My First Classmate

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Jayson Tatum, Small Forward / Jordan Brand Classic - The Players' Tribune

I saw it right away. As soon as my mom pulled the car up to our house and we started making our way to the front door. It was there.

Growing up where we did in St. Louis, you know about this sort of thing, you hear about it. But I’d never seen it before.

A small piece of pink paper tacked to our door.

An eviction notice.

My mom broke down in tears as soon as she saw it. Whether it was heat being cut off, or the water, it always seemed like it was one problem after another. And she was hurting. She went to her room. I could hear her crying through her bedroom door.

I went to my room as well. I was just so upset — angry at myself for being so young, unable to help, with no control. Of course I was just a kid, only 8 or 9 years old, so I didn’t really understand the whole situation, but I knew enough to know what that pink paper meant.

Where are we going to live?

Who are we going to stay with?

Who is going to take care of us?

***

Way before high school, I’d already been to college. My mom had me when she was 19 years old. She was just a college freshman. But she was determined not to become another statistic, not to end up on welfare, not to drop out of school.

So she brought me to class with her.

From the time I was a baby until I was about eight years old, when my mom went to school, I went to school with her. I remember sitting in the back of her classes, eating snacks or immersing myself in books or video games. I kept quiet, listening in here and there — to me, most of her professors seemed boring and talked a lot. But I had my things to focus on, she had hers. It felt normal. So that’s what we did. When my mom couldn’t afford a babysitter and Grandma was working, we’d go to class together.

And by the time I got to sixth grade, my mom had gotten her bachelor’s and law degrees from St. Louis University.

I’ll never forget her law school graduation. All my cousins and grandparents showed up. When they called my mom’s name, I stood up in my button-down and slacks and screamed, “I love you! I’m proud of you!”

She did it, I told her her after the ceremony, but she corrected me. “We did it.”

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I don’t think it really hit me until this past year, with Duke ahead of me this fall, how much Mom worked and how much she went through.

Those nights when she was still in school, we’d sit at the dining room table together. We were each doing our homework. She’d be walking back and forth from the kitchen, cooking dinner while I asked her questions about my math assignments. (Mom was the best with math, she always found a way to break things down in terms that I could understand.) And when it was my bedtime she’d tuck me in and then return to the dining room table, staying up for hours, studying, reading, making sure she was keeping up with her own schoolwork.

She’d often say to me, “Jay, don’t let anyone tell you what you can or can’t be. No matter what.”

One day, she came home from a parent-teacher conference with my report card. She pointed at the two Cs I’d gotten.

When it became clear in middle school that basketball was becoming a bigger part of my life, her words only hit home even more.

I’ve been playing basketball since I could walk. My dad played in college and then for a few years as a pro overseas, which is why I didn’t see him much in those early years. But there are photos of me as a baby at his games. So you could say that the game has been part of me from the start. When I was only three years old, I had to play in the under-5 league at our YMCA because I was so much taller than the other boys my age.

When Mom found out that all I wanted to do was to play ball, she started to demand that I work just as hard in school. She didn’t want people to look at me and think, He’s only an athlete. All he can do is play basketball. He can’t speak well.

The Jordan Brand Classic practice at Terminal 23 in New York City, New York on April 14, 2016. (Photo by Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tirbune)

Suddenly there were new house rules. If my grades weren’t where she wanted them to be, then no basketball tournaments on the weekend.

“Yeah, sure — O.K., Mom,” I’d reply sarcastically. “My friends’ moms don’t have those rules.”

I was just being being a kid.

Big mistake. One day, she came home from a parent-teacher conference with my report card. She pointed at the two Cs I’d gotten.

She sat me down and delivered one of those talks — one of those long mom talks. If you know what I mean, you know what I mean.

When my basketball tournament rolled around that weekend, she didn’t mess around. She actually sat me out. No mercy. It was an eye-opener. I never underestimated my mom again. It only took one time.

From then on, we became a team just like we had been when she was taking me to school. At that time, she had been doing whatever she could — working two jobs, picking up side jobs cleaning people’s houses, getting her schoolwork done, on top of all her duties as my mom. Even when she got her degree, her hard work never ceased, so I needed to step up, too.

