There’s a photo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown next to each other as teenagers that pops up on social media every now and again. It’s a snapshot from October 2014, long before the duo could even dream of being the All-Star pillars for the Boston Celtics.
Brown was making his official visit to Kansas during the team's annual "Late Night in the Phog" at Allen Fieldhouse while Tatum, a year behind him in school, was there on an unofficial visit. Tatum and Brown were friendly after crossing paths on the AAU circuit but the fact that they ended up next to each other in the crowd and someone snapped a photo still blows Brown’s mind.
"It is kind of crazy, because out of all the pictures and all the people, it was this dude I was in the picture with," Brown said as he and Tatum broke into laughter during a joint interview with NBC Sports Boston at Celtics Media Day last month.
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"I don't know how, because I think that might have been one of the only pictures I probably took on visits with another player, and it just happened to be who I’ve been through multiple playoff runs with, won a lot of games with, shared an All-Star appearance with, and, hopefully, can raise a banner with."
The two fresh-faced kids in that photo are now the face of the Celtics franchise. New head coach Ime Udoka anointed Tatum and Brown the "pillars" of the team and president of basketball operations Brad Stevens has repeatedly suggested that his job is to find the players who best accentuate the talents of his All-Star duo.
Brown and Tatum are excited for the challenge. They’ve been through a lot together over the past four years in Boston and they know they need each other to accomplish the lofty goals in front of them.
That 2014 photo is a small reminder of how it all started -- and how they describe it is a little glimpse into how their relationship has grown.
“[Tatum] came and took a picture with me because I was the man,” quipped Brown. “So he came over and was like, ‘Jaylen, can I take a picture?’ I was like, ‘Cool. You know I’m always here for my fans.’ That’s how it went."
Is that really how it went down, Jayson?
“If it makes for a good story,” shrugged Tatum while Brown chuckled in delight. “So be it.”
But Tatum and Brown think the better story is the one we'll be telling about what’s to come.
When Tatum enters the interview room, the Jays perform a familiar, understated handshake. There’s small talk about Tatum’s new tattoos and their media day chores ahead. Tatum, 23, and Brown, 25, skillfully handle questions on the burden of being the young faces of a storied franchise and pledge they are ready for the responsibility that comes with that.
After recalling the 2014 Kansas trip, the conversation lingers on the relationship between Tatum and Brown. This reporter notes how he’s often asked about how they interact, both on the court and off, and how fans sometimes seem to have an obsession about whether the superstar teammates are actually friends.
So how would Tatum and Brown categorize their relationship?
Tatum: "I think that's a good way to put it -- people have an obsession and it's like they gotta have something to talk about. The question of, ‘Are they friends? Are they cool? Do they hang out? Do they not like each other?' It's just like, I don't wanna say it's weird but could you imagine being our age and and being in the spotlight and having all these people want to know if you're friends with another 24-, 25-year-old? I mean, I guess people gotta have something to talk about.
"I've known JB for seven or something years and, over time as he said, we've been through some stuff together. We've been in the playoffs, been in the bubble, had some heated arguments, had some good times. And I think that's just part of spending time with each other. And, yeah, we close. Like, his family has watched my son. People are different, people have different interests but that's just part of coexisting with somebody.”
Brown: “Personally, I don’t like JT. Let’s just get that out right now (laughter). No, I’m just playing. That’s my man, you know what I mean? It's weird to talk about it on camera. But that's my man. Like if you need something, you can come to me whenever. We got to talk about something? We can pick up the phone, you know what I mean? That's how it is. I guess it is kind of weird sometimes for people (to wonder about their relationship).
"If y’all want to hear it from me, that’s my dog."
Brown: "I wish the best for him. His potential is out the roof. He's gonna be probably one of the best players when it's all said and done, if you ask me. He still can't guard me, he still can't do nothing with me. But when it's all said and done, Jayson Tatum is gonna be one of the greats. He’s got my full support.
"And I don't think me supporting him is stopping anything that I got going on. I really don't believe that. Some people (are) dichotomizing it, or whatever you want to call it, but I can sit here and tell him to his face, to the camera, I want him to be the best version of Jayson possible and however I can help that. I know he could say the same thing about me. Whatever obsession that people got -- we pretty laid back people. We kind of introverted, we kind of stay to ourselves. We hang out -- maybe we don't hang out as much as people would like ..."
Tatum: “I do got a son."
Brown: "But that’s my man. I wish him the best.”
Sticking with the photo theme, the conversation swung to a more recent snapshot of Tatum and Brown: this one coming in the aftermath of the Tokyo Olympics, with Brown excitedly chomping on Tatum’s gold medal as they celebrated the milestone together in Las Vegas.
Brown: "I was raised on the belief that you gotta want for your brother what you want for yourself. I feel like I won a gold medal because he won one. I feel like, because I'm so close and into his journey, to see him win was like seeing me win. You know what I mean? So that was dope.
