Tari Eason, The Ultimate Winner

On the best sixth man in the SEC, the best two-way player in the country, and LSU’s ultimate winner.

by Harrison Valentine, LSU Athletics Communications
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Tari Eason, The Ultimate Winner

When Tari Eason’s mother, Teroya, calls her son by his legal name, he knows there’s an issue.

To her, he’s “Peso.”

“I’ve been the only one, up until very recently, that he allowed to call him Peso,” Teroya said. “If I ever call him Tari, he knows there’s a problem.”

The nickname is born of Cuban roots on Eason’s great grandfather’s side, after a joke to call him “T-Money” never found its footing. It’s a name that, until very recently, Eason allowed very few people other than his mother to call him. But now, much like the culture shift from the Pacific Northwest to South Louisiana, Eason has embraced it — on social media, from his teammates, from the fanbase. 

Remember the name, because it’s here to stay. And as March arrives, it’s about to become known nationwide. 

EASON’S ENTIRE FAMILY, or really any blood relative, refers to him as “Jordan” – his middle name, not an homage to one of the greatest to ever play the game. When he’s called Tari, it’s usually coming from a friend, a supporter, or a broadcaster calling one of his highlight dunks or trademark blocks – or, rarely and strategically, from Teroya. 

He’s certainly been a problem – rarely for his family but often for his foes. Ask all of LSU’s opponents, and they’ll tell you he’s been a problem they can’t solve, averaging 17 points and 7 rebounds per game, while tallying 60 steals and 33 blocks. Those numbers earned him First Team All-SEC Honors and helped him become LSU’s SEC Sixth Man of the Year. In fact, Eason became the first-ever Sixth Man of the Year recipient to also be named to the All-SEC First-Team, dating back to the award’s inception in 2003-04.

Coming off of the bench is rare for the best player on the team – even rarer for one of the best in the country. In LSU’s case, it happens nearly every night. During a 15-1 start to the season, head coach Will Wade found a lineup that worked, featuring Eason coming off the bench to provide a boost few teams could withstand.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s the way Wade and the coaching staff have viewed it. Is he good enough to start on every team in the league? Absolutely. He knows that. But tinkering with a system that’s worked would be foolish in the eyes of the staff, and Eason isn’t going to argue.

To put Eason’s season into context, he ranks third nationally in Box Plus Minus this season, and he ranks in the top 15 among all college basketball players since 2008, placing him in elite company among stars like Zion Williamson, Anthony Davis and Stephen Curry. He also ranks second nationally in defensive rating and is one of three players since 2008 with steal and block rates greater than 4.5% and 6.5%, respectively. He fills every statistical column, except starts. 

“He’s a starter,” Wade said. “What else do you want me to say? I know he doesn’t have his name called (in pregame), but he’s a starter. He plays a ton of minutes. We close the game with him. He’s a great player. But this is how we started the season, and we’re not changing anything.”

HIS COACH CALLS him a starter, but everyone calls him a winner. That’s a common trait that all of Eason’s past and present coaches bring up when talking about him, and it’s why when he comes off the bench, it doesn’t faze him one bit. It’s about the team first. He checks his ego at the door. It’s about his obsession for winning and his hatred for losing. Nobody detests losing more than Eason. It keeps him up at night.

But make no mistake, once he’s in, there’s no holding back. He’s a competitor to the core, with a unique fire within him to be the best. In middle school, one of Eason’s peers was a talented artist, so he bought a bunch of art sets to practice drawing with the intention to get as good, or surpass his friend’s abilities. He knew nothing about art, but that didn’t matter. It was then when Teroya had to sit him down and break the difficult news: being an artist was not his calling.

“He’s always had a competitive energy,” Teroya said. “He would compete at everything. When he was at school, he realized he could be competitive in the classroom. He wanted to be a mathlete. Anything he could be competitive at.”

That competitive fire stems from many things, but none greater than a consistent theme of being overlooked and underrated for most of his basketball career. He’s played with and against some of the best basketball players in the world. He’s beaten them, too. But while many play to collect offers and highlights, Eason plays to win. He’s never forced his hand in being a star in any of his games, but he has made sure he’s won them. That’s what it’s all about.

He views being underestimated differently than most, though: as a blessing. There’s value in being underrated. For Eason, proving people wrong is fun, and from the early days of AAU, to his high school years at Garfield and Federal Way, to the national stage in the SEC, he’s done a lot of it.

