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CJ writes his own script

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - CJ McCollum, who was sports editor of the Lehigh school newspaper, has stayed involved in the media.CJ McCollum has all the makings of becoming a very popular Trail Blazer.

Engaging personality. Easy smile. The kid can shoot, too.

Then there is the other major factor why all those in Rip City should like the rookie guard:

He’s a sports writer.

I’m not kidding.

Not kidding about him being a sports writer, that is. You can decide whether or not that is a worthy endeavor.

I’m going to bet McCollum, 22, is the first NBA player to have served as his college newspaper’s sports editor since ... Bob Cousy.

I’m not sure if Cousy ever really wrote sports for “The Crusader” at Holy Cross, but I know McCollum did it for three years for the “Brown and White” at Lehigh.

McCollum earned a degree last spring in mass communications, with a minor in sociology, after switching from business during his freshman year.

“I was struggling with some of the math you had to take in the business school,” McCollum says. “I’m a pretty good writer. That comes easier to me. When I told my mom (Kathy Andrews) I was going to change majors, she was upset at first. She made me write something for her. Once she saw I could write, she believed me and allowed me to switch.”

During his three years with the “Brown and White” — the last two as sports editor — McCollum covered nearly every sport (men’s basketball was a conflict of interest) for both the newspaper and for the Lehigh athletic department’s website through its sports internship program.

“I would interview coaches after games, write game recaps, previews, everything,” he says.

He also worked for the student television station, doing a little producing and on-air work.

“I wanted to be versatile and well-rounded, so that when I stepped into the working world, I could do a lot of different things,” McCollum says.

People around Lehigh — a strong academic private college of about 4,900 in Bethelem, Pa. — noticed that the school’s star basketball player was not just a jock.

“CJ fully embraced the college experience,” says Rich Haas, director of sales and marketing at Lehigh. “He was an incredible student-athlete who represents what a Lehigh student is about. We were lucky to have him. He excelled in every aspect of his Lehigh experience. He was built into the fabric of the school.”

Haas saw that McCollum took his journalistic work seriously.

“I’d see him in the press box, writing his game story,” Haas says. “Or in front of the camera, doing an interview with the lacrosse coach. Or behind the camera, helping produce a baseball broadcast. He was heavily invested in the journalist part.”

And the good human being part, Haas says.

“I tell people, CJ is a better person than he is a basketball player,” Haas says, “and we all see he’s really good at basketball.

“The first thing that strikes you is he was really polite — yes sir, no sir — when he first got to campus. He’s very intelligent. Great student who made the dean’s list. When the hardest worker on the team is your best player, you’re in luck. He’d be getting extra shots in the gym on Friday nights when other kids were going out. All those things made you want to root for him.”

Lehigh coach Brett Reed seconds Haas’ view on the young man who became the first Mountain Hawk to be taken in the NBA draft.

“He took advantage of what Lehigh is — and it’s a difficult academic school — and embraced the opportunity to better himself as a human being,” Reed says.

Reed was 36 and in his third year as Lehigh’s coach when McCollum came aboard.

“C.J. helped cement the culture for our program,” says Reed, now in his seventh season at the Lehigh helm. “It was so important to have an excellent player who was also a team-first kind of guy.

“His freshman year, we had a senior guard (Marquis Hall from Jefferson High) who had been named (Patriot League) preseason player of the year, and another who was a 1,000-point scorer. CJ had a great season, and it would have been easy for him to get a swollen head. But he would always defer praise and credit. Had he not taken the right approach, there could have been alienation. It created good team chemistry early on.”

That season, McCollum became the first freshman to win Patriot League player of year honors, averaging 19.1 points and scoring 26 points in a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to No. 1 seed Kansas. As a sophomore, he averaged 21.8 and 7.8 rebounds, and as junior put up 21.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.6 steals while winning the conference player of year award for the second time. When he scored 30 in No. 15 seed Lehigh’s shocking 75-70 first-round NCAA Tourney upset of No. 2 Duke 75-70, the world was put on notice.

“I watched that game and was impressed with CJ’s feel for the game and high basketball IQ,” says Clyde Drexler, the ex-Trail Blazer and Hall-of-Famer.

“He looked like a very highly skilled player with a bright NBA future.”

“CJ’s popularity and visibility on campus were already pretty high,” Haas notes. “After the Duke game, it went to another level.”

Not bad for the youngster out of Canton, Ohio, who — despite scoring 54 points in the first game of his junior season at GlenOak High and earning state player of the year honors as a senior — wasn’t highly recruited. It was mostly because of his slight frame.

“When I started high school, I was 5-2 and 108 pounds,” he says. “My senior year, I was 6-2, and I’d like to say 150.”

McCollum, now 6-3, 195, sifted through offers from mid-majors such as Fairfield, BowlingGreen, St. Bonaventure, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wright State and Boise State before choosing Lehigh.

