Tatum's relationship with his mother led him to Duke

Duke forward Jayson Tatum suffered a foot injury on Oct. 25, but it is not expected to keep him out long term. Lance King/Getty Images

The 2016-17 college basketball season will be the "Year of the Freshmen," featuring what could be the best class we've ever seen. During the next two weeks we will get familiar with the best of the best, examining who they are and where each of the top 10 prospects in the 2016 ESPN 100 came from.

Read more: No. 10 Duke's Frank Jackson | No. 9 Kentucky's Malik Monk
No. 8 Michigan State's Miles Bridges | No. 7 Washington's Markelle Fultz
No. 6 Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox | No. 5 Kentucky's Bam Adebayo
No. 4 UCLA's Lonzo Ball | No. 3 Duke's Jayson Tatum
No. 2 Kansas' Josh Jackson | No. 1 Duke's Harry Giles

Brandy Cole's phone was plugged into an outlet across the room of the medical center. A nurse tended to her father, who was set to undergo cataract surgery, and gave Cole specifics on the procedure.

Fifteen minutes worth of texts and missed calls awaited Cole when she retrieved the device. Texts and missed calls regarding the health of her only child: Duke's prized freshman Jayson Tatum.

"I can't remember which I read first," Cole said of the messages. "But it was crazy. I called [Duke assistants Jon] Scheyer and [Jeff] Capel. No one answered because they were still at practice.

"I really need one of y'all to call me back," Cole pleaded down the line. "Is my baby OK?"

Finally, Scheyer returned her call, but was unable to provide clarity on the foot injury Tatum had suffered before more than 50 NBA executives and other onlookers during Duke's second and final pro day on Oct. 25. All Cole knew was that Tatum had to be helped off the court, as the college basketball world wondered whether her son suffered a serious injury.

Scheyer's response when Cole pushed him for info: "I really don't know."

Cole, a single mom who basically raised Tatum by herself while working multiple jobs and attending school, didn't hesitate.

"You can tell me face-to-face when I get there," Cole said. "Tonight."

Within minutes of the phone call, Cole booked a seat on a flight from St. Louis to Raleigh, North Carolina.

Before boarding, she texted her son: "I'll be there tonight, baby. Just pray. We are all here praying."

After a series of tests, Tatum's injury turned out to be something close to the best-case scenario: a sprained left foot that will sideline him just a couple of weeks. Still, whatever the news, there was no chance Cole was going to miss being there when the prognosis was delivered to Tatum.

"If they were going to tell him he couldn't play, I knew I had to be there to catch him when he falls," Cole said. "Luckily, it all worked out."

Cole discovered she was pregnant on July 4, 1997, just weeks after her high school graduation. She delivered Tatum on March 3, 1998 -- an 18-year-old single mother who was not about to let her status as a teenage parent be a barrier to her goal of getting an education. In fact, the birth of a baby boy only motivated Cole more, she said.

She enrolled at University of Missouri-St. Louis while also working a part-time job at Cingular Wireless -- gift-wrapping at the concierge desk -- to help pay for school, car insurance and day care. Four hours was considered a quality night's sleep for Cole.

"There were many nights I'd come home and he'd already be sleeping," Cole said of Tatum. "I'd hold him all night.

"It was really tough, but it was what I felt like I had to do for both of us," she added. "I remember one day my mom called and told me Jayson crawled for the first time. I just broke down and cried."

Cole worked her way up at Cingular and was promoted to management, and she worked on reconciling contracts. At the same time, she continued to pursue her bachelor's degree, turning heads when she brought her toddler to class with her.

"I remember one teacher said something to me about it," Cole recalled. "I said, 'I pay tuition like everyone else. He's not disrupting the class.' As long as I was holding him, Jayson was fine."

Now, after nearly 13 years of higher education, Cole is the proud owner of three degrees -- one in communications, another in political science and a law degree she earned in 2010. Tatum was a constant companion for his mom on the journey, sitting in the lounge playing with a Game Boy while Cole attended law school classes.

"I was bored," Tatum admits. "She used to give me games to play and snacks to eat, but just sitting there next to her while she was taking notes, it was pretty awful."