“He’s got a boulder on his shoulder,” Wade said. “I wouldn’t even call it a chip. He’s always been overlooked. He’s always, as he would say, been getting it out of the mud. He figures things out.”

“Being underrated, to me, is valuable,” Teroya added. “I think it helps his work ethic. It always has. I think the reason why he’s so underrated is because he likes to work so hard. It will never come from anything handed to him, nobody has ever given him his fair due. But, in the end, everything has worked out.”

WHEN DAVID LUCAS, Eason’s AAU coach, was told he won Sixth Man of the Year and was named to the All-SEC First-Team, he screamed from his car in excitement.

Was it a surprise? Of course not. Lucas witnessed first-hand Eason’s dominance. He’s seen him put the team on his back. He categorized him as one of the most athletic kids he’s ever been around. But his athleticism is only part of it. His work ethic makes him a complete package.

“His drive, his determination and his work ethic makes him a winner,” said Lucas. “Every day, he would leave 100-percent on the court and play his heart out. He would motivate his teammates to be better. He listens. He’s coachable. Just an all-around good kid, on and outside of the court.”

“It took a lot of games for him to get recognition at the high level,” Lucas added. “I think that’s what drives him and motivates him to be better. But I think the other piece behind that is his family. He wants to provide, and he does it, for his family. His mom has been by his side since Day 1. She pushes him, motivates him, keeps him on the right track. She’s a driving force behind Tari and his willingness to win and be successful and provide for his family.”

When asked to pick some of his favorite moments coaching Eason, Lucas couldn’t pick one. That’s because every game was a show. Every game he left everything he had on the floor. He made the extraordinary the ordinary. There was no way he could single or limit it to just a few.

“Every single game,” said Lucas. “He was very consistent. There’s games against Damian Lillard’s squad where we won by 20 points and Tari had 30. Every time he stepped on that floor, he competed. Not just on offense, but on defense. The all-around player is what Tari Eason is.”

Transferring to LSU has made an undervalued kid feel valued. Eason wanted a coach that believed in him, and that’s exactly what he saw in Wade. It took Wade five minutes of watching film to see how good he was. What he didn’t know was the work ethic, the toughness — you don’t always know what you’re getting in a transfer until he steps on campus and works.

“From the jump, Coach Wade told me how much he believed in me,” Eason said. “What he saw in my game, the plans he had for me and what I could do for this program, I wanted to go play for a coach and a team that believed in me, so that was big.”

Family drives Eason, too. Originally from Los Angeles, Eason, his mother, and his three brothers moved to Seattle his freshman year of high school to care for his grandfather, who was sick. Expected to live up to five to 10 years longer, his grandfather passed six months after they arrived. 

Instead of packing up and moving back to L.A., something that Teroya wanted to do, Eason decided he wanted to stay in Seattle after trying out, and making, the basketball team at Garfield High School. He wanted to finish what he started. He was brought to Seattle and he wanted to stay in Seattle. 

“I sacrificed a lot,” Teroya said, “all of these things so he could stay. I brought him there, and I guess it turned out to be a good thing.”

In Seattle, Eason met Rashaad Powell, a former Player of the Year in the Big West Conference for the Idaho Vandals, the spring of Eason’s sophomore year. Coaching at Renton, a neighboring high school in area, Powell would often work out with Eason, even having the opportunity to coach him one summer.

Powell’s relationship with Eason spiraled into a mentorship role. They remained in close contact. Powell would keep tabs on his progress, to make sure he was doing the right thing, supporting his efforts to do the things that would help him maximize and capitalize on his potential.

He stayed by Eason’s side throughout his high school years, and even as he journeyed through college, for guidance, not through the good times, but through the peaks and valleys of it all. As a kid, Powell says, all you’re looking for is the peaks. It’s hard to understand or handle the valleys.

“That’s more so where I tried to have my role with him,” Powell said. “Basketball wise, he’s going to do well. But, it’s the valleys, when he’s down about playing time, a role, or how he performed in a game. Just to give him some perspective and keep him motivated.”

One of the valleys was not getting playing time. Powell saw a budding star who was receiving very limited buzz. Initially, Eason’s minutes were limited at Garfield High School, and from Powell’s perspective, as someone that worked out with him, it was the ultimate head scratcher.

