Some people dream of becoming a professional basketball player.
Some, a journalist.
When CJ McCollum, ’13, transferred from the The College of Business and Economics to The College of Arts and Sciences to major in journalism as a sophomore, he wasn’t just in it for the degree. He loved being able to tell stories and get to know people in new ways. He knew he wasn’t going to give up that aspect of his life once he graduated.
The 10th overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft, McCollum’s career is first and foremost a professional athlete. However, McCollum has never slowed his journalistic endeavors.
Getting his first taste of journalism as an assistant sports editor for The Brown and White, McCollum now has his own podcast, Pull Up, has interned at The Players’ Tribune, and has implemented media-focused youth programs in Portland, Oregon.
“The impact that The Brown and White had on me taught me how to seek out people, how to get five or 10 minutes, to get a quote after a game,” McCollum said. “To write a feature story on someone and have to track them down in the lunchroom, it was a unique experience for me.”
McCollum’s first byline in The Players’ Tribune was on December 3, 2014, during his second season with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Jenna Hackerman, marketing and public relations coordinator for The Players’ Tribune, said from the first day McCollum worked with the company, he has “gone above and beyond” to ensure his stories are edited to his liking. McCollum works closely with the editorial team before each of his pieces are published, making grammatical changes and edits meticulously.
“I think for him, he loves working with us because he does get to flex those journalism muscles,” Hackerman said. “He really gets to have full control of his piece, as do all of our athletes, but for him he gets even more involved.”
McCollum has taken his involvement at The Players’ Tribune a step further, helping to implement a players’ internship program at the Derek Jeter-founded media company.
The program, which McCollum created with Hackerman and The Players’ Tribune during the 2016 NBA Draft, has seen former NBA player Paul Pierce and former NFL wide receiver Andrew Hawkins as participants.
“CJ started working with us when we launched in 2015, and when it came time for Draft Week, we had the idea collectively to have him come for a week and really go behind the scenes at a media company because he was so interested in journalism,” Hackerman said.
In an article published on The Players’ Tribune titled “Why Journalism Matters,” McCollum described an educational program he implemented in the Portland area in January 2016 called CJ’s Press Pass.
The program, which gives high schoolers media access to a Trail Blazers game and an assignment on-deadline, was created to “empower high school students to get hands-on journalism experience so that they will be better prepared to pursue a career in media,” said McCollum in his The Players’ Tribune article.
“CJ’s philanthropic efforts such as CJ’s Press Pass is so in keeping with him,” said Jack Lule, journalism and communication department chair. “It’s a really generous thing to do for a community, but it also involves journalism. Getting kids who might not be exposed to journalism into newsrooms is just such a great idea.”
Since its first year, CJ’s Press Pass has expanded into a mentorship program where 30 students are able to attend and cover several events over the course of a year and receive feedback and mentorship.
“I think this is how I can leave a legacy outside of basketball, to figure out ways in which I can help the community,” McCollum said.
McCollum has recently expanded his philanthropic efforts, opening Dream Centers in Boys & Girls Clubs across Portland. The first CJ McCollum Dream Center opened in 2016, and the initiative aims to give children access to tools they didn’t have access to before.
“Growing up in Canton, Ohio, I wasn’t exposed to a lot of things, and I didn’t know what choices and career opportunities were available — I only knew what I saw,” McCollum said. “It’s sad, but the only things you see in certain neighborhoods is the trash man, the doctor, the dentist, the drug dealers, the professional athletes and the barbers.”
McCollum said the Dream Centers give kids access to coding classes, invites guest speakers, such as Headspace CEO Andy Puddicombe to teach kids how to meditate, and provides resources such as books and technology.
Through the Dream Centers, McCollum said he hopes to inspire kids and expose them to career choices they didn’t know of before.
“I think that it’s amazing that I’ve been able to reach out to so many kids and impact their lives to where now, they’re aware of certain things that they weren’t normally exposed to,” McCollum said. “The best part about it is that as these kids continue to get older and gain more knowledge, experiences and resources, I’ll expand. I’m looking forward to building Dream Centers in Canton, Ohio, as well as in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.”
Lule said he and McCollum have discussed Lehigh and the journalism department working together once the Dream Centers expand to Bethlehem.
“We’re going to try to make that happen if we can, because it would be great to see him expand that and helping him with that as much as we can,” Lule said. “To me, it’s just such a typical CJ process, because he’s helping people, but he’s also doing sports and doing journalism.”
When McCollum returned to Lehigh to have his No. 3 jersey retired in February as a part of Legend’s Weekend, Lule gave McCollum a gift he would never forget.
Arriving at the pre-game press conference, Lule walked into Stabler Arena carrying a large frame. Behind the glass was a copy of McCollum’s first-ever Brown and White byline, an April 2011 article on the men’s tennis team’s loss in the Patriot League Championship finals.
“What better way to capture his time in journalism at Lehigh, but also his journey,” Lule said. “To go from that story to his podcast to The Players’ Tribune in a pretty short amount of time, just shows you his skill.”
Lule couldn’t give McCollum a gift without including the 2012 front page story with the headline “We still beat Duke.”
Though McCollum’s most well-known contribution to the Lehigh community was the defeat of Duke in the first round of the 2012 NCAA tournament, his impact as a Mountain Hawk was, and is, much more than that.
Staying on as an editor at The Brown and White through his senior year, McCollum is still applying the journalism knowledge he learned at Lehigh today.
“CJ was really the epitome of a student-athlete, because he put as much time into his journalism studies as he did his basketball playing,” Lule said. “In his senior year, it was obvious he would be playing for the NBA, but he still signed up and was still working for The Brown and White. Here he was, this future NBA star, sitting down like any other journalist, taking notes from a field hockey player.”
Much like how The Brown and White has developed and changed in the 125 years since its founding in 1894, McCollum has transformed his newspaper-based skills into his podcast, through interviewing NBA Commissioner Adam Silver annually and by serving as a guest analyst on ESPN’s Sports Center.
“You have to figure out what you want to become, figure out how you want to utilize journalism and learn about all of the different fields available to you,” McCollum said. “There’s so many different parts of journalism now that it’s important that people expose themselves to everything.”