At just 10 years old, Tatum was recruited by his mom's classmates to play on the Black Law Students Association softball team -- where he hardly looked out of place. But Tatum's sport was basketball, and that was clear at an early age. Cole is nearly 6 feet tall, so some of Tatum's size comes from mom's side. But the unavoidable comparison was to Tatum's father, Justin Tatum, a 6-foot-6 former college basketball player at Saint Louis University. The pressure of that familial link would become even greater than expected.

Jayson Tatum's coming-out party came early in his high school basketball career. He was just a freshman at Chaminade Prep -- one of the top private schools in the area -- when he put up a triple-double against a Christian Brothers College High School team that featured eventual Golden State Warriors guard Patrick McCaw as well as fellow Division I players Jordan Barnett (Missouri) and Jordan Barnes (Indiana State). Coaches from Michigan State and Indiana were represented in the gym that night, the start of a recruiting process that would ultimately result in Tatum choosing Duke.

Before all that, Tatum would have to consider the prospect of joining the opponent that had yielded that breakout performance. CBC, where Justin Tatum had starred in the 1990s alongside eventual NBA lottery pick Larry Hughes, hired the elder Tatum as head coach just after the completion of Jayson's freshman season.

The rumors spread quickly. Most assumed Jayson would transfer and play for his dad. Cole said it was a "rough summer" for Jayson.

"He's always known him and been in his life, but Jayson has never lived with him," Cole said. "Justin came back from playing overseas when Jayson was about 7 or 8."

"The whole talk all summer was about what was Jayson going to do?" Chaminade coach Frank Bennett said. "I'm thinking, 'He's gone for sure.'"

Father and son had a relationship, but that didn't make the decision easy.

"It was tough because obviously I wanted to play for him," Jayson said. "And he wanted to coach me."

Jayson says the conversation in which he informed his father he'd stay at Chaminade wasn't easy, but "he definitely understood that it was best for me to stay." He was thriving at Chaminade, both in a basketball sense and academically, and felt a strong bond to his teammates.

Despite moving into the No. 1 overall spot in the ESPN rankings as a sophomore -- passing current Duke teammate Harry Giles, who had suffered a season-ending knee injury -- it was a bittersweet season for Tatum, who literally watched his father and CBC win the state title from the sidelines, while standing next to his mother. Tatum and Chaminade came up short again during his junior season before they finally won the Class 5A state title in 2016.

By then, Tatum had ended the suspense over his college choice. He was headed to Duke, which would make him one of the linchpins in one of the top recruiting classes in college basketball history.

The text messages between Tatum and Cole will continue throughout this season, the ones in which the son always replies to his mom's suggestions -- about topics both on and off the court -- with "yes, ma'am."

"That's all I say," Tatum said with a laugh. "Yes, ma'am."

Cole was tough on Tatum throughout his childhood, but has succeeded in balancing being his mother and also his best friend. One aspect in which there has been little to no wiggle room is academics -- and Cole says that's one of the reasons she was so ecstatic he chose to attend Duke.

"Coach K won't retire your jersey until you graduate," Cole said. "That's a big thing for me. A lot of Duke kids come back and get their degree. I told him, It doesn't matter how long it takes. He's seen how hard I've worked."

"She was always hard on me," said Tatum, who had a 3.5 GPA in high school. "She never lets me have any excuses."

It's unlikely that Tatum, barring an injury, will return to Durham for his sophomore season. Most NBA executives who have seen him tell ESPN that the skilled, smooth and versatile 6-foot-8 forward is a lock to be taken in the lottery, and he remains in contention for the No. 1 overall pick when the NBA draft rolls around in June.

Cole has made certain that her son won't take anything for granted.

"We have a unique relationship. There's no B.S." Cole said.

There is no shortage of support, either. Cole has been with Tatum every step of the way, and it's not lost on either mother or son that she'll be alongside him for his college journey, just as he was there, Game Boy and all, for hers.

"She's my best friend," Tatum said. "I'm the biggest mama's boy ever, and I'm proud to say it."