Forwardcenter.com, Casey Holdahl (http://forwardcenter.net/mccollum-proves-you-dont-always-need-a-backup-plan/)
As a boy growing up in Canton, Ohio, CJ McCollum only had one plan: to make it to the NBA. It seemed farfetched to many, a group which included some of his teachers, who had surely heard students before McCollum declare such goals only to eventually fall well short, and teammates who questioned whether he was even good enough to make the team at Glen Oak High School by his own merits.
And to be fair, McCollum’s detractors did have a point. Standing at 5-7 and weighing somewhere well south of 150 pounds, McCollum didn’t really look the part of future NBA player, nor did he necessarily possess the skills at the time. He failed to make varsity his freshman year, and while he did get the bump up from JV the next season, he played sparingly. So realistically, if you were to ask someone in Canton about a McCollum going on to play in college at that time, let alone in the NBA, they most certainly would have assumed you were talking about CJ’s older brother Errick, who started at GlenOak and would later go on to be named a four-time D-II All-American at Goshen College.
“My brother was really good at basketball and played varsity, so my freshman year I’m on junior varsity and a lot of people would say I was only playing because of my brother,” said the younger McCollum. “They’d say ‘You’re only on JV because your brother is the starting point guard’ this and that. It kind of pissed me off, so I just used that as motivation. I always used to tell my brother — I was Errick’s little brother — I told him ‘One day you’re going to be CJ’s older brother’ and he’d just laugh. He’s like ‘I hope so!’ because that’s the kind of relationship we had.”
Even though Errick might have been the only one to believe him, the lack of faith never prompted CJ to downgrade his expectations nor consider a more feasible plan. It was always NBA or bust for McCollum, a tact he made peace with long before he signed a four-year extension this summer with the Trail Blazers worth roughly $106 million.
“I had that dog in me, just wanted to be great, wanted to kind of prove I belonged because I was a lot smaller than other people.” said McCollum of his first two years at GlenOak. “Teachers telling me ‘You need a Plan B. You’re small, you know the chances of you making it are slim.’ I would tell them ‘My Plan B is Plan A. I make it to the NBA and everything else will fall in line. The degree will take care of itself, I’ll build a resume, but without the NBA, there is no Plan B for me.’”
Which seems a bit reckless, though it’s hard to argue with the results. And there were players who had similar backgrounds to McCollum who gave him the confidence to reach for his incredibly lofty goals. Granted, those players had more going for them than McCollum did at the time, but they still served as models nonetheless for what a kid from Canton could achieve.
“I just remember watching and going to to Cavs games early on as a youngster, being able to see LeBron, playing for King James, seeing LeBron play and just watching his demeanor, his approach to the game,” said McCollum. “Warmups, the fans, how his family reacted and just saying ‘I can’t wait to be in a position to make that kind of impact on the community.’ LeBron being from Ohio, me being from Ohio, I was always able to watch him, watch how he approached everything, watch his business strategies and how he was able to grow his brand. So for me, it was simple. It was like, LeBron is kind of laying the platform for kids from Ohio. You work hard, you do what you’re supposed to do and you can make it to this level, because he grew up 10, 15 minutes from me going to St. (Vincent’s).
“So I was able to watch him and some other guys like Keith McCleod, Kosta Koufous, watching them work hard and get results. So my idea was just work hard, don’t worry about anybody else, don’t worry about distractions, don’t worry about obstacles, injuries. Just do your job, focus on you. You need to have that trust, that faith in yourself and God that everything else will handle itself.”
Though there were moments when it seemed like that faith might not be enough. While he swears he never experienced full-blown doubt about whether he’d be able to follow in the footsteps of players like James and Koufos (which isn’t hard to believe if you’ve spent any time around him), there was a sense that perhaps things weren’t going as well as they could be. But the combination of redoubling his efforts and undergoing a growth spurt midway through high school put him back on the right path.
