URBANA — Bryson Tatum stood in front of the entrance to Oscar Adams Gymnasium at Urbana High School on a warm Thursday afternoon and unzipped his gray hoodie.
That revealed a red, long-sleeve Miami (Ohio) T-shirt, confirming the 2020 Urbana graduate will join the RedHawks men’s basketball program later this year on scholarship.
A sizable smattering of mask-clad supporters offered applause while scattered along the sidewalk and parking lot areas — the required setting during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Then, the heartfelt messages were delivered in front of those rooters.
“His dream has always been to be a Division I,” started Tatum’s mother, Jennifer Ivory-Tatum, before she said, “I’m going to get emotional” and soon tears welled in her eyes.
“A Division I basketball player,” the Urbana superintendent continued, “and he is reaching that accomplishment.”
“There’s an unknown about him in terms of recruiting circles, but in about six months, that’ll no longer be a secret,” Tigers boys’ basketball coach Verdell Jones Jr. added. “The whole college basketball landscape is going to find out what we’ve always known: That great talent is being produced in the city of Urbana. … He’s going to carry the torch in this community forward.”
Urbana assistant coach Herb Burnett rounded out emotional sequence with an anecdote.
“We were in Normal Community,” Burnett said. “The athletic director over there, he came up to me, he said, ‘Herb, who’s that kid there? Where’d he come from?’
“I said, ‘That’s Bryson Tatum. He was here last year.’ (The AD said), ‘That kid was here last year?’ ... He worked so hard, some of the teams didn’t even know he was the same person.”
Months after earning News-Gazette All-Area boys’ basketball first-team status, Tatum inked his National Letter of Intent on Thursday moments after announcing he would suit up for with Jack Owens’ Miami (Ohio) program. The RedHawks finished 13-19 last season and were set to play Northern Illinois on March 12 in the Mid-American Conference tournament quarterfinals before the pandemic forced the cancellation of their season.
Owens is an Eastern Illinois graduate who just wrapped up his third season in charge at Miami (Ohio) after previously serving as an assistant coach at Purdue, Southern Illinois and Eastern Illinois.
Tatum understands his rise to a future D-I player may have taken some people by surprise, but he also understands the implications of his signing.
“It’s a big honor,” Tatum said. “Now I have to set the way for the other people following me. So this is an example for all the people in Urbana that if you work hard, you can accomplish anything.”
The 6-foot-3 Tatum served as both a guard and forward for the Tigers during their second consecutive Class 3A regional-championship season that ended in a March sectional semifinal defeat two days before the pandemic brought sports to a halt across the country.
He averaged 18 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals this past season as a senior.
Tatum also was part of Urbana’s first regional title victory since 1989 during an impressive junior season that set the stage for what he accomplished this past winter.
“It always takes that one that breaks through that ceiling to let people know that ceiling is an imaginary construct, and there is no ceiling,” Jones said. “You can soar as high as you want, go as far as you want (and) stay as long as you need to. (Tatum) epitomizes that.”
Tatum said the RedHawks’ staff began conversing with him “about a few weeks ago.” He expressed some worry about the ongoing pandemic potentially derailing his recruitment, but Tatum “stuck to the routine” and found a college home during a time in which high schoolers can’t visit college campuses.
“They think that I fit their system really good, offensive-wise,” Tatum said. “I like to score. I like to pass, get teammates involved. Trying to be a leader.”
Jones said he had conversations with Owens in which Jones touched on all of those basketball attributes and more.
“When I began to just laud (Tatum) in terms of things he brought to the table for us, I think that’s one of things that really began to whet the appetite of Coach Owens,” Jones said. “(I told him), ‘I want you to understand this kid has the goods.’”
Tatum isn’t exactly sure what his future holds as far as when he can arrive in Oxford, Ohio, given restrictions tied to COVID-19. But he’s planning as if summer conditioning will begin in less than a month.
One aspect Tatum can be certain about is the effect of his college decision in a time when nationwide protests continue in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
“It means a lot to me being a black man,” Tatum said. “Growing into adulthood and seeing all these things, like protesting and all that stuff, it means a lot to see that the African-American race and equality for all races (is) coming together, hopefully making a change for the future. And I’m glad that I’m an example showing that it can be done.”