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CJ McCollum diary: This was the most difficult season I’ve been a part of physically, mentally

New Orleans Pelicans guard reflects on the team’s end to the season, injuries, the new CBA, name, image and likeness, and more

NEW ORLEANS – CJ McCollum was engulfed with a “unique feeling” as he had nothing to do on Thursday.

The New Orleans Pelicans guard was comfortably dressed in a grey designer hoodie, sweats and moccasin slippers while sitting on his backyard patio. The wind rustling in the trees, a chime and hovering birds were background music for the vinyl lover. McCollum’s dog, Fiona, offered an occasional bark to make her presence known. There was no Pelicans practice or game to prepare for and won’t be for months.

The Pelicans’ injury-plagued season abruptly ended a night earlier at a sold-out Smoothie King Center when they were eliminated by the young Oklahoma City Thunder 123-118 in their play-in tournament game.

“It’s a different feeling when you go through a regular season and then you either make the playoffs or you don’t,” McCollum said from his home. “And you go through that process of playing a series and game-planning for a [playoff] series. And with us losing at home in the play-in game, a game we felt like we should have won, that we felt like we were prepared for, it’s just a tough feeling the next day. It’s like something you’ve done every day, literally for eight months, and it’s over.

“For me this is 10 years of doing the same thing every day during the season. I’ve never had a season end this early. Your body is in fight mode for an entire season. Then you get a chance to rest and then you start to really feel some of the stuff that you’re going through whether that’s injuries or just overall fatigue and exhaustion. And then there