Ryan Holiday

Blazers at the Break: The rise of CJ McCollum and the path he took to stardom

Blazers at the Break: The rise of CJ McCollum and the path he took to stardom

Editor's note: With the arrival of the NBA All-Star Break, CSN looks at the five most relevant/pressing issues with the Trail Blazers. Part 1 looks at the rise of CJ McCollum and the obstacles he encountered on his journey to stardom.

A couple of weeks ago, CJ McCollum was given a book by teammate Festus Ezeli that has resonated with the Trail Blazers’ growing star.

The book – “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday – uses stories from notable figures such as John D Rockefeller, Amelia Earhart and Theodore Roosevelt to frame obstacles as opportunities.

As McCollum entered the All-Star break, he had read about 100 pages of the book, and one section in particular spoke to him. It was the part that talked about astronauts, and in how before learning how to fly, they first learned the skill of not panicking.

“It’s a mindset thing,’’ McCollum said. “They have to learn how to be calm and cool under pressure before they begin learning how to fly.’’

The mental state is referred to as “apatheia,” a calm of equanimity that comes with the absence of irrational or extreme emotions.

McCollum loves the concept, for he feels like it captures his own approach to basketball. McCollum after games often talks stoically, and usually about statistics and techniques rather than feelings or emotions. He prefers that approach, he says, because emotions are unstable and statistics are facts, and therefore reliable.

“I was like, ‘Wow! I’m just reading this at 25, and this is how I’ve been my whole life,’’’ McCollum said.

He says this as he prepares to head to New Orleans not only as the Trail Blazers lone representative at the All-Star Game (3-point contest), but also as a growing figure within Portland and the Blazers franchise.

But to McCollum, the story is not his astronaut-like ascension toward stardom on a league-wide level, but rather the path that got him here, and the perspective gained during that journey.

And really, the journey’s destination was never calibrated toward stardom, but rather happiness.

“Finding that inner happiness, that’s the key,’’ McCollum said. “And I think I’ve finally found that.’’

That happiness has allowed him to slowly open up more, and it’s why he says he is more easily tempted to be more demonstrative during games, whether that be shimmying his shoulders after he caps off a nice move with a basket, or waving his arms in the air to encourage the crowd to make noise during an opponent’s free throw.

And his happiness is why McCollum says he has been more active in the Portland community. In November, he unveiled a Dream Center at the Boys & Girls Club that promotes learning for youths, and earlier this week he held his second annual CJ’s Press Pass program for young aspiring high school journalists.

 “He’s coming into his own,’’ teammate Damian Lillard said. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I know the feeling. It’s like a feeling of certainty, a more sure feeling of things. I think that’s just where you get to, and it’s a good spot to be in. And he’s definitely there right now.’’

This is the path McCollum took to get there, and these are the obstacles he encountered along the way.

Understanding his place

His first lesson came in his rookie season, when he found himself summoned to the office of Neil Olshey, the team’s top executive, who felt McCollum needed some advice.

“It was about understanding your place,’’ McCollum said of Olshey’s talk.

McCollum, it had been reported to Olshey, had been ruffling the feathers of some veterans with what some referred to as an “Ivy League attitude,” creating unease within the Blazers front office that their rookie could become an outcast in the locker room.

The tipping point came during a practice, when McCollum’s supreme confidence sent ripples throughout the team.

“I still remember it,’’ Damian Lillard said of the practice. “He was actually on my team.’’

As the Blazers scrimmaged, McCollum became isolated on then-Blazers star LaMarcus Aldridge.

“He did a move that kind of rocked L.A. a little bit,’’ Lillard recalled. “And CJ rose up and took the jumper.’’

As the ball was in the air, Aldridge yelled “That’s off!”

It wasn’t.

The ball swished.

“And when CJ made it, he was like ‘Shut up!.’’’ Lillard said, wide-eyed at the recollection. “That was his response: ‘Shut up.’’’

Aldridge, a prideful and sensitive veteran, was not pleased.

“You could tell it kind of bugged L.A. a bit,’’ Lillard said. “Not so much that CJ scored, but that he had that much confidence.’’

It wasn’t just his confidence, though, that was rankling the veterans. McCollum was refusing to embrace the rookie hazing that is a time-honored tradition in the NBA. Typically, rookies have to carry veteran’s laundry, run errands, and sometimes even wear silly outfits.

But McCollum eschewed the tradition.

“Sometimes, I would just be like, ‘Nah, I’m not doing that,’’’ McCollum said. “I mean, think about it … think about it: You are asleep and somebody comes knocking at your hotel room door, they have a key made and come into your room at 2 a.m. and pour water on you? Come on, man.’’

McCollum would later learn that the pranking teammate – Wesley Matthews – and other veterans who would call at odd hours wanting chicken wings or other errands, were just trying to bond.

So in Olshey’s office, that one day after the scrimmage scene with Aldridge, a message was delivered.

“Understand where you are at and where you want to get to,’’ McCollum recalled. “And just blend in.’’

It was his first lesson about paying dues, and understanding the hierarchy of leadership.

Soon, he was dutifully taking the laundry bags of Aldridge, Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Dorell Wright. He would sometimes make trips to get Wright soft soap or playing cards, and for Aldridge he would have to get Starbucks – on command -- for which he said Aldridge was always paid him handsomely.  He even made a trip or two to fetch wings.

