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Jayson Tatum has always had Larry Hughes’ support in his journey to the NBA

The All-Star forward was exposed to the league and lifestyle from a young age thanks to Hughes, a 12-year NBA veteran and his father’s best friend

SAN FRANCISCO – A 9-year-old Jayson Tatum was in the stands with his father as his godfather Larry Hughes’ Cleveland Cavaliers played the San Antonio Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals. Fifteen years later, longtime best friends Hughes and Justin Tatum will be in the stands together watching “Lil J” as he tries to lead the Boston Celtics to a title over the Golden State Warriors.

“When a kid sees that a dream is real, it’s easier, but not easy, to chase that dream,” Hughes told Andscape this week. “I was glad that he was able to see that making the NBA was possible. I’m hoping he earns his award.”

Said Justin Tatum to Andscape: “It’s pretty cool. When Larry went to the Finals, he was hurt so he didn’t get to play as much as we hoped. Now 15 years later, we are watching my kid.”

Jayson Tatum, who is averaging 27 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists this postseason, is grateful for that lifelong connection to Hughes.

“Just knowing somebody on a personal level of where you want to get to in life was a benefit,” Hughes said. “I guess you’re seeing that as a kid, knowing an NBA player, not a lot of people can say that.”

Hughes and Justin Tatum first became friends when they were teammates at Christian Brothers College High School in St. Louis. They played on CBC’s Class 4A Missouri state championship team in 1997. They were also AAU teammates on a squad that won the 1996 17U nationals. Hughes is CBC’s all-time leading scorer with 2,152 points, his No. 20 jersey is retired at the school, and he was a 1997 McDonald’s All American.

Justin Tatum is currently the Cadets’ varsity boys head basketball coach and one of the most successful prep coaches in Missouri history.

Justin Tatum described his friendship with Hughes as “genuine” and “like brothers.”

“We came to CBC our sophomore season and been together ever since,” Hughes said. “What connected us was our background. That single-parent deal. Traveling around with AAU basketball. Needing sleepovers. Needing rides to games and practices. It was him, his mom and his little sister. It was me, my mom and my little brother. There was a connection there.

“He was a good player. He was the one dunking and hanging on the rim before any of us were doing it. He had these real long arms. He learned to shoot the basketball from 15 feet away. He was good, but he just ran into the injury bug.”

Said Justin Tatum: “His drive with his work ethic to get to the NBA showed me a platform to show Jayson.”

Hughes, Justin Tatum and two other CBC teammates went on to play locally at Saint Louis University. Hughes averaged 20.9 points per game as a true freshman for the Billikens, leading them to the second round of the 1998 NCAA tournament. Justin Tatum didn’t play that season due to academic reasons.

A young Jayson Tatum (left) received mentorship from his godfather, Larry Hughes (right), while growing up in St. Louis.

Justin Tatum

Jayson Christopher Tatum was born on March 3, 1998, to Justin Tatum and Brandy Cole. Hughes immediately accepted when a then-18-year-old Justin Tatum asked him to be his son’s godfather. Hughes vowed to give Jayson the best support possible and was at his youth basketball, football and baseball games when he was able to attend.

“I remember going to the house after Jayson was born to check on him and Brandy,” Hughes said. “I got a soon-to-be 24-year-old myself, so we were doing this thing at the same time, changing diapers. I don’t recall the exact time I was asked to be Jayson’s godfather by his dad, but it was understood after everything we had gone through growing up. I’m the godfather to his kids. He is the godfather to my kids.

“More so than anything, the godfather thing is bigger than that. Our kids know if they need anything big or small, they have someone to go to.”

Said Justin Tatum: “The way we grew up together, we didn’t have our dads in our lives. I knew he was going to be there for my son the way I was going to be there for his kids as well. That was an easy thing for me to do because I knew he was never going to let me down.”

Justin Tatum averaged 8.2 points and 5.3 rebounds while starting 28 games for Saint Louis from 1998 to 2001. And after Lorenzo Romar, who was head coach of Saint Louis from 1999 to 2002, talked to the team after home games, Justin Tatum often brought his then-young son into the locker room. Now, Jayson Tatum often brings his 4-year-old son, Jayson “Deuce” Tatum Jr., into the Celtics’ locker room after games.

“I kept him in the locker room similar to how he is doing with Deuce now,” Justin Tatum said. “I took him to practice. It’s unbelievable. I just wasn’t able to come into my locker room right when the game was over, but when he did, he came in dribbling the ball. Lorenzo texts me all the time now saying, ‘This is the same kid who was in the locker room all the time with the ball and shooting the basket?’ That’s him.”