“My sophomore year when I didn’t start varsity, I was coming off the bench, sixth man, and that was when I was like ‘Alright, I’m a little behind,’” said McCollum. “You start to look at the trajectory levels of where you’re at — I’m a realist — averaging 6.0 points a game on varsity, I’m 5-7 and I really need to take my game to the next level if I want to make this dream a reality. So I just kind of focused. I evaluated my lifestyle, my work ethic, reevaluated how I could kind of get better and find my niche. Continued to shoot, shoot, shoot, handle, perfect my craft so once I grew a little bit more and got my chance to start varsity, I just told myself ‘This is it. If you leave everything out here, you give yourself the best chance to get a scholarship.’ Then for me, it was baby steps. Get a Division I scholarship and then get to the league, but I hadn’t got that scholarship yet, so I wasn’t even thinking about the league. I was like ‘Just get this scholarship.’ I got my first offer and I was like ‘Alright, we got one, let’s get some more.’ That’s kind of how it went, it kind of snowballed.”
His junior year, McCollum started and scored a school-record 54 points in the first game of the season. His senior year, he would be named the Gatorade Player of the Year for Ohio and finished runner-up to Jared Sullinger for Ohio’s Mr. Basketball. Then it was on to Lehigh, where he started all but the first two games of his collegiate career, led the Mountain Hawks to an upset victory versus Duke in the NCAA Tournament and ultimately won Patriot League Player of the Year twice.
So by the start of his junior year, it was fairly obvious McCollum would at least get a crack at the NBA despite having his final collegiate season cut short due to a broken foot. In the end, Plan A, the only plan McCollum ever had, was fully realized when he was selected by the Trail Blazers with the 10th overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft. And while being a max-level player wasn’t in CJ’s initial plans, he was nonetheless overjoyed to sign on the dotted line this summer rather than testing his fortunes as a restricted free agent in 2017.
“I’m just really thankful, thankful that the organization has been patient with me, they’ve trusted me, they’ve given me opportunities,” said McCollum. “Obviously it’s a dream come true to be able to get an extension of that magnitude. To get that trust and that commitment from an organization is huge, it’s everything a player looks for and everything a player works for. So it’s very comforting to know that they’re willing to go to those measures to secure an extension and keep me here long term. I’m thankful because this is exactly what I wanted. I wanted to be here long term, I want to continue to get better, continue to grow and be a part of this city, on and off the floor.”
But now McCollum has new plans, or at least more varied plans than the singular all-or-nothing approach he took as a young man growing up in northeast Ohio. Few have taken advantage of the opportunities afforded to professional athletes like McCollum has in his first three season, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down despite the fact that he now has, as he puts it, “generational wealth.”
“I laid out a plan early on about what I want to do in the community, what I want to do off the court,” said McCollum. “Launching my journalism program, CJ’s Press Pass, incremental steps that I had planned as we continue to get closer to 25, get closer to 30. I’ve got a lot of things lined up, I’m happy everything is falling into place. Obviously basketball is my priority, that’s my love and my joy and how I make a living, but I want to leave a legacy besides basketball and I think I’ll be in a position to do that. I’m just taking advantage of these platforms and writing, continue to build my resume. I’ve got a lot of stuff planned this year, it’s going to be a great year on and off the court. Just thankful because it’s been a long process and a long journey, but it’s all paid off.”
Though McCollum is quick to point out that this journey isn’t anywhere close to completed. It’s true that he is set for life financially — or at least he will be once his extension kicks in come the start of the 2017-18 season — and his position as Portland’s starting shooting guard is all but assured, barring injury, for the next half decade. But as he has grown from the scrawny kid who was known primarily as “Errick’s little brother” to the man he is today, so too have his expectations going forward. Just having an NBA career, even one which has made him incredibly wealthy, is no longer enough.
“I’m driven by legacy, I’m driven by my last name, I’m driven by where I come from,” said McCollum. “I don’t want to be known as a guy who got paid and then fell off. I don’t want to be know as a guy who they say ‘He was really good early and then he kind of faltered late.’ I want them to say ‘He consistently got better each year. He loved this game. He never changed. He’s the same guy from 16 to 26 to 36. He never changed, he’s just a little bit more mature, but he does the same things, he has the same friends, he acts the same way, he treats people the same way. He treats the janitor like he treats the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.’ I think based on how I was raised, I was raised to never be content and continue to seek the ultimate amount of success, and that’s just not money. Money doesn’t always define success. You need to find that happiness and for me, happiness is working out, giving myself the best chance to put my best foot forward. I think that’s huge, putting a good product on the court, representing where I come from — Canton, Ohio — representing Lehigh University every time I step on the court, every time I leave the house.”