The Jordan Brand Classic practice at Terminal 23 in New York City, New York on April 14, 2016. (Photo by Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tirbune)

As I got taller and stronger, I started to mature in other ways. I tried hard to handle my schoolwork so she didn’t have to check up on me as much as she used to. I tried to be as independent as I could to lighten her burden a little bit. I started to wash and iron my clothes, find my own rides to the gym, cook my own breakfast in the morning — and if she was out working late, I tried to have food ready when she came home. (Future college roommate, you’re in luck: I make great tacos.)

My game got better as well.

The summer before I got to high school, I was invited to an elite basketball camp in Atlanta. There were kids there who had their own YouTube highlight videos, mixtapes, the whole thing. I recognized some other players — Josh Langford, V.J. King, Bam Adebayo — as top high school recruits. I just rolled in like the new kid. Nobody knew my name or where I was from. But by the end of the weekend, I felt like a few more people knew my name. College basketball was on my radar and, just maybe, so was a scholarship.

Heading into my freshman year of high school, Mom sat me down for one of her talks. The way I looked up to Kobe and LeBron, she said, were the way young kids in St. Louis would look up to me: I was a big-name basketball player who might make it.

Whatever I was doing off the court, she said, was just as important as the numbers I was putting up on it.

In addition to homework, Mom had me get involved with volunteer work, helping out at a homeless shelter and mentoring young student-athletes in our city. I would go to their practices and games, talk to them about problems they were facing in school. Sometimes I would get to speak at their banquets or other team functions.

I wasn’t used to giving advice. What can an 18-year-old kid tell other kids?

I would always start the same way, with a story.

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When I was in elementary school, my teachers would go around the classroom asking kids what they wanted to be when they grow up. Most of my classmates would say something about how they wanted to be doctors or lawyers or teachers. I would always say, “I want to be a professional basketball player.” Usually the teacher would just smile and say, “That’s inspiring, but think of something more realistic.”

Then I’d tell those student-athletes what my mom told me.

“Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or can’t be. No matter what.”

“I’m just like you,” I would say.“ I’m from these blocks, I played in these rec leagues, my family has had its struggles the same way yours do. There’s no special secret. Just work hard and push yourself. (And if you’re lucky, you’ll have a mom who will push you even harder.)”

When scholarship offers started arriving, every letter would make Mom cry. The call from Coach K was a dream come true — a dream she had been preparing me for these last couple of years, even if I wasn’t so sure that it would ever happen myself.

She’d be holding the remote in her fist under my chin, like an imaginary mic.

I thought the lessons were over, but I was wrong. Even when I knew I was going to Duke, Mom kept pushing me.

She’d come into my room when I was watching TV, grab the remote and ask, “Jay, if a news reporter came up to you after a game and asked you, ‘What were you thinking, coming down the stretch?’ What would you say?”

At the time, I really didn’t get what she was doing. I just wanted to watch TV.

Mommmmmmm! Nobody’s going to come up and ask me these questions.”

But she would persist, so I ended up playing along. She’d be holding the remote in her fist under my chin, like an imaginary mic.

Looking back, it’s pretty funny, but I think it helped me prepare. Now I never get nervous when I have to talk to the media.

The Jordan Brand Classic practice at Terminal 23 in New York City, New York on April 14, 2016. (Photo by Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tirbune)

My mom found a way to keep our house after we got that eviction notice. Just like her college degrees, just like her late nights working multiple jobs, she found a way.

The house is nothing spectacular, just a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house. But it’s home.

Sometimes my mom and I daydream about doing something to help other single mothers who are trying to get by. We talk about turning our house into a place where a mother and child could live rent-free for a year or two while they get back on their feet — so they won’t have to go through what Mom and I did, wondering if in 30 days we’d still have a home. I hope one day that our dream can come true.

Now Duke is on my horizon. And it’s only possible because of my mom, my original college classmate.

So thank you, Mom, for making sure I was fed, for making sure we had a home, for making me the person I am today.

… and for making sure I did my homework. I promise to keep you updated on my college assignments. Besides, I know you’ll check up if I don’t.

Thanks again, Mom. You did it.

My mistake. We did it.

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