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Column: Jae’Sean Tate defied the odds every step of the way on the path to the NBA

Faced with tragedy at a young age, the former Ohio State star has overcome unfathomable odds on the path to becoming a Houston Rocket.

Photo courtesy of Darren Abate - AP

Each year, just over 1% of all draft-eligible college players end up actually being taken in the NBA draft. For those who don’t, there are several options. Many play overseas for awhile, making more than an honest living and experiencing life far differently from the one they had grown accustomed to in America. Others get into coaching, or step away from the game altogether. But very few have taken the same path to the league as former Buckeye Jae’Sean Tate.

Tate, a member of the Ohio State basketball program from 2014-2018, has ridden the proverbial rollercoaster both on the court and in his personal life, going all the way back to his days in Toledo as a kid. His story — to this point — is one of heart-wrenching tragedy, remarkable resilience, and a little bit of good fortune. And he’s still just 25 years old.

Tate was born in Toledo and raised by his mother, Cori Key. His father, Jermaine Tate, played collegiate basketball for both Ohio State and Cincinnati before pursuing professional basketball overseas, where he played for 10 years. When Tate was eight years old, his mother was stabbed to death by her then-boyfriend and left to die in the bathtub of her Toledo apartment. Having been living with his mother to that point in life, Tate had to move in with his father and step-mother in Pickerington, about 20 miles east of Columbus.

It took three years until the man who killed his mother — Damiene Boles — was tried and convicted of the crime. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison in 2007. Tate went through anger management in the years that followed, as he struggled to cope with the loss. He spoke to Adam Jardy of the Columbus Dispatch about the ordeal in 2017, telling him:

“I was very young,” Jae’Sean said. “I didn’t realize what was really going on until later, and you’ve just got to think that everything happened for a reason and it was just her time to go and to live my life the best way I can, make sure my siblings are OK, make sure my family is OK, be the man that you would think she would have wanted you to be if she had raised you.”

In that same piece, Jermaine Tate told the Dispatch that he believes his son’s hard-nosed, junkyard dog mentality he displays on the court comes from his mother:

“I think that’s why he plays the way he plays, because he’s always got that chip on his shoulder. I think he uses that to motivate him.”

(If you want to read the entire 2017 piece from the Dispatch, you can find it here. I cannot recommend it enough)

Tate went on to play at Pickerington Central High School, where he drew interest from big-name programs such as Michigan, Purdue, West Virginia, and Maryland, and of course — the Buckeyes. By the time his high school career came to a close, he was the No. 1 player in the state of Ohio and No. 14 forward in the nation. Tate officially committed to Ohio State in November of 2012, and went on to play four seasons for the Buckeyes, averaging 11.7 points, six rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game, as well as shooting 55.2% from the floor overall.

During the 2015-2016 season, Tate re-aggravated a shoulder injury that he originally sustained in high school during Ohio State’s 65-62 win over Nebraska. The internet was abuzz at the injury — wondering if perhaps he injured it slapping the floor on a defensive possession, when Nebraska’s Tai Webster moseyed right past him for an easy bucket.

Tate set the record straight a week later, letting people know that he actually re-aggravated the shoulder a few weeks earlier, and the floor slap was not the tipping point that officially pulled the plug on his sophomore season.

He had season-ending surgery soon after, but came back stronger than ever during his junior season, putting up his best statistical campaign yet. As a junior he averaged 14.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, earning All Big-Ten Honorable mention at the season’s conclusion.

After four successful seasons in Columbus, Tate entered the 2018 NBA Draft and went undrafted, to the surprise of very few. At 6-foot-4, Tate had neither the size nor skillset to lock down a job in today’s NBA. He was the size of most guards, but possessed the skills of a throwback NBA big man. His offensive toolbox consisted of below-the-basket shot fakes and right-to-left spins to get layups with his strong hand, not deep three-pointers or fancy handles. Tate shot just 27% from beyond the arc in college, and a 6-foot-4 power forward who can’t knock down a jumper is about as useful as an umbrella during a hailstorm.

To improve on some of the things that were keeping him from drawing the eyes of NBA teams, Tate did the logical thing during the summer of 2018 and moved in with Andrew Dakich (and therefore, Dan Dakich) at their home in Zionsville, Indiana. He worked out with Dakich, Zak Irvin, Dakota Mathias, and other fringe-NBA prospects all summer long, especially focusing on his ballhandling and three-point shot. He worked with “shot doctor” Joey Burton in a barn-basketball gym each day until early in the morning, sometimes as late as 2 or 3 a.m., perfecting his craft and hoping for an opportunity to showcase it on a bigger stage.

