March 5, 2012
You don't know Cameron Tatum.
You see the highlight reel dunks, the dives over benches and scorer's tables for loose balls and the long outlet passes, but you don't know Cameron Tatum.
In the summer of 2008, Matt Deaton didn't know the basketball player sitting in the class he was set to teach, either. But Deaton, then a Ph.D. candidate teaching Business Ethics, did expect to know him, or, at least his type.
"You would expect an athlete with that much skill and that much talent to be arrogant, and that's what I expected," Deaton said.
But what Deaton found in having Tatum in class five days a week for a month of summer school was quite different than what he expected.
"He was always a gentlemen," Deaton said of Tatum. "Friendly, extremely humble, upbeat, positive and would always contribute to the discussion."
Humble is a common word when you ask others to describe Cameron Tatum. Teammates, friends, coaches, even the secretaries in the basketball office use the phrase to describe him independently of each other.
Asked to describe himself, "Humble" is the first word out of Tatum's mouth. Anybody can say that about themselves, but the insight of other and the words that he uses to follow up his one-word self-assessment underscore the point.
"I'm just a regular kid," Tatum said. "A regular kid that is very appreciative of all God has blessed me with. I don't see myself as bigger than anybody, but I don't see anybody being bigger than me. I see us all as one, and that's how I live life, taking one day at a time."
The occasionally flashy moves on the court do not reflect a hint of a split personality, however. In Tatum's eyes, the big plays are a means to an end.
"On the court you have to have a certain attitude while you're out there playing," he said. "I like to bring the intensity, I like to have hustle plays, all of those things incorporate doing what you need to do to give your team a boost and that extra edge to win the ball game. But when the game is over, I go home, play video games, go out to eat, I'm just a homebody."
Before Tatum can leave the arena on most nights, he has one more stop to make: The media room. His humble side usually prompts him to ask a media relations assistant why he's been selected to speak rather than a teammate. But the sessions with the press also allow him to carry a message that his father instilled from him early in life. Tatum's father, Robert, played basketball collegiately at Knoxville College, less than three miles from the arena where his son now stars. As a coach, Robert Tatum brought up his son in the game.
"It's a team game and I like to give credit to my teammates," Tatum said. "My dad was a coach, so that's how I was raised, to be a humble, respectful teammate and to always give teammates all the praise, because it takes them to help you get where you want to go."
Last season, those teammates helped Tatum to his best year thus far at Tennessee. He was the Vols' third-leading scorer, averaging 8.8 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 25.2 minutes per game. He started a career-high 33 games and scored in double-figures 14 times.
"I might score 25 points," Tatum said. "But you don't score 25 points on your own. You have to have a teammate give you the ball, a teammate has to be playing well enough that it frees you up to score because the defense has to worry about somebody else. That gives you space to make plays. There are five people on the court, you've got to give credit where it's due.
For his contributions on and off the court, some still dwell on a traffic stop nearly two years ago to form their opinion on Tatum. What would ultimately prove to be nothing more than a speeding ticket for Tatum was initially made out to be more because of the actions of others. Overcoming that one day is where his relationship with Deaton, his former teacher, became an even more valuable part of his college career and his life.
Now, Dr. Deaton, after receiving his degree, is a full-time lecturer in Tennessee's Philosophy Department. The two had kept in touch after the summer class, and Deaton was one of the first to reach out to Tatum following the incident.
"Shortly after it happened, I sent him an email to re-assure him that whatever his involvement, whatever the fallout, he was young and talented and would succeed, no matter what happened." Deaton said.
The advice he had to offer was more than just encouraging words from a former teacher. They were words of experience from someone who had used a similar situation as a catalyst for change in his own life.
"When I was 18, I spent the night in jail for being drunk in public," Deaton said. "I got caught drinking at a gas station with some friends and spent the night in the Monroe County Jail. I decided that night to turn my life around and joined the Air Force. When I got out, I went to college and now I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy and teach at a university. I used the example of myself being in trouble and overcoming it to re-assure him that this wasn't the worst thing in the world, it can really open your eyes and give you a lot more focus on positive influences. That's what it did for me, and that's how I wanted to help him."
Tatum says the only perception he is concerned about now is that of those closest to him, including Deaton.
"I used to worry about it (public perception), but I'm at a point now where all that matters to me is the people that are close to me. Those are the ones that really care. If people that don't know me still have a negative perception of me, that's fine, they don't know anything about me. The people that are close to me are what are important to me. If I let them down, if I hurt them, then I have a problem."
Tatum uses the social networking site Twitter (@_CT23_) to interact with fans and to act as a positive influence for fans and teammates alike. Mixed with the positive comments from fans is the occasional negative comment, but the ability to deal with the criticism has been a big part of his maturation process.
"You're going to get a lot of positive and some negative, even when things are going positively." Tatum said. "One of the things about growing up, about becoming a man, is learning to deal with those things in a mature way so you can set the example for kids. There's young kids watching you on Twitter, so when people say negative things, I don't try to get into a tongue-wrestling match with them, that's not setting a good example to argue with someone who is being ignorant.
"If you allow someone to hurt you or your confidence or your pride in 140 characters, then you have a problem. If you allow somebody to hurt everything you've worked for, everything you stand for in 140 characters, then you really need to look at yourself."
Finishing his final season wearing the orange and white and having already graduated in December, Tatum has emerged as a leader for the Volunteers. As one of just two seniors on this season's edition of the Vols, leadership is a role that he spent his previous four seasons in the program preparing for. But a simple message from first-year Head Coach Cuonzo Martin has laid the foundation for the way Tatum wants to lead this season.
"One of things that Coach Martin has talked a lot about since he's been here is respecting the game, and I think I've always done a good job of that," he said. That also means respecting the guys that came before you. Guys like Chris Lofton, JuJuan Smith, J.P. Prince, Wayne Chism, I watched those guys coming up in the program and saw how they handled being leaders. I want to take their example and add what I've learned to become a better leader. I want to have the same influence on the younger guys here that those players had on me. I want people to look back at us and say that the University of Tennessee didn't just put out great basketball players, but great leaders off the court."
When he leaves Tennessee this spring with a degree and plenty of life experience in hand, Tatum wants to take those lessons learned and pass them on to the next generation of players in his hometown of Lithonia, Ga.
"My main goal is to give back to the community by teaching younger kids about different avenues in basketball, not just the ones they see on TV," Tatum said. "A lot of times kids see the highlights on TV and miss out on all the hard work that goes on behind that, the fundamentals behind getting those players where they want to be. I want to show them what it takes. I've been there, seen it all, done it all, played with all types of players all over the country."
In teaching those players, Tatum sees a way to help not just his hometown, but to effect greater change on an even larger scale.
"I want to be able to give back what I've learned," he said. "Once you have more and more people that come back and do that in the community, that's when you start to see change in that community. Once you start changing communities, you can change the world."