Feb. 19, 2014
By Justin Lafleur, Lehigh Sports Media Relations
When well-known NBA media personality David Aldridge entered the Trail Blazers locker room prior to the February 3 Portland at Washington game, he glanced towards C.J. McCollum. Rather than saying "hey C.J." he said "hey Lehigh."
Like most other basketball fans, Aldridge saw McCollum and automatically associated him with Lehigh. In McCollum's first-ever nationally-televised NBA game (on TNT), the announcers said "Lehigh" at least three times in the first five minutes.
McCollum has helped raise the visibility of Lehigh University. He scored 30 points in the 2012 NCAA Tournament win over Duke. On that Friday night in March, 8.4 million fans worldwide were introduced to not only the Mountain Hawks' men's basketball team, but also the small school in the Christmas City of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Fans flooded to Lehigh's general and athletic website and Lehigh quickly became known as "the school that beat Duke."
Within two years of that historic tournament win, McCollum was drafted 10th overall by the Portland Trail Blazers and has helped bring Lehigh's name west with him. Despite battling injuries, McCollum worked his way back and made his NBA debut in January. He has raised his own profile, and Lehigh's at the same time.
"Whether it's 8.4 million people watching us defeat Duke, the notoriety he's gathered as a prolific college player or his transition to the NBA, it's brought a lot of positive attention to the university," said Lehigh seventh-year head coach Brett Reed. "C.J. has continued to be a great role model and provide great visibility for someone who is truly a student-athlete."
Following that Duke win, McCollum explored the possibility of going pro by declaring for the 2012 NBA Draft, but he decided to return to Lehigh to earn his degree. The journalism major broke his foot midway through his senior season, but was still picked in the NBA lottery.
Despite the injury, McCollum's return to Lehigh has proven to be the right one. He re-broke his foot in October in Portland's training camp. He was disappointed, but determined to come back as strong as ever. If McCollum had any complications, he always had his prestigious Lehigh degree to fall back on.
McCollum suited up for his first NBA game on January 7 at Sacramento, but didn't see action. He made his debut against Orlando the following night, getting a standing ovation when he entered while finishing with four points.
McCollum has since recorded a 19-point game, a 15-point game, had 10 points in his second-ever game and has reached double-figure points in three straight games heading into the All-Star break. His main priority is adjusting to the NBA and his Portland team which has emerged as one of the best teams in the Western Conference.
"I was accustomed to playing with these guys [on Portland]," said McCollum, who got hurt on the last day of training camp. "I'm just trying to get back in the flow, pick my spots and get used to playing the NBA game."
For a superstar who played so many minutes his entire life, McCollum has to get used to a supporting role. So far, he's made the most of his chances.
"It is an adjustment," said McCollum. "You have to get used to not starting a game, getting yourself motivated and getting yourself physically and mentally ready to perform as soon as you step on the court. When you're starting games, you're already loose and ready to go. It's been an adjustment, but I'm getting used to it."
When asked if he has any hesitation taking that first shot, McCollum confidently replied "no hesitation."
That confidence has shown not only on the court, but also in the classroom, and in his professional career.
"Watching C.J. on the court is consistent with watching him in the classroom. He is smart and tuned in at every moment," said Lehigh professor of sociology Heather Johnson, who had McCollum in her Race and Class in America course last spring. "This ability is really striking, and it makes C.J. stand out as one of the very best of the best students I've worked with at Lehigh. These are the same qualities that have made him one of the best basketball players in the country."
For as much as McCollum has helped Lehigh, Lehigh has also helped McCollum. Coach Reed gave the small high school guard a chance, and the Canton, Ohio native has flourished. Barely over 100 pounds in high school, McCollum worked hard in the weight room at Lehigh to develop an NBA body. In the classroom, McCollum was a top student in his journalism major and has put his degree to good use.
McCollum has already seen articles published by Sports Illustrated, Sporting News and NBA.com. Last month, Sirius XM announced a weekly show on SiriusXM NBA Radio (channel 217) from 6-7 p.m. Eastern called "Year One with C.J. McCollum." Along with co-host Justin Termine, McCollum gives listeners a first-person view of life in the NBA as a rookie.
McCollum was proactive when picking his agency, explaining to them his intent to continue developing as a journalism professional. Ultimately, McCollum's agency Excel Sports Management helped set up the opportunity with Sirius.
"I went to Sirius Radio in New York and met with the owner and producer of the show," said McCollum. "I pitched different ideas and told them what I thought I could do for the show and they told me what they'd like to see from me. They gave me free reign to talk about whatever I wanted to discuss. It's a great opportunity."
"C.J. is a journalist who plays basketball, not a basketball player looking to get into journalism," said Jack Lule, the head of Lehigh's journalism department. "It's always gratifying to see that our students are prepared for the top ranks of journalism as soon as they step out of Coppee Hall."
McCollum still understands that basketball is his current profession, but won't last forever.
"Going to college for four years, you learn how to present yourself," said McCollum. "People like the fact that I can hold a conversation, make eye contact and engage others.
"I've already had two injuries. Knock on wood I don't get any more, but at the same time, I'm preparing myself for my future outside of basketball," he continued. "Even if I play for 10 to 15 years, I still have 65 percent of my life left. By doing these little things, I'm building up my resume so I can jump right into the fire."
"CJ had a reputation in the department as a serious and committed student who was determined to master journalism the way he mastered basketball," said Lule. "In some ways, he is wise beyond his years. He was preparing for his journalistic life after basketball before he even entered the NBA."
"C.J. has been very proactive and has approached his future with a great deal of perspective and maturity," said Reed. "He has a unique talent that was refined and improved through his academic work here at Lehigh."
McCollum's relationship with Lehigh has been equally beneficial for both sides. Without one, the other may not be flourishing. The 2013-14 Mountain Hawks have carried the momentum from McCollum's tenure to enjoy a very solid campaign. Lehigh defeated preseason Patriot League favorite Boston University on the road and is squarely in contention for the league title, which would be the Mountain Hawks' third in their last five years.
McCollum tweeted about Mackey McKnight's overtime game-winner at Boston University, saying "welcome to the clutch club." Amidst his busy schedule with the Trail Blazers, he hasn't forgotten where he came from.
"I talk to the guys a fair amount, especially the guys I played with," said McCollum. "I talk with Mackey a lot. Coach Reed texted me a few days ago. I keep in touch with Coach Wyche and Coach Kroogs as well."
A professor, Johnson kept in close contact with C.J.
"C.J. is a sincerely humble person," she said. "We spoke often in class about social mobility and the idea of 'The American Dream,' and many other topics that were unbelievably relevant for what C.J. was going through at that time in the process of preparing for the NBA Draft and getting ready to graduate from Lehigh.
"I was so impressed with how C.J. handled himself in those classroom discussions," Johnson continued. "He was open-minded, thoughtful, and above all... humble. He is very grounded, despite how amazing his journey has been."
The entire journalism department and university are proud to call McCollum a Lehigh alum while McCollum is proud to represent Lehigh at the game's highest level.
"I'm thankful Lehigh gave me an opportunity to come in, play and stay four years to get my degree," said McCollum. "Just the way I was treated and the way everybody received me, I'm thankful for the opportunity. Even now as an alum, a lot of fans, friends and teammates continue to support me. I do appreciate that and am thankful to be able to represent Lehigh and the Patriot League in the NBA."