"I know his family, where he comes from in St. Louis. Now it might not be nothing but I know down the line -- it probably didn't hit him now but maybe in a couple weeks or a month or a year, you're gonna be like, 'I just won a gold medal.’ There are countries that don't have gold medals and he's probably going to have a few of them when it's all said and done.
"That's huge coming from places like we are from. That’s dope. So I was proud of him. I wish I didn't get hurt so I could have been there."
Chasing a gold medal together is just one of the goals on the Jays’ to-do list. But there’s plenty to do in Boston before then.
Stevens sometimes bristles when discussions lump Tatum and Brown together. While they are impossibly intertwined, discussing them as a pair sometimes seems to diminish each player’s own individual progress and accomplishments.
During his time as a coach, Stevens marveled at how the Jays performed on big stages at such young ages. He appreciates their progress to All-Star status but also knows that the toughest step is in front of them now.
"They’ve made amazing strides the last four and five years, in large part due to their own work and the level of commitment they have,” said Stevens. “The next steps are way harder. It’s way harder to go from an All-Star to a top-10 player. It’s way harder to do that every single night. To be a top-five player, to be in the discussions for MVPs, those are big challenges. But I believe in their work ethics.
"I think sometimes we pair them and talk about them as (one), which we should not do. They're very different. But at the same time, because of their ascension here together, people tend to do that. They both have great qualities. I think they can both take those steps but those steps are not easy and those steps are not for everyone. They’re just going to keep at it and I know that they will.”
The NBA is overflowing with young talent and it’s hard to peg exactly where Tatum and Brown sit as far as NBA Jam-style duos. But suffice to say that plenty of teams in the league would love to have two All-Stars, both age 25 or younger, who are not overwhelmed by the moment.
And it’s telling the way those who have played against Tatum and Brown speak about their rise.
“We matched up with [Boston] in the playoffs in the bubble, me and Jayson going at it, there’s a respect there,” said newcomer Josh Richardson, whose Philadelphia 76ers were swept by the Celtics in the first round of the 2020 playoffs. “[Tatum and Brown] compete. They don’t float. They don’t just play and score. They really compete."
Enes Kanter saw the Jays’ development up close during his first stint in Boston, and recognizes the progress after just one season away.
“They’re amazing, man. Playing with them two years ago and then last year, I played against them, it was a nightmare,” said Kanter, who went on to suggest that Tatum could be a top-five player by season’s end. He’s equally effusive in his praise of Brown and his perpetual growth.
Tatum and Brown are adamant they cannot get the team where they want it to go without help. Even when they hear Udoka call them pillars, they yearn to empower the supporting cast.
“It means a lot coming from a new head coach. We definitely want to be extensions of him,” said Brown. “But I feel like it's gonna take everybody. It ain’t just on me and Jayson. We need [Marcus] Smart, Rob [Williams], Al [Horford], Enes, Josh, the young guys, too -- to change the culture on and off the court. It’s a new year. Me and [Tatum] being here for a large amount of the time is important and us being leaders. But it’s going to be on everybody."
Added Tatum: “Like you said, we've been here -- two of the guys that have been here the longest. And obviously two of the leaders. But it’s a collective effort. We all got to do it together.”
It’s funny to hear Brown invoke the term “young guys.” Just a couple years ago, it was Brown and Tatum who earned that title from Kyrie Irving. It’s amazing how fast they went from complementary pieces -- and potential trade assets in big-splash deals -- to the pillars of the team.
"I think it's just part of the progression. As we get older, as we mature, as our games start to develop, it’s something that we always knew that was going to come -- and we wasn't going to always be the young guys,” said Tatum. "We always wanted more responsibility. That’s something that we worked towards, and we got to take advantage of.”
Added Brown: “I’m excited. Man, I’m 25. I’m getting old. It’s Year Six for me. I’m excited. I’m ready. I’m looking forward to the challenge, everything about this year. I had a long summer so I feel great. I don’t know about you? But I feel good going into the year. I’m looking forward to it.”
Brown’s energy is infectious as he talks. It’s clear how much it bothered him to have to watch the playoffs from the sidelines after wrist surgery ended his season. Tatum is always the quieter of the two but exudes the same confidence when he talks about wanting to dominate games from start to finish after the way he closed out the 2020-21 season.
Yes, the Jays are ready for the next snapshot in their journey. Their album is filling up fast. In the last calendar year they’ve added their joint photos at All-Star weekend, and Tatum’s gold medal celebration. But there’s a whole bunch of open sleeves to fill.
It would have been hard to envision any of this seven years ago when they took that first photo in Kansas. But the photos that will complete that album will only make the original snapshot that much more incredible.
Said Brown: "That [high school] picture is going to be even better down the line.”