Said Hughes: “When I see ‘Lil J’ and Deuce, I love it because they’re creating memories with social media and all the cameras everywhere that will last a lifetime.”

Thanks to his godfather, Larry Hughes (right), Jayson Tatum at a young age was exposed to the NBA and had the opportunity to meet his favorite player, Kobe Bryant.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

“Jayson was glowing the whole time talking about how he scored against LeBron and Drew Gooden at practice. He was just in heaven. That time gave him nothing but drive.”

Hughes averaged 14.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.5 steals in 727 games during a 12-year NBA career that included stops with the Philadelphia 76ers, Warriors, Washington Wizards, Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets and Orlando Magic. The 2004-05 NBA steals leader also averaged a career-best 22.0 points per game that season.

Justin Tatum says his son attended about 10 of Hughes’ games during his NBA career. Hughes made sure they had VIP access to parking, postgame passes, practices and shootarounds. Thanks to Hughes, Jayson also had an opportunity to meet and talk with his favorite NBA player of all time, the late Los Angeles Lakers icon Kobe Bryant. Tatum built a strong friendship with Bryant before the latter tragically died in 2020, and wore his old No. 24 armband for motivation when the Celtics beat the Miami Heat in a deciding Game 7 of the 2022 Eastern Conference finals.

Hughes said Tatum “got the chance to experience travel and the NBA experience” initially through him. Justin Tatum said those experiences with Hughes had a major impact on his son.

“Those were all the things that hungered Jayson and also caused him to humble himself when he got to the NBA,” Justin Tatum said. “Being able to meet Kobe, who was his idol, and take a picture with him added fuel to the fire. I don’t know what he would be like as a person or a player if he didn’t have that early access with Larry. He would probably still be in the league, but maybe not as polished or well known or knowledgeable about how to [deal] with the negative parts.”

Said Hughes: “My time in Cleveland was a nice little age where he came to a couple of games going into his teenage years.”

During the 2007 NBA Finals in which the Cavaliers were swept by the Spurs, Hughes was limited to two games after battling plantar fasciitis in his left foot. But a 9-year-old Jayson was not only on hand with his father to see Games 3 and 4 in Cleveland, but he also went with Hughes to practice.

Hughes was spending hours at the practice facility getting treatment in hopes of improving his foot injury. Meanwhile, Jayson made the most of each priceless second as he got a chance to play one-on-one against LeBron James and Drew Gooden after a Finals practice and attended shootaround in Cleveland. Jayson was able to take a picture with James, and also spoke with members of the Cavaliers’ coaching staff, which was then led by head coach Mike Brown, now an assistant for the Warriors and soon-to-be head coach of the Sacramento Kings.

“Jayson was glowing the whole time talking about how he scored against LeBron and Drew Gooden at practice,” Justin Tatum said. “He was just in heaven. That time gave him nothing but drive. Being around Larry and being able to see the way he moved and worked on his game influenced him. He went to interviews and saw how he did them. It was a great blueprint to do better with. …

“He would not stop describing everything that he saw. He’s a sponge.”

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (left) now brings his son into the locker room after games like his father, Justin Tatum (right), did with “Lil J” when he played at Saint Louis University.

Justin Tatum

Jayson Tatum also learned at an early age about the luxuries that came with being an NBA player through Hughes.

Hughes made $84 million during his NBA career, according to Basketball-Reference. During Tatum’s youth, Hughes wore the latest fashion, lived in a big house and drove the hottest cars. On occasion, Justin Tatum would drive “Lil J” to youth basketball practice in the former NBA player’s Bentley.

“I was always a car guy,” Jayson Tatum said. “[Hughes] had old-school cars. He had a Lamborghini, a Bentley, he had a Phantom. He has four kids and we were all around the same age. So, I used to go over his house and go swimming. Just seeing that lifestyle, the cars as a 12-year-old kid, that was important to me.”

Justin Tatum said Hughes also showed “consistency” in how he handled his financial affairs, but added that the luxury side of his buddy’s life was cool to be around.

“I took ‘Lil J’ to football practice in one of Larry’s old-school [Buick] Skylarks with the drop-top,” Justin Tatum said. “We were bumping the music. I got my Afro out and Jayson was just chilling. We are chilling in a lot of the luxuries Larry was able to have. He’s my best friend, so I would grab his keys and pick my kid up from school in the Bentley. Jayson would say, ‘Dad, this is unbelievable. This was amazing.’ I said, ‘Yeah, this could be you.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do this and that.’

“I’m glad I was able to do that because he knows how to act if he wants a Bentley, and he knows what it costs. That is now his main thing because he’s been around that. His main thing is raising these championship trophies.”

