Portland Trail Blazers CJ McCollum on Dreaming Big, Working Hard

CJ McCollum will knock your socks off. After his high school basketball career, the future NBA star went on to win two championships at Lehigh University, before joining the Portland Trail Blazers. But the secret to his success isn’t just dreaming; he’s worked incredibly hard. This week on The Carlos Watson Show, McCollum sits down to discuss his career, family and what he learned along the way to the NBA. The following are some of the best cuts from the full conversation, which you can find on the show’s podcast feed.

His Road to the NBA  

Carlos Watson: So you and Dame [Damian Lillard] are building an empire in Portland.

CJ McCollum: Yeah, man. I really enjoy my time here. I like it a lot. The fans are great to us. I got a dog, I got married. I’m here until they don’t want me anymore.

Watson: You know what’s funny? A couple of years ago, LaDainian Tomlinson, I don’t know if you know LT, but he told me that he thought one of the two keys to making it in the NFL, maybe pro sports, was being married. That he thought the guys who were married were more successful. Has that been true?

McCollum: More focused. I was having the best year of my career and then I got hurt. I think it’s been pretty accurate so far. You have more of a purpose, I guess. More focus. There’s not a lot of room for error, and you just know what you’re going to get every day.

Watson: When did you know that you were going to make it to the NBA? Because you weren’t highly recruited out of high school. Am I making that up?

McCollum: No. You’re right, I was lightly recruited. I basically solicited, reached out to universities, reached out to head coaches. My brother was writing letters and sending film on my behalf early on. Luckily, Lehigh University found me. The associate head coach at the time was Matt Logie, and he was just searching, scouting Ohio, searching some of the websites in my hometown. My first career start, I actually broke the school record and scored 54 points and hit eight 3s. So he just sent me a letter randomly inquiring about me because I was on the front of the website. And that was literally my first start. Nobody was recruiting me before that. That’s how they began to recruit me.

I played at AAU for King James, LeBron James’ AAU team, and that’s when I started playing big tournaments. I wasn’t very tall, I was about 5-foot-11. Lehigh, Bowling Green, a lot of major schools started to offer. But it’s funny because I actually lied at one of the tournaments. They asked me what schools were recruiting me, who had offers, and I mentioned three schools that hadn’t offered me anything yet. I said that Furman [University] offered me, I said Boise State offered me and Bowling Green or something like that.

And then right after that, I got seven offers from teams because they thought that I had offers from other Division I schools. It was a white lie but it was necessary, and it ended up helping me. But I played well, obviously. Luckily found a university that wanted me, found a university that made sense for me and gave me a chance to be the best version of myself.

Watson: Wait. Are you saying that you didn’t start in high school until your senior year?

McCollum: I didn’t start until my junior year. In my freshman year, my brother was a senior. He was the starting point guard so I played junior varsity and played a little bit of varsity, but not much. My sophomore year, remind you I was 5-foot-2 my freshman year, 108 pounds. And then I was 5-foot-6, 115 pounds, my sophomore year. So I came off the bench both of those years and I averaged six points a game my sophomore year. My junior year, I grew to 5-foot-11, and that’s when I became a starter, a full-time starter. And that’s when I was probably playing … I was playing my best basketball as a kid at that point.

On Dreaming Big, but Working Harder

McCollum: I say if you’d asked me my freshman year of high school, I would have told you that I was going to the NBA even though I wasn’t necessarily sure. But my junior season, once I … I told my dad that I was going to score 50 that night and my career high was 18, so he was laughing. He thought it was a joke.

Watson: Right.

McCollum: And then I went and scored 54. After that game I thought to myself, if I can continue to get better like the way I’ve improved thus far, I can go to the NBA. I just had to figure out how to get a scholarship. And then I knew from there, once I committed to Lehigh, I told people all the time; they were like, “Why are you going there? It’s such a small school, it’s known for academics. No one has ever gone pro from there before.” And I used to tell people, even my best friends will tell you from my hometown. I used to tell people, “I’m going to be the first person to go pro from Lehigh, that’s why I’m coming here. It’s meant to be and it has to happen to somebody, and I’ma make sure that it happens to me.” That’s what I told my teammates my freshman year. They were laughing, they thought it was a joke.

