ST. LOUIS – One of St. Louis’s own takes on basketball’s biggest stage. Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics are set for battle with the Golden State Warriors as the NBA Finals begin Thursday.

Tatum, a 2016 graduate of Chaminade College Preparatory School in Creve Coeur, is chasing his first NBA championship in a young, but highly-decorated career. The 24-year-old has established himself as one of the league’s most prolific scorers en route to three consecutive All-Star selections, a Summer Olympics bid and most recently 2022 Eastern Conference Finals MVP honors. 

His primary high school basketball coach, Frank Bennett, is thrilled to sit back and watch the ride. 

“It’s been really awesome to see what he is doing right now, not only for the St. Louis community, but for basketball as a whole,” said Bennett in a one-on-one interview Wednesday with FOX2. “He’s a guy that has everything at his fingertips and is still a grounded down-to-earth guy. He’s getting poised and positioned to be the face of the league.” 

Bennett, who took over as head coach of Chaminade’s varsity basketball team in 2013, first connected with Tatum during middle school basketball camps in the early 2010s. Prior to then, he also attended the same church as Tatum’s grandmother for several years. Bennett has kept in touch with Tatum frequently throughout the 2021-22 season and says he is lucky to watch Tatum make the most of his opportunities.

“He means so much to a lot of us at Chaminade and in the St. Louis community,” said Bennett. “We’re ten toes down with him, and we believe he’s going to be able to get it done and win an NBA championship.” 

Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum plays against the Miami Heat during the first half of Game 6 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference finals playoff series, Friday, May 27, 2022, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Where It All Began

Tatum’s journey to NBA stardom originated from humble beginnings. He reflected on some adversity he faced growing up in a recent one-on-one special with ESPN’s Sage Steele.

Fast-forward to high school, Tatum developed into one of Missouri’s most dynamic athletes. In his last three seasons with Chaminade, he averaged at least 25 points and nine rebounds per game each campaign. Chaminade rallied to back-to-back Final Four state appearances in Tatum’s junior and senior years before he closed out his high school career with a state championship in 2016.

“The things he was doing with a ball in his hands was special,” said Bennett. “He was just a terror for the opposition. There was no one who could really guard him. It didn’t matter if it was someone his size with some strength, a dynamic athlete who could crawl under him, you just couldn’t make him uncomfortable.”

Bennett says Tatum’s high school success has helped Chaminade sustain one of the St. Louis region’s most-storied basketball programs, feeding off the example set by fellow Red Devils alum and NBA star Bradley Beal.

“Brad was a great student and an unbelievable worker,” said Bennett. “[Tatum] mirrors that. He was trying to win, and he was trying to make sure other people were involved while doing what he does. We have a culture of guys that want to hit shots before school and do the extra, and a lot of it is attributed to the way Jayson took it and ran with it.”

A scrimmage drill, of all high school memories, really opened Bennett’s eyes to how Tatum developed into a star in the making.

“He scored 17 times in a row,” said Bennett. “It was one of those things where you’re coaching and you’re constantly on your guys, and in the back of your mind, you really can’t be mad at those guys. Because right in front of your face, you’re watching an NBA All-Star just take off. Guys were playing good defense, hands in your face, trying to push [Tatum] to whatever they thought his weakness was, and he would just score. 

That translated to star-budding moments throughout high school, including a 40-point effort in Chamindae’s state title-clinching win over Kickapoo in 2016.

“When the lights turn on, he always performs,” said Bennett. “In the first half of the state championship game [senior year], he had 27 [points] and the opponent had 26. If that’s not locked in, I don’t know what is.”

Chaminade’s Jayson Tatum, right, and teammate Tyler Cook celebrate following the Missouri Class 5 boys high school championship basketball game against Kickapoo Saturday, March 19, 2016, in Columbia, Mo. Chaminade won 72-59. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Standout performances have not slowed down at the college or NBA level, and neither has Tatum’s love for his hometown. One day after advancing to the NBA Finals, Tatum shared via Twitter that he “dreamed of moments like this” as a kid from St. Louis. Tatum’s appreciation for his hometown is no secret.

During his rookie season in 2017, he landed a major endorsement deal with hometown hit Imo’s Pizza. Bennett says Tatum also enjoys many other St. Louis food and drink brands, including Red Hot Riplets and Vess soda. Earlier this year, Tatum won the hearts of St. Louisans on social media by picking the “St. Louis Rams” to win Super Bowl LVI, a remark which came shortly after the franchise settled a lawsuit over relocating the football team to Los Angeles.

“Anyone that knows Jayson knows he is a die-hard St. Louisan,” said Bennett. “All of these things that are staples in our community, he lives and breathes, everything from the food to the St. Louis culture. He has the world at his fingertips, but he doesn’t forget where he comes from.” 

St. Louis In The NBA Finals

Tatum and dozens of others from St. Louis and nearby suburbs have worked their way to the NBA over the years, according to a list compiled by Basketball.RealGM.com. Only six players with St. Louis-area roots have ever won an NBA championship. 

Most recently, St. Louis produced two title-winning talents in the 2010s. Patrick McCaw and David Lee both earned titles as members of the Golden State Warriors, the opponent ahead for Tatum and company. Surprisingly enough, one St. Louis native has won with the Celtics. Jo Jo White picked up two titles with Boston and took home NBA Finals MVP honors in 1976. 

“When you look at the way the story of St. Louis basketball has been written, there have been people who have come before to show others the way,” said Bennett. “When they get there, we rally behind them, and for Jayson, it’s no different.” 

Bennett believes a championship for Tatum could help shape another generation of athletes in St. Louis.  

“For a guy at the highest level in his profession, and to ascend to the highest ranks of a profession that so many kids idolize and want for themselves, it inspires people,” said Bennett. “It inspires young kids that were once the Jaysons of the world. It gives them hope that they can accomplish things right before our eyes.”

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum raises the NBA Eastern Conference MVP trophy after defeating the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference finals playoff series, Sunday, May 29, 2022, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

A tall task awaits as Tatum and the Celtics will look to fend off an experienced Warriors franchise, one that rattled off three titles and five straight finals appearances from 2015-2019. Golden State superstar Steph Curry has shined with seven 30-point games in this playoff campaign and might prove difficult to slow down. Nonetheless, Bennett is optimistic about the possibility of a Tatum title. 

“I know we got some people who feel like Golden State is a shoe-in. I don’t believe that for one second,” said Bennett. “Can Boston get it done? One-hundred percent they can.”

Tipoff for Game 1 of the NBA Finals is set for 8 p.m. CT on Thursday. Tatum and the Celtics will open the championship round with two road games before returning to Boston for at least two more.