“I got really good at my duties after a while,’’ McCollum said, noting he had to be the team’s “rookie” for two seasons because the team was void a pick in 2014. “Eventually, you figure out it’s about trust. If you show you can be trusted to do these things, they can trust you on the court.’’

Finding balance

Three years later, McCollum has nudged alongside Lillard as the face of the franchise, not only for his entertaining play but also for his impact in the community.

His lethal crossover move has figuratively broken the ankles of players like Victor Oladipo, and sent Draymond Green guarding air in a different area code. And his pullback crossover once sent Dirk Nowitzki through the spin cycle.

But his most important move, McCollum says, was finding balance in his life that allows him to work on what he calls his “legacy” – helping kids.

In November, he partnered with the Boys & Girls club and opened the CJ McCollum Dream Center, an innovative learning room that includes computers, art and more than 200 culturally relevant books. He also has plans to open two more Dream Centers.

And last week, he held his second Press Pass event, where local high school students attended the Blazers game against Atlanta and learned the ins-and-outs of the journalism profession. McCollum majored in journalism at Lehigh University.

“I want to leave a lasting legacy as a guy who did more than just played basketball,’’ McCollum said.

Before he could start working on that legacy, however, McCollum said he learned he needed to find balance in his life.

For much of his early career, basketball was all consuming.

His first two seasons, he stewed as he rarely played. There were injuries --- a broken foot his rookie season that caused him to miss 38 games and a broken right finger his second season that sidelined him for a month --  and a roster that included veterans Matthews and later, Arron Afflalo.

“It’s hard. The injuries and stuff are mentally draining, it wears on you,’’ McCollum said.

He was watching players from his draft class he felt he was better than, getting opportunities and succeeding. Even when he came home to get away from the frustration of sitting the bench, he was reminded of his status.

“I would play 2K (video game) and I was sorry. I couldn’t make a lay-in. Couldn’t dribble,’’ McCollum said.

The hardest time might have been at the 2015 trading deadline, when the Blazers traded for Afflalo, pushing McCollum from second string to third string.

“Think about this: You show up to the arena, and you know you aren’t going to play, and your girl is in town to see you … you know how hard that is?’’ McCollum said. “You are at the highest level, and you are not playing. That’s a hard thing to live with.’’

Looking back, he realizes his approach was unhealthy.

“I was bad early in my career, because even in my relationships everything was basketball,’’ McCollum said. “I didn’t want to go out to dinner the night before a game because we had a game, stuff like that.’’

Now, he has taken an interest in Oregon red wines. He plans vacations with his girlfriend. He hosts a radio show, continues plans for more Dream Centers and finds himself in interviews with the cast of “Portlandia.”

“There was a time when it was 100 percent basketball, and that’s not healthy,’’ McCollum said. “Even Kobe and Steph have an outlet – be it golf or business ventures or something creative. Your mind needs that break.’’

He calls it the developing of his “sense of self.”

“I think as you get older, you just become comfortable in realizing there’s a lot of other stuff that is important besides basketball,’’ McCollum said. “Obviously, it’s still important to me, and I love the game, but there’s more to life than basketball.’’

The struggle for inner-happiness

McCollum doesn’t need to finish the book Ezeli gave him to understand he will be presented with more obstacles throughout his career.

Next season, he will play with the pressures of his $106 million contract, and with growing weight of becoming a franchise pillar.

“The money … I say it doesn’t change the person, it changes the people around you,’’ McCollum said. “With how I was raised, it’s not going to change me. I drive a Chevy. Look … go out there to the parking lot and look, I drive a Chevy Tahoe. I mean, I could buy a lot of cars, and I will buy a car at some point, and I do have a Mercedes I bought as a rookie, but I like my Chevy. I wear Ugg boots sometimes. This is not a competition to see who can buy the nicest house, or most things.’’

He is confident the trials that await him will become triumphs, because as he has matured, he is developing a greater sense of self, a self that still includes shades of that cocksure rookie telling Aldridge to shut up.

“I think at first, (his assuredness) rubbed people the wrong way,’’ McCollum said. “As a young guy, you don’t know any better. I was just out there hooping like I was at the park with my friends. But as I got older, I think L.A. and the rest of the guys started to understand my personality, and they started to like the fact that I’m not going to change who I am – I will adapt to fit in and make sure I don’t disrespect people -- but I’m going to be CJ.’’

The only difference now is this CJ is more balanced, and more securely rooted in who and for what he represents.

“I think it’s a constant struggle to find inner-happiness, because no matter how much money you have, you still need to be content with who you are,’’ McCollum said. “Like J. Cole says: ‘Love yourself.’ You have to find what you truly care about.’’

So he will continue to perfect his game, and continue to create avenues for kids to succeed, all with the hope of turning obstacles into a legacy.

“We have to remember: this is a game. That’s why I try to have fun, why I smile, why I dance … this is a game,’’ McCollum said. “It’s a game that ends. One day, it ends. When it does, I want people to know, I want my kids to know, that I did more than just play basketball.’’

Coming Saturday: Part 2 -- Can the Blazers be championship contenders with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum as a starting backcourt?