Later that summer, Tate was invited to participate in the NBA Summer League with the Milwaukee Bucks, but he faced another setback when he fractured his thumb before playing one minute on the court for Milwaukee. He never saw the floor, ending his first stint with a NBA franchise before taking a single shot.

Once his finger was healed in August, Tate went the unconventional route and signed with the Antwerp Giants in Belgium. Playing over 4,000 miles from home, Tate scored 10.4 points and grabbed 4.1 rebounds per game, but more importantly he shot 49% from beyond the arc. It was a great way to get established in the pro ranks and prove that his outside shot was improved, but the level of competition in Belgium pales in comparison to the NBA. There was more work to be done.

His success in Belgium did not lead to an NBA contract. In July of 2019, Tate packed up his bags and went down under, signing with the Sydney Kings of the Australian/New Zealand NBL. The NBL provided him noticeably higher-level competition, presenting an opportunity to showcase his newfound range and ballhandling, while still exhibiting the same bulldog, “first to the floor” style of play that endeared him to college basketball fans. Notable 2020 first-round NBA Draft picks LaMelo Ball (3rd overall) and RJ Hampton (24th overall) both played in the NBL for one season before declaring for last year’s draft, bypassing college completely.

Tate flourished in Australia, averaging 16.4 points, six rebounds, and 1.8 assists in 27 minutes per game, and was named to the All-NBL First Team at the season’s conclusion. While he could have stayed in Belgium or gone elsewhere during the 2019-2020 season, Tate chose Australia because of the short season (28 games), knowing that if he was going to do the unthinkable and jump up to the NBA, he couldn’t be in the middle of a season somewhere else when someone called.

Against all odds, Tate made his way to the NBA. On Nov. 17, 2020, it was announced that Tate was signing a two-year, $2.9 million contract with the Houston Rockets, plus a team option worth $1.7 million for the 2022-2023 season. Tate was able to team back up with his old head coach in Sydney, Will Weaver, who had just been hired as an assistant with the Rockets. It wasn’t a two-way contract, or a G-League invite. Jae’Sean Tate was jumping straight from the NBL to the Houston Rockets.

Sydney Kings owner Paul Smith couldn’t be prouder of Tate, telling ESPN,

“JT is just an inspiration. His journey to the NBA has been characterized by life challenges, as well as those who doubted the incredible player that he is,” he said. “I tried my hardest to convince him to stay, I even offered to adopt him as my only son, but evidently he had to decline. He will always be our guy, and today we’re very proud.”

While the contract was a done deal, Tate’s NBA future was anything but concrete. The Rockets made just $50,000 of the contract guaranteed, giving them the flexibility to cut him if things didn’t work out. That guarantee grew to $500,000 if he was still on the team on opening night.

Translation: if he didn’t perform, his time in Houston could be just as short-lived as his time in Milwaukee.

Luckily for him, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Through 29 games, the 25-year old rookie is averaging 9.9 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.8 assists in 27 minutes per game. He’s also shooting 33% from three-point range — not great, but not atrocious either. More importantly, Tate is proving his doubters wrong and doing it his way. He’s a 6-foot-4, 230 pound power forward in the NBA. He’s doing it with the same skillset and feistiness he did in college, albeit at a much higher level.

There’s been a bit of turbulence this season in Houston, as the 11-18 Rockets traded James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets while also trading for guards John Wall and Victor Oladipo. Houston released four-time All-Star Demarcus Cousins this week as well, further shaking up a team that is clearly moving on from the James Harden-Russell Westbrook era.

Amidst all the smoke and chaos, Tate has settled into a starting role for the struggling Rockets. He’s averaged 14.8 points per game over his last five contests — all Houston losses. But the energy and hustle that make Jae’Sean Tate who he is has never wavered, accompanying him to every team and every country he’s called home over the past three years.

Through the ups and downs, Tate did not let life’s challenges change who he is or put out the fire burning inside him. Instead, the hard times hardened the chip that’s sat on his shoulder since he was eight years old. He may never make an All-Star team, lead the league in scoring, or become a household name. His career may not last much longer than the average 4-5 years of an NBA player. Hell, his career may not extend beyond this season. Basketball is a ruthless and physical sport. One funny slip, fall, or — floor smack — and your career could end, just like that.

But regardless of how long it lasts or how successful he is when all is said and done, Jae’Sean Tate took every punch life had to offer and stood back up every single time. That’s why he’s one of the best untold stories in sports, and an absolute joy to watch on the court.