“The first time we worked out, probably five minutes in, I had (Tari) go get a water break,” Powell said. “I texted his Mom and asked if he didn’t get good grades, or if he was some troubled child, because he was so skilled and athletic that, in my mind, there had to be something wrong for him not to be playing. The kid was dynamite.”

HIS TIME WOULD COME. There’s no better example of Peso proving his worth more than the Battle in Seattle Tournament. Eason, a rising junior, was still an unknown prospect but had many friends who were highly-recruited stars – including Duke’s freshman star and projected lottery pick, Paolo Banchero – on the circuit who were playing in this local All-Star showcase. 

After an opportunity to become a late addition presented itself, Eason flew into Seattle early from L.A. to join Team 253 Tacoma. They already had a full squad for Team 206 Seattle, so although many of his friends were on that team, he had no choice but to compete against them.

There was no jet lag. Eason scored 66 points in one game and left as the Most Valuable Player.

“When I showed up to the game, he already had 32 points at halftime,” Teroya said. “Peso left there with an astounding 66 points and wasn’t even invited. He’s not a hype guy, nor do I ever want him to be. His game, in the end, will be what speaks loudest.”

It spoke as loud as it ever has that day. That’s a moment Teroya has always looked back on, a last-minute opportunity that Eason made the most of. It wasn’t about being the star – it never has been. He just wanted to hoop with his friends.

Team 253 Tacoma (Eason) and Team 206 Seattle (Banchero)

“There were games where he literally put the team on his back and had 20 points in a row in the last five to six minutes of the game,” Lucas said. “We won the game because Tari was a workhorse. He rebounded everything. Blocked shots. Ran full court. Finished on the offensive side. He’s a monster when it comes to holding a team down and winning games.”

“We went and played against a lot of the top high school players in Washington State,” Powell added. “He dominated all of them. And when I tell you all of them, I mean all of them.”

Where does that winning spirit come from? There was one moment in particular, Teroya says, that she can pinpoint. It wasn’t an intense State Championship game or a tournament with 30-plus college coaches in attendance. It wasn’t the Battle of the Apple, nor was it the Battle in Seattle.

It was an 11-year-old Eason, playing in one of his first AAU tournaments ever in Palmdale, California. Little did they know that, nearly a decade ago on that day, it would create a monster.

Eason’s team, nicknamed “The Cavs,” played six games with just five players. Four of his teammates couldn’t make it. One of the few that showed up was future UCLA All-American Johnny Juzang.

In the final seconds, with Eason on the line with a chance to win the game, he missed a critical free throw. His team lost. It was through failure, however, that Teroya knew her son was going to be different.

“It got to the last moment of the tournament, and it came down to one last foul shot by (Tari) to win the game,” Teroya said. “He missed it. The look on his face — that pivotal moment — was when I knew he was going to be a winner. I knew that devastation was not that of a regular kid losing a game.”

That hasn’t changed with age. Eason still hates to lose. When the Tigers suffer a defeat, you’ll often hear Eason blame himself for it. After a win? Give the team credit. After a loss? Put it on me. He takes losing harder than most do, but if you’re a true competitor, you can sympathize.

“I love it about him,” Wade said. “He hates to lose. He takes losing very, very difficult. He takes losing very hard. I like that about him. That’s good. I don’t want people that like to lose. All that comes from a really good place.”

THE MORE SUCCESS PESO HAS, the harder he works. The pain of losing drives him, but not as much as the thrill of winning. After LSU took down Alabama in the 2021-22 regular season finale, Eason was back in the gym at 11 p.m. – just hours after posting 20 points, 9 rebounds, and eventually, the game-winning block and dunk.

That’s rare, but so is Eason’s drive to succeed. There’s always room to improve.

“The best quality he’s got is, usually when kids have success, they relax,” Wade said, “and the more success he’s had, the harder he’s worked. It’s usually the exact opposite. For him to be able to continue to improve, continue to work, while he’s still playing extremely well is a huge credit to him.”

There’s no relaxing in sight. For Eason and the Tigers, it’s full speed ahead into tournament play, looking to prove more doubters wrong along the way.

Heading into March Madness, an always overlooked kid is starting to get the looks he deserves, but you know better to think that changes anything for Tari Eason. Peso is still Peso – the best sixth man in the SEC, the best two-way player in the country, and LSU’s ultimate winner.