I told people, my coaches. They knew my mentality was, I’m here to get a degree from a prestigious university, but I’m also here to accomplish all my goals and aspirations in terms of solidifying myself as a basketball player and making it to the highest level.

Watson: Why did you make it, though? Because I’m endlessly fascinated by the fact that if you stood in line, there always were people who were taller than you who maybe could jump higher than you who maybe blah blah. So what’s the difference? Why does someone who’s 6-foot-3 make it to the NBA? And not just make it to the NBA, but become an All-Star and become one of the elite players. Is there something that the average viewer or average fan like me doesn’t know?

McCollum: I think it’s a … that’s a great question. It’s a combination of things. First and foremost, God. I was fortunate enough to have faith to believe and to get help. I didn’t just become a great basketball player on my own, I had help. I had the right influences around me. My big brother played a huge, huge role. I followed him. I modeled my life after him from a work ethic standpoint. I mimicked everything he did. To my mom and dad really being on me about the importance of academics, the importance of dedication and focus and how, regardless of what you want to become, you have to work harder than everybody else.

If I got a dollar for every time she told me, “You need to work twice as hard as everybody else in order to be successful,” I would be extremely wealthy. But she painted a picture of what we needed to do to be successful in life. We took that and took it to basketball: OK, this is what we have to do to be successful in life. All right, let’s go work toward our sport, toward our craft.

I think it’s just a combination of a lot of things falling in place. I got lucky, but I was also ready when my time came. I didn’t just speak this into existence and then not go work for it. I verbalized what I wanted to accomplish, and then I went and did it every day. I went and did it more consistently than everybody else. I was up early, 6 a.m. If I had class at 8, I was up, like, 6 a.m. I’m working out. If school ended at 3, I was working out at 3:15 or 3:30. If practice didn’t start until 5, I was shooting at 4, and I was shooting at 8 when practice was over.

And If the NBA Hadn’t Panned Out?

McCollum: I would have done a lot of the same things, just not got drafted. I would have worked in the sports world. I majored in journalism, I minored in mass communication and sociology, so I definitely would have worked in the sports world with probably more of a business-centered focus, having family that have graduated with business degrees. Started off in business school, so I understand what I could have done in that realm and how I could have combined them to help generate more capital.

Early on what I learned is that you don’t make a lot of money in journalism. You got to start from the bottom and work your way up. I would have been trying to figure out how to maneuver that as fast as possible while having my hands in other pots like real estate. All the stuff that I still do now I would have done, except I would have been more so full time instead of a part-time gig.

Watson: Do you enjoy business?

McCollum: I do. I do enjoy business. But at the time, econ, a lot of those classes, the course load at Lehigh was very rigorous and I didn’t have … I would have had to sleep in the library to graduate honors and be good enough to make it to the NBA. I would have just never slept. I had to figure out from a time-management standpoint how I work at the level of an NBA player. How do I get my 10,000 hours in? But how efficient can I be while I’m here?

It’s easier for me to write a 30-page paper than it is for me to study for 12 chapters. That was my mindset. I enjoyed talking and writing and I was, like, all right, this would be easier for me to do and balance basketball.

Love Is Love, Love! 

Watson: OK, I like that, that’s good. You’re a newly married man. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned about love?

McCollum: I think love is a choice. You fall in love, but you choose to love daily. Growing up, you see people get married, you don’t really understand what it means. You don’t understand what goes into it. But I think you choose to love and care for someone and look out for someone on a day-to-day basis. I think that’s what I’m learning. When you’re married, you’re responsible for people’s feelings. Up until that point you’re responsible for yourself. Now you’re literally responsible for someone else’s feelings as well.

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