“He saw the nice cars and how we carried ourselves. He understood how we were able to travel. Experiences like that was something he wanted. You can see now that he knew what he wanted and how to go there to get it.”

— Former NBA player Larry Hughes on Jayson Tatum’s exposure to the NBA lifestyle at an early age

Tatum was blessed to be able to touch an NBA player and see what the inside world was like long before he put on a Celtics uniform. But his father deserves much of the credit for helping build the foundation of the basketball star he is today.

Justin Tatum played professionally for the Dutch club Aris Leeuwarden from 2005 to 2007. He said he stopped playing primarily because he wanted to spend more time with his son and coach him up. He said that he noticed that his son loved basketball at the age of 4 and that he had a passion for it going into the eighth grade. And Justin Tatum allowed his son to get better against older kids by allowing him to practice with his players when he coached Soldan International Studies High School in St. Louis.

“From the time he was a baby I put a ball in his hands,” Justin Tatum said. “The doctor told me he could be about 6-8 and 7-foot. I was a post player getting rebounds, but my son wasn’t going to be that. He’s going to work outside and then in. When I found out he was right-handed when he was Deuce’s age, I made him work left hand only and told him you don’t double dribble and we don’t travel. Countless hours.

“When you see him work out pregame, he still does an in-and-out dribble routine. We’ve done that for hours going around chairs. I laugh at it now because that is his favorite move before going to a high pull-up. The hours were countless. He practiced when he was 8 years old with my high school players who were juniors. He couldn’t get the ball up the court on a high school player who was a junior, and he was crying. He said he couldn’t get the ball up and I fussed at him. The next year, he did it much more comfortably. He kept coming back and he never wanted to run away from a challenge because he wanted to figure it out.”

Hughes first noticed that Tatum had a “high level of talent” in basketball at the age of 16. Hughes also remembers seeing how much basketball meant to “Lil J” when he saw him in tears after losing a big game at St. Louis’ Chaminade College Prep School because he didn’t feel he gave his all, and the fire that lit under him.

“I was walking behind him, and his shoulders were about as wide as the door that we walked in,” Hughes said. “He had to slide one shoulder in and then slide in with the other shoulder. I was like, ‘Damn, he keeps growing and he’s spreading out.’ We walk in and he gets to working out and is doing his thing, and I’m thinking, ‘This kid, at 16, he has a chance.’ It was because of the way he was carrying himself, how fast he was growing and the way he was filling out.”

Today, Hughes says he communicates about basketball to Tatum primarily through his father or on FaceTime when he golfs with his old friend. In fact, Hughes told Jayson Tatum during the Milwaukee series that he was getting “knocked a foot off of his angle” when he took shots. Hughes said his advice to the Celtics star in the Finals is to “stay consistent and stay aggressive.”

“They know me, I’m only going to speak when it’s the right time to speak,” Hughes said. “I make sure that anything that I see, anything that I feel, I make sure it gets to Justin because it will get to Jayson the right way. Sometimes when you talk to guys at this age, they say, ‘I got you,’ or they hear you, but they don’t. I use a tactic that I use the closest person to him so he can consistently give him the message of his ins and outs and things that I see.”

Said Justin Tatum: “I reiterate what he says to Jayson, and he listens and says he appreciates it.”

Jayson Tatum (center), who won the Eastern Conference finals MVP award after the Boston Celtics beat the Miami Heat, will have his father, Justin Tatum, and godfather, Larry Hughes, watching him live in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

For almost 30 years, Justin Tatum and Larry Hughes have been the best of friends. The two buddies traveled from St. Louis to San Francisco to watch “Lil J” make his NBA Finals debut on Thursday night. While Hughes will be very recognizable to Warriors fans as a former player, he plans on wearing his No. 0 Celtics jersey and a St. Louis hat to represent his godson, with the proud father sitting right next to him at Chase Center.

“I am going to be there to support no matter where I am, but it’s an experience for me now,” Hughes said. “When I made it to the Finals, I was injured, hurt and banged up. But I got a chance to be there. So, just seeing somebody you watched almost being born to have the opportunity to play in the Finals. …

“Every other team is done except for two. I just want to be in the building. And this isn’t the only game I [will] go to. I plan on going to Game 1 and a game in Boston just so I can catch that vibe. Also, we can have the conversation 10 years from now about his first Finals game.”

Said Justin Tatum: “Seeing him raise an Eastern Conference MVP trophy and leading his team to the Finals, as a dad, it’s something I can’t describe in words. I shed tears. It’s just an unreal feeling. I’m happy for him. This kid is just amazing.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.