had a suction cup basketball hoop on the wall [of the tub], and I would shoot for hours,” Jayson says. “I think I was pretty good at that.”

Bathtub hoops gave way to YMCA ball and eventually to pickup games with Hughes and Justin, who played in the Netherlands for about two years after leaving St. Louis. He returned to the U.S. in 2006 and coached his son in AAU until Jayson was 14. As Jayson grew, Justin made sure his son developed ballhandling and perimeter skills, and by the summer before Jayson entered high school, he was considered one of the country’s top eighth-graders.

He was also at the perfect school; Chaminade has produced Bradley Beal, a longtime family friend who now plays with the Wizards, as well as Warriors forward David Lee. But in 2013, Justin got the coaching job at his alma mater. He had dreamed of coaching his boy at CBC, but transferring schools would have meant sitting out a year, and so father and son became rivals. (Jayson’s team has won three out of the four games the two schools have played.) Still, Justin hopes to see Jayson play at his college alma mater.

*****

Imo’s pizza, a variety unique to St. Louis, has a cracker-thin crust, and its provel cheese clings to the roof of the mouth. It’s polarizing. Outsiders find it revolting. It’s like eating cardboard, they say. But if you’re from St. Louis, you’d sell your pinkie for a piece.

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Jayson loves Imo’s. When he returns home after a trip—he’s been to Uruguay and Dubai with USA Basketball teams—it’s the first thing he eats. When he’s in town, it’s on his plate three times a week. Asked about the benefits of staying in Missouri for college, Imo’s—and his dog, Lennox—top Jayson’s list. He just loves St. Louis as much as its pizza, and when he dreams of his first NBA paycheck, he imagines buying Cole a house—albeit with a catch. He’s lived in the same home in University City since he was two, and he doesn’t want to go anywhere else. He’ll knock the house down, he says, and cram something bigger onto the lot. Cole, now a lawyer, laughs. “That’s not how property value works,” she tells her son.

Jayson has won three of four matchups against his father, Justin (in purple), coach at Christian Brothers College High.
Jayson has won three of four matchups against his father, Justin (in purple), coach at Christian Brothers College High.
Courtesy of Brandy Cole

Jayson has grown accustomed to certain things: the house, the pizza, his family at each of his games. Before Chaminade’s quarterfinal win, his grandmother Kristie Jursch was one of the first in the building, staking out a section of bleachers for her party of 30. Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents—none would miss even one of Jayson’s games, and most sport a red-and-black T-shirt that Cole has had made. Jayson has come to expect the crowd, his mother’s hollering, his father’s eyes following him on the court, dissecting every possession. That’s basketball. That’s home.

Jayson has heard for years the tales of Justin’s and Hughes’s era at SLU, when record crowds filled the Scottrade Center in Billiken blue. Both Justin and Hughes were initially headed out of state, but when Hughes’s brother’s heart condition worsened, they committed to the Billikens and to Spoonball, as former SLU coach Charlie Spoonhour’s style of play was termed.

Justin knows, though, that SLU no longer has that certain hoops cachet, and that his son’s USA Basketball friends wouldn’t understand the appeal of Saint Louis. But if Jayson were to sign with a Missouri school, Justin says, it would become a destination. “Be a trendsetter,” Justin says. “You don’t have to go on this road because it was made for Shane Battier or Grant Hill. You can do what they did—at home.”

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Hughes, too, endorses SLU. Just as he does with his critiques of Jayson’s game, he filters his opinions through Justin. Hughes, who runs a fitness club in Atlanta, remembers how many voices were in his ear when he was 17. He doesn’t want to distract, but he makes his feelings known to Jayson. “I always preach home,” Hughes says.

But home has its drawbacks. Missouri and SLU went a combined 20–44 in 2014–15. Kim Anderson, formerly of D-II Central Missouri, is the Tigers’ third coach in five years, and SLU, under Jim Crews, who took over for Rick Majerus in 2012, lost to Duquesne in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament. Plus, neither has been as committed to recruiting Jayson as Justin would like. When out-of-state coaches are in the stands and Anderson and Crews are missing, Jayson notices. Still, Justin and Cole tell their son to go where he’s comfortable. Corey Tate, Jayson’s AAU coach and a former SLU guard, has a feeling that the teenager will make an unconventional choice and shock the basketball world.

****

After Chaminade’s quarterfinal win, Jayson is slow to leave the locker room and make his way up the bleachers. He has his baby half sister, Kayden, to bounce and his dad to greet. Jursch intercepts him for congratulations, and there are aunts and great-aunts, grandparents, cousins and friends to high-five. There are autographs to sign, too, which Jayson does willingly, and he smiles wide for photos with strangers. He handles the requests with grace, making it easy to forget that he’s just a kid who gets to school at 6:30 a.m. to shoot hoops, who has a math tutor after the final bell rings, whose baby sister wants a hug.

Three years ago Jayson was an eighth-grader, and three years from now he’ll most likely be in the NBA. When told this, his eyes pop. He remembers the advice Beal has given him: “[It’s] tempting to look too far ahead,” Beal says. “None of us knows what our future holds. You have to enjoy the moment.”

At this moment, Cole is hollering the address of a barbecue joint near Chaminade’s game, and Jayson’s girlfriend, Toriah Lachell, is showing off a picture of her prom dress. Hoping the autographs are over, Jayson walks Toriah to her car at the back of the lot. The two duck between vehicles, and Jayson hugs Toriah against the trunk of her car. They stand still, normal teenagers for a few moments.

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