Every day on the bus ride to elementary school, 8-year-old Jae’Sean Tate would clasp his hands, tuck his head down, and pray to God: Please don’t let me get in trouble today. Please let me be good today.
After arriving, he’d calmly walk into his classroom, find a seat, and think to himself: I’m not going to get in trouble today. I’m going to be good today.
And then, the anger would swell inside him, threatening to boil over. Teachers would wonder why he’d randomly start disrupting class, distracting fellow students, and throwing tantrums. He’d get in trouble so often he’d have to eat lunch with a school counselor. The principal’s office had a designated chair for him.
He didn’t want to get in trouble. He wanted to be good. He wanted to be seen for what he was: a loving, hard-working, studious boy. What he wanted most, however, was to not hurt anymore. To not break down. His classmates didn’t know about the sadness that lay underneath his hardened shell. Jae’Sean didn’t want to talk to anyone about where his pain came from.
The third-grader didn’t have the words to explain why he’d moved from his mother’s home in Toledo to Pickerington, Ohio, to live with his father, Jermaine, and stepmother, Jenice. He didn’t know how to describe the day his mother, Cori Key, sent him to stay with his grandmother so that she could go to Toronto with a friend to celebrate her birthday.
“Don’t go,” Jae’Sean told her that day.
He didn’t know why he felt so compelled to convince her to stay. He was an adaptable child, one who usually looked forward to staying with his grandmother, Deniese Key, whenever his mom left town. But that day he couldn’t shake a bad feeling.
“Don’t go,” he told her. “Please don’t let her go,” he pleaded with his grandmother as she nudged him into her car.
Two days passed, and there was no word from Cori. It was a Sunday. Jae’Sean remembers going to church with his grandmother. He remembers seeing her on the phone afterward with his grandfather, David Key. And he remembers his grandmother’s face melting into tears.
She drove him back to Cori’s house. A bunch of police cars were parked outside. Jae’Sean’s grandfather ran toward him and Deniese. The words tumbled out of him:
“She’s gone. She’s gone, Jae.”
Cori had been murdered.
Jae’Sean wailed in the back seat, trying to understand. It didn’t make sense. How could somebody do this? Why would somebody do this? he thought.
He rode along to his grandmother’s apartment, confused, upset. In disbelief. He cried himself to exhaustion, soon curling up to sleep. He woke up the next morning, and ran into her bedroom: “Grandma! I had a terrible dream last night that Mommy was gone.”
His grandmother had to tell him it wasn’t a dream.
Seventeen years later, Jae’Sean is still always thinking about his mom. Especially when the 25-year-old Houston Rockets rookie looks down at his left leg, which has a tattoo of a key with her first name at the top and her birthday at the bottom. Recently, he added another tattoo to the quad on the same leg: a portrait of her.
The flashbacks come at random moments. The hugs and kisses she gave him. The gray and white house they lived in. The green car she drove. The time there was a 12-pack of Pepsi in the car and it got too hot and it exploded all over the car’s ceiling. He remembers the way she used to call him Booter Butt, a nickname whose origin he can’t even remember. He laughs. “I remember how much she loved me.”
He tries to preserve these memories. His life has been divided into the Before and the After; everything that happened that terrible day in 2004 would have a ripple effect on everything that came next.
It took almost three years for the police to convict her boyfriend of the murder. Three years of uncertainty, angst. Fear. The boyfriend was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
“A lot of people don’t know that part of my life because I’m always smiling,” Jae’Sean says. “I try to be in a good mood and upbeat, but it took a lot for me to get that way. Because it’s so much hurt. So much trauma at a young age.”
His mom is the reason he has defied naysayers, the reason a 6-foot-4 forward has battled much bigger players and made it to the NBA. Ever since he was 10, when his AAU coaches stuck him on the B-team, his size has been his asterisk. And his motivator.
His mom is the reason he didn’t give up after going undrafted out of Ohio State in 2018, and the reason he then spent two years overseas pursuing his dream.
And now, with the Rockets, he has morphed into a promising starter, a bright spot in an otherwise dismal season, averaging 11.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.2 assists. He’s thrived in a league few thought he belonged in, leading the team in total minutes played and ranking in the top three in total points, rebounds, and assists. Dropping a career-high 25 against the Hawks in March, he’s become an unlikely leader on one of the worst teams in the league, a team that has gone through losing streaks and has traded away veterans such as James Harden and P.J. Tucker. But Jae’Sean has persevered, mainly because of all the work he put in just to be able to experience the struggles Houston’s facing this season.