“I factored in the education and how important a degree is at that type of university,” he says. “It would get me ready for the real world. You can’t play basketball forever. I wanted to make sure I was maximizing my education.”

After his junior season, there were overtures about declaring for the NBA draft. McCollum opted against it, writing about his decision in a first-person article for The Sporting News.

“I promised my mom I would get my degree,” he says. “I knew how valuable it would be to secure that. A lot of (NBA players) say they’ll go back and get it, but in actuality, chances are very slim once you become a millionaire and start that lifestyle.

“And I didn’t feel like I was ready for the real world. I wanted to mature, work on some parts of my game and just enjoy being a kid.”

Says Reed: “I advised him to remove any loyalties he might have to the university. He needed to do what was best for him. He had already done great things at Lehigh. But the type of young man CJ is, he has great perspective. He had great relationships with his teammates. He wanted to complete that journey as a college student. And he had such internal confidence, he wasn’t worried about being over-scrutinized by scouts. He felt he had the ability to continue to showcase himself for the NBA.”

In making the decision, McCollum had great support from his family — mother Andrews, father Errick McCollum and brother Errick II, 3 1/2 years his senior.

His father is a retired steel mill worker. Andrews was for many years a tax auditor, then an insurance agent. When CJ broke his ankle in October, he told his mother to “take a break.” She has been living with him at his Tualatin condo since.

McCollum’s father and Andrews divorced when CJ was 3 years old. They were a united force in raising their two boys.

“They were both very involved,” CJ says. “I lived with my mom, but my dad was 10 minutes down the road and was always available. He’s everything you could ask as far as being a strong influence, and my mom was an all-purpose superwoman.”

Errick II, a 6-4 shooting guard and one of the top scorers in the Greece Professional League, “was a huge influence, one of the reasons I’m in the position I am today,” CJ says. “We talk every day. We’re best friends. We push each other to work hard. I’m just happy I could have a brother like him to show me the ropes.”

McCollom’s decision to return to school was a gamble. It appeared to be paying off through 12 games, as he was leading the nation in scoring at 25.7 points per game while shooting superbly — .495 from field, .516 from 3-point range, .849 from foul line. Then he broke his left foot in a game against Virginia Commonwealth on Jan. 5, 2013.

“CJ’s character and maturity are off the charts,” Reed says. “With so much on the line and then to have a setback like that — the way he handled it was unbelievable. It was maturity beyond his years.”

“It was a fun year besides the injury,” McCollum says. “It was a tough time for me, but it made me a better person. It helped build my character, and I was able to lift weights, get stronger, prepare my body for the NBA.”

McCollum graduated in the spring, spent a couple of months working out with personal trainer Jay Hernandez in Long Island, N.Y., and then was taken by Portland with the 10th pick in the June draft.

He appeared to be headed toward earning a rotation spot when, on Oct. 5, he re-broke the foot.

“It was a very frustrating time for CJ,” Portland coach Terry Stotts says. “He handled it about as well as anyone possibly could.”

After a three-month rehab, McCollum made his NBA debut on Jan. 8, scoring four points in a win over Orlando. In the final four games before the All-Star break, he showed impressive signs of development, averaging 13.5 points while making 19 of 35 shots from the field (.543), including 10 of 17 from 3-point range. McCollum scored a season-high 19 points on 6-for-12 shooting — 3 for 6 from downtown — to go with three rebounds and three assists in 28 minutes of a 117-110 win over Minnesota.

“Maybe I’m turning the corner a little bit as a rookie,” he says. “I’m going to have ups and downs. I’m 14 games into my career. It’s a confidence-booster, but at the same time, there’s a lot of season still ahead.”

Stotts doesn’t want to address McCollum’s potential.

“I don’t like putting limitations; I don’t like putting out false hopes,” he says. “With CJ, I’m more concerned about how he plays the rest of the season and how he continues to improve.”

As a person, though, Stotts says this about the rookie: “He’s smart, articulate. He has a plan for himself. He wants to succeed in basketball; he wants to succeed in life.”

Part of that will include remaining active in the media.

McCollum wrote a “Point After” column for Sports Illustrated last May, chronicling his experience at the Chicago pre-draft camp. He writes a “rookie diary” blog for NBA.com. And he is co-host of a radio show — “Year One with CJ McCollum” — on Thursdays from 6-7 p.m. on Sirius channel 217.

“I talk about life as a rookie, about basketball and my opinion on the NBA and other hot topics, like my favorite TV shows — I’m watching ‘Breaking Bad’ right now,” he says. “We talk music. We get some callers. We have some guests — Michael Carter-Williams, Damian (Lillard) have been on.”

All done because he enjoys it and wants “to keep my résumé sharp, so that when I’m done playing, I have experience at a lot of things,” he says.

McCollum seems a natural for a sportscasting role.

“I like to talk,” he says. “I like to talk about sports. I feel like it will be an easy transition for me.”

First, of course, there is a basketball career on which to focus.

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