This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Dec.14 Dominant 20 Issue. Subscribe today!
Jayson Tatum is on the clock. The game: one hour of Christmas shopping at Natick Mall, 21 miles outside Boston, with an assist from his trusty elf-me. Says the rising Celtics sophomore: “Play hard, box out, get back on D, let’s win.”
0:59 We’ve taken a wrong turn in Macy’s. “Nothing here for us,” the 6-foot-8 forward says as we peruse ladies’ undergarments.
0:55 We’re in the holiday section hunting for a fake Christmas tree. “Easier to clean up,” Tatum explains, adding that he never had a tree in the childhood home he shared with his mom, Brandy, who had Jayson when she was 18 and went on to earn a law degree. Tatum, who became a dad last December at 19, says his boy Jayson Jr., or “Deuce,” can expect all the holiday trimmings. “Being able to provide for your kids in a way that maybe your parents couldn’t do for you is a great feeling.”
0:45 We now possess a few Macy’s bags full of Christmas decor, plus an electric cookware gizmo as a gift for Celtics big man Aron Baynes because, Tatum says, “he’s a cook and obviously he likes to eat a lot.”
0:40 Intending to shop for Deuce, we pop into the Learning Express toy store and end up dancing on the keys of a jumbo piano like Tom Hanks in Big. Then shooting drills! The talented scorer launches a bouncy ball at a small shopping basket, a high-degree-of-difficulty shot from like 10 feet. Splash.
0:30 Tatum is still browsing for Deuce’s gift while discussing the highlights of fatherhood, which include “seeing Deuce’s first steps and hearing him say ‘Dada.'” Lowlights: “When he can’t sleep and has diarrhea and you gotta change the diaper constantly and he’s throwing up and crying.” And I’m thinking, “Cool, bro, you deal with that and I’ll stick to being an uncle.”
0:25 Tatum finds the perfect gift: a bright red sled. “Can’t wait to take little man sledding,” he says. Also in our haul: two glow-in- the-dark soccer balls for his footie-fan teammates Jaylen Brown and Guerschon Yabusele; and for coach Brad Stevens, his go-to arcade game, Pac-Man. “Maybe I’ll get some more playing time,” says the suck-up.
0:24 Guess who’s carrying most of this junk as we exit the toy store. Tatum looks at me sideways: “C’mon, man, I just came from practice!” Fair. I haven’t practiced since high school.
0:20 We’re window-shopping while discussing Tatum’s coming-out party in the 2018 playoffs, when he flashed the fearlessness of a soon-to-be superstar. “I play the best and have the most fun when the stage is brightest,” he says. Can anything make the bold baller’s knees quake? “Spiders,” he answers. “If I see a spider in my room, I gotta sleep on the couch for like two days.”
0:15 Seriously, I’m buckling under these bags, so I lighten my load by giving Tatum his gift, which I lugged here from LA. It’s a Christmas sweater with Kobe Bryant’s mug splayed across the front. “I don’t know if I can wear that, but it’s a very thoughtful gift,” says the lifelong Lakers fan who “used to hate the Celtics. When they beat the Lakers in ’08, I cried.” He nearly cried tears of joy when Kobe, his idol, became his mentor during private training sessions this summer. Says Tatum, “The biggest thing he taught me is it doesn’t matter if you’re young-if you have the ability to be special, don’t wait, just do it.”
0:08 “I’m a big candle guy,” Tatum says, apropos of nothing, it seems, until we suddenly veer into a candle store for, well, not much. Tatum just wants to savor the scents.
0:05 Our fast break through the mall has caused a stir. “We’re gonna win a championship with you!” one shopper yells over. “True!” Tatum replies, before telling me of his aspirations, which include winning an MVP award and seeing his jersey in TD Garden’s rafters. “I want to be the next Paul Pierce-spend my whole career here, win a championship and have the city of Boston love me.” Tatum’s first order of business, though, is righting his talented squad’s ship. The Celtics are off to a disappointing start following a run to the Eastern Conference finals in May. “We kind of let the attention get to our heads,” he explains. “But it’s a long season. I’m not worried at all.”
0:03 A familiar voice bellows from beneath a gigantic Christmas tree: “Hello, gentlemen! Ho ho ho!” Tatum and I exchange “You thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’?” looks.
0:02 We sandwich Santa on his couch. “Have you been naughty or nice?” St. Nick wants to know. “I’ve been very nice,” Tatum offers, and I refrain from telling Santa about his questionable shot selection of late. “And what I’d like for Christmas,” Tatum continues, “is for the Celtics to win a championship this year.” “I can go for that,” Santa replies. Wait, that’s tampering, no?
0:00 We pose for a customary photo with Santa and-game! I try to sneak one in after the buzzer: “Santa, can you do something about climate change, or nah?” Gotta shoot your shot, as they say. “Hmm, not a lot I can do there,” Santa says. Well, merry Christmas to you too, big guy. Thanks for nothing.