“I took the steps, I didn’t take the elevator,” he says. “It’s not about when you get there, it’s about getting here.” And now? “It’s ‘how long can I stay here?’ That just adds to my hunger.”
He prides himself on being a person who doesn’t quit on any possession. At 230 pounds, he aptly guards positions 1 through 5; he’s heavy enough to lock up bigger players and agile enough to stay in front of smaller ones. “Defensively, we feel comfortable with him guarding everyone,” says Rockets general manager Rafael Stone.
“He’s very multidimensional. He has post skills that are unusual and he’s a good passer,” Stone says. “He handles the ball so well that he plays with his head up, which is unusual in a wing or a big guy. He makes life easier for his teammates.”
Jae’Sean has looked up to Tucker, who opened up opportunities for players like him. “The NBA was changing when I needed it to change,” says Tate, who has directly benefited from the move toward small ball.
Tate has been the league’s most valuable rookie this season, according to both estimated plus-minus and FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric. And in April, the rookie is having his best month yet, averaging 13.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.4 steals. Often, he bodies a team’s best player, scrapping and contesting and taking charges, playing with a tenacity that he doesn’t know how to turn off. He trains that way too, calling it “Guts Out” mode. Because inside him is still the child who, in fourth grade, dove so hard for a loose ball that he crashed into a wall and broke his tooth.
Back then he wanted to grab every ball, every rebound. When he ripped the ball down he didn’t have to think about his pain. His anger. His mom. For 40 minutes, he was free.
Jae’Sean remembers how disoriented and afraid he felt in the days after losing his mother.
Where am I going to go? Where am I going to live?
Looking back now, he remembers how uncertain he felt: “That was hard because I didn’t know who would want me.”
Of course, his dad and his stepmom wanted him. So did both sets of grandparents. But he was a child. At the time he tried not to dwell; he had to keep moving to keep from being swallowed by his grief. “It’s a blur,” he says of his childhood.
He did remember feeling uprooted when he moved to Pickerington. He was attending a new school, with new kids, new teachers, trying to fit in. And he felt a deep sense of responsibility at 8: “I was the man of the house.”
His dad played basketball at Ohio State in the mid-’90s, then went overseas to chase his own hoop dreams and provide for his family. Jae’Sean was the oldest of five siblings between the ages of 1 and 6. He’d help with dinner, pour sippy cups, gather baby bags, place his baby sister in her high chair. He’d do both of his sisters’ hair: pigtails, braids, ponytails, ballies; he could do it all.
He didn’t have time to cry, to grieve; his family needed him. “I was almost leaning on him,” Jenice says. “He always jumped right in.” Jae’Sean was grateful for his stepmom; she loved him and cared for him as one of her own. So did his grandparents. He clung tighter to all of them. They attended church every week, trying to come to terms with the incomprehensible.
“Parents aren’t supposed to bury their children,” Deniese says. Cori was her daughter. Her pride, her joy. “My heart, of course, was breaking, but my heart also broke for Jae’Sean, for the children.” She felt she had to be strong for him. So she, Jenice, and the rest of the family covered Jae’Sean with love. Let him know they would never leave him. Handed him a Bible and repeated John 15:11: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”
But Jae’Sean felt he had to remain strong, mostly for Damiene, his youngest brother. “I could never think of compassion for myself because my brother was going through the same thing,” Jae’Sean says. Jae’Sean pretended to be fearless, despite being, in his own words, “terrified of everything.”
Jenice, a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, put Jae’Sean in therapy at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, hoping it would help him process the trauma he was experiencing, the emotions he was carrying inside. “I was angry, for sure,” he says.
During counseling, he learned strategies to calm himself, to talk to himself. He didn’t understand it then, but he now knows why he acted out in school, which he would continue to do until about seventh grade. “It was just a way for me to cope,” he says.
He didn’t like talking about it. He didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him. If people treated him differently, that would draw attention to him. And he didn’t want that. Holding it in was hard enough; having others talk about it would add a layer of distress. Besides, he was just starting to play basketball and football—discovering he was naturally talented at both—and the kids already picked on him because he was smaller than everyone else.
So he kept a stiff upper lip. Never cheated a drill, never backed down from guarding a kid twice his size.
Jae’Sean wanted to be just like his father. Jermaine was tough and smart. Versatile and competitive. But Jae’Sean was much smaller than his 6-foot-9 dad, so he had to box out to stand out. Play smarter, faster. He outhustled everyone. Many people around him thought he’d pursue football, his first love, but Jae’Sean gravitated toward basketball.
When he first began playing AAU, he rarely got in the game. “Never came out my shooting shirt,” he says. The first time he sat an entire game, in second grade, he started crying, watching each kid rise off the bench, his legs growing heavier from sitting. Why can’t they just put me in?!
He grew accustomed to coaches saying: “He’s so small.” By middle school that turned into: “He’s so small, but he gets it done.” He eventually had a growth spurt, but was still viewed as undersized. He prided himself on proving people wrong. His dad returned from overseas and taught him the fundamentals of the game. They’d play one-on-one. His father was so much stronger, so much bigger, but Jae’Sean would stick his elbow in his dad’s back to try to defend him in the post. “I’m getting frustrated,” Jermaine says, “I became physical back, and he still didn’t back down. That’s always been him.”
His dad never let him take shortcuts. If Jae’Sean shot an air ball, he’d have to complete 10 push-ups. He had to make 10 free throws in a row before he could leave the gym. In seventh grade, Jae’Sean was called to sub in for a few minutes one game. He snatched the offensive rebound, missed the putback, kept fighting—four times in a row. He didn’t make a basket during the sequence, but his coach was cheering. “That’s all I gotta do?” he said to his coaches.
“Yeah! That’s it! Keep doing it!” they said.
Something clicked for Jae’Sean. If succeeding meant hustling, he could do that. That was what his mother used to do.
Cori played basketball up to her sophomore year of high school. She played hard—so much harder than the other girls.
She’d dive for the ball, stick her arm in the back of girls bigger than her. She didn’t want anyone to score on her. If they did, she took it personally.
She was never intimidated by anyone.
Jae’Sean started dreaming of playing in college. Maybe even Division I. He idolized fellow Ohioan LeBron James, buying his jersey and shoes. His tenacity and defensive prowess began to attract attention from college scouts. His shooting was still a work in progress, but he always did the little things that contributed to winning: chasing a loose ball, taking a momentum-changing charge. College coaches began to take notice. Jae’Sean’s first offer came after his freshman year of high school, from the University of Detroit. Jae’Sean was stunned. “Dang, I got an offer! This is crazy!” he told his family.
Then he got an offer from University of Akron shortly thereafter “What! That’s big time! I actually got an offer from Akron!”
But after the summer AAU season following his freshman year, high majors began showing interest. Purdue called, then Michigan, then Ohio State. He had grown about three inches during high school, starting to catch up to his peers in terms of height. “I went from barely playing, being a zero star, to a four, five star, top 28 in the country, in the span of a summer.”
He eventually chose Ohio State, hoping to carry on his father’s legacy. He immediately morphed into a team leader and a defensive stalwart, making the Big Ten All-Freshman team. The doubts about his size still loomed, though. “It fueled him and motivated him,” says Chris Holtmann, his coach at OSU.
Before Holtmann was hired Tate’s senior year, however, the team went through immense inner turmoil, failing to live up to expectations. Jae’Sean even contemplated switching sports and going out for the football team. But when Holtmann and the new staff arrived, they convinced him to stay. He was happy to finish what he started.
He started to open up a bit about his mom to his friends, and then his teammates. There was always a fear that people would view him differently, but he found strength—power, even—in sharing his most vulnerable self.
Random memories of his mom still popped into his head all the time. Driving down a certain street in Toledo. Listening to Usher’s Confessions, an album that came out the year she was killed. He’d remember how hard she worked—a long day at nursing school, then a night shift at a local hospital—how she’d come home, spent, in her scrubs. He’d remember how determined she was to provide.
These visions comforted him, drove him. He vowed to be the man she would want him to be. Someone who treated people with respect, someone who gave his all to every task. Losing her was not something to overcome, but to live with. To accept. So much of what happens to us as children, Jae’Sean was learning, stays with us—shaping us, directing us, quietly, meaningfully.
Tate was disappointed when he went undrafted. He had a hunch that it might happen, as he hardly had any predraft workouts with teams. But still, the disappointment lingered. He thought he’d done everything he could in college to make people see him—respect him. He didn’t know where to turn next.
But his grandfather, David, had a vision. David was at church with his brother, a pastor, when he saw Jae’Sean wearing an NBA jersey.
“He’s going to make it,” David said. He was sure of it. The family believed that there was an architecture to life, that every moment is designed by God. And that things don’t always happen in the manner and time that one wants them to happen, but they happen as they should.
Outside of the family, though, few believed Jae’Sean was a legitimate NBA prospect. Not just because he was undersized, but because of his struggles with his jump shot, considered his biggest weakness. He put up decent numbers in college, but people thought he was just a good college player, not a budding professional. His grandparents told him to keep believing in himself.
“Delay is not denial. God’s got this. Your journey is your journey, it’s already designed,” his grandmother would tell him.
He’s had to internalize that message, given his injury history: five consecutive years of surgeries beginning his senior year of high school, when he underwent a shoulder procedure. Staying overnight at the hospital after that first surgery, he suffered a nerve block at 2 a.m., waking up screaming in uncontrollable pain. “It felt like someone poured gasoline on me and lit me on fire,” Jae’Sean says. He felt like if he could get through that moment, he could get through anything.
And he’d have to: His sophomore year at Ohio State, he suffered a significant ankle injury; the following year, he tore the labrum in his other shoulder. That’s when a bit of doubt crept in. I don’t know if I can do this, he thought to himself.
But he kept pressing. After going undrafted he received an opportunity to play with the Milwaukee Bucks in summer league. But two days before he left to join the team, he fractured a finger on his right hand. He broke down crying. It was a make-or-break year for him, and a broken finger stood in the way of his dream.
It was cruel. It felt like something was always trying to stop him from ascending. Things looked bleak. NBA teams weren’t calling. G League teams weren’t calling. “Nobody wanted me,” he says.
Where am I going to go? Where am I going to live?
He decided to look overseas, and became even more determined to prove he belonged. He told his grandfather: “I’m going to go to the NBA. I just gotta go over here first. I gotta go this way first.”
He was at a concert when his agent called him and said a team in Belgium wanted him, but it would be for only a five-week trial. If he played to the club’s liking he would probably stay longer. “Also,” his agent told him, “you have to leave tomorrow.”
Tomorrow? Jae’Sean thought. A few seconds later, muscle memory kicked in. Stiff upper lip, chest out. Things don’t always happen the way you want them to but God’s got this.
Jae’Sean didn’t know anything about Belgium. He actually thought he had signed to play in Germany. He had never been out of the U.S. before. He had never left Ohio for more than two weeks. Fortunately, he had already gotten his passport, anticipating competing overseas at some point.
His five-week trial ended up lasting 10 months. His family prayed.
Jae’Sean was aware from the moment he stepped on the court for the Antwerp Giants that the opportunity could quickly disappear. He was signed only because the team had an injured player and needed a low-cost, short-term replacement. “We didn’t really have the budget,” says Roel Moors, then the Antwerp coach and today the coach of BG Göttingen of the Basketball Bundesliga.
The first practice, Jae’Sean was bursting with energy—dunking, defending, smiling, encouraging teammates. Moors told the team president they needed to find some money to keep him. Two weeks later, the team had its first official game for the European Cup. After Tate made a highlight-reel play, the team president, who always sat across from the bench, made eye contact with Moors.
The president paid Jae’Sean out of his own pocket for the rest of the season, even paying rent for his condo, as Jae’Sean powered the team to a historic Final Four run in the Champions League.
“He showed to NBA and European scouts that size doesn’t matter,” says Leo De Rycke, Antwerp’s general manager. “He has amazing intelligence as a basketball player and he’s very coachable.”
After the season, he came back to play in the NBA summer league again, this time with the Nuggets. He felt like it was finally his time to shine.
And then? An earthquake struck. He was in the tunnel of the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas—about to come out for his first game, in a prime-time spot—when he learned the game had been canceled.
Seriously? What else?
After a mixed showing with the Nuggets, he was forced to go back overseas. This time, Jae’Sean set his eyes on Australia because he knew there would be a lot of scouts focused on the country with the arrival of top 2020 draft prospects LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton. Jae’Sean had much more lucrative offers from teams in other countries, but took a chance in the hope that the NBL could catapult him to the NBA. He and his agents thought it would be the best place for him, given the wealth of NBA experience between coaches and players on the roster.
“Jae’Sean has always bet on himself,” says Stephon Martinez, one of his current trainers at DigDeep Basketball in Houston. “He believes in himself.”
When Jae’Sean joined the Sydney Kings, the team’s owner came to pick him up at the airport. The owner’s first words? “Man, you’re really short.” Jae’Sean just laughed. He was used to it. A couple of months later, when Jae’Sean made first-team All-NBL, the owner would profusely apologize.
“He cares a lot about playing the right way,” says Will Weaver, who coached Jae’Sean with the Sydney Kings and is now an assistant on the Rockets. “When you line that up with somebody that’s as diligent as him and willing to sacrifice, you unlock a pretty high ceiling.”
In March 2020, he had lined up a 10-day NBA contract with Golden State, set to start as soon as the Kings finished the NBL Finals. But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and he lost his 10-day opportunity. Had his team lost in the semifinals, he would have made it back to America and signed his contract in time.
Then, the Kings couldn’t finish their season because of the pandemic. His NBA dreams seemed to be in peril once again. As if that wasn’t enough, wildfires raged throughout Australia. Jae’Sean saw ash everywhere, with the smell of burning wood seemingly inescapable. But, again, he remained hopeful: “There’s literally nothing that can get in my way to have me take my focus off where I’m trying to go,” he says. “I done lost people. I done had countless surgeries. I done went through natural disasters, pandemics. And it’s like, I’m still here.”
The Rockets had been scouting Jae’Sean. Jimmy Paulis, Rockets director of player personnel, flew to watch him play. The Rockets’ front office liked how competitive and versatile the 6-foot-4 bruiser was. “Jae’Sean stood out,” Paulis says. “It’s unique to find players that can truly impact the game on both ends of the floor.”
When Jae’Sean signed his contract with the Rockets—a multiyear deal at that, showing a true investment—he was elated. He had finally broken through. A team seemed to really believe in him.
No more calling family at odd hours of the day around the world. No more hoping a 10-day doesn’t disappear. No more natural disasters blocking opportunities.
He called his grandma. Deniese expected him to say “Grandma, I made it.”
Instead, all he said was “Grandma, I still have work to do.”
And he worked. Seven a.m., five days a week. During defensive slides in a sand pit, he paused to examine his foot.
“You good?” asked Jay Sutaria, CEO and head trainer of STF Houston, who regularly trains Jae’Sean.
“Oh yeah. A callus just popped,” Jae’Sean said.
“You don’t have to do the drill.”
“I’m good. I’m good. It’s just work.”
That’s one of Jae’Sean’s favorite sayings: It’s just work. “Is it going to kill me?” he would ask his trainers. “No. It’s just work.”
They pleaded with him to take days off, but he didn’t want to squander this chance in the NBA.
When he started his season strong in late December, he said to his trainers: “Man, I’m just trying to make it to the guaranteed date.”
“Are you crazy?” they said. “You think this team’s going to cut you?”
Given everything that’s happened to Jae’Sean, he knows anything can happen. Any time. No rhyme, no reason.
And yet, he and his family still search for reason, for meaning. They are sure of the design. “Of course I don’t want to lose my mom,” Jae’Sean says, “but ultimately I would never be in this position if none of that happened.”
When Jae’Sean says this, his words come out smooth, certain. Having the strength to think that, let alone trust that, has taken him years. He has learned that’s what faith is: belief in the unseen. Accepting life as it is, not as he wants it to be.
“I can only control what I can control,” he says. He still feels he has to prove himself, especially after not being named to the NBA Rising Stars game roster despite being one of the most productive players in his class. That doesn’t bother him, however. He doesn’t expect anyone to give him any attention. He just wants to work. And feels this is just the beginning: “I ain’t made nothing.”
“There hasn’t been a sigh of relief,” he says. “I still feel like I could be gone tomorrow.”
The first time his family watched him play in person this season was against the Lakers in January. Jae’Sean caught the ball in the corner, as his childhood idol stepped up to guard him.
Jae’Sean jabbed a few times, trying to lure LeBron James to bite. Jae’Sean drove hard baseline, turned and pump-faked, getting the King in the air, and then spun and kissed a delicate hook over him with his left hand.
The kid who couldn’t get off the bench on his childhood AAU team had made a move on one of the greatest players in the world. The play even made SportsCenter:
Jae’Sean sprinted back hard, not allowing himself to crack even the faintest smile. He was already calling out defensive assignments, hurrying back for the next possession.
His family, however, couldn’t hide their excitement. Deniese smiled enough for the both of them. “That’s my grandson!” she called out. She thought of how proud Cori would be, if she could see Jae’Sean now.
Deniese and Jae’Sean have talked about Cori throughout the years, but there is still some hesitancy from both when bringing up the topic. Neither wants to hurt the other. Neither wants to dig up too much of the past, for fear of harming the present. “We are both protective and guarded with each other,” she says. “We’re very close. It’s that protect mode, nobody wants to see your grandma cry. Sometimes you’re crying from the memory of it all.”
Jae’Sean says he wants to talk to her more about his mom. Ask her questions he couldn’t as a child. Questions that were too difficult to contemplate, let alone say out loud.
In the rare moments when he stops moving, when he allows himself to breathe after a long day’s work, he often looks down at his leg, smooths the tattooed ink on his skin, and is comforted by the sight of his mother. She is still with him.
An earlier version of this piece misstated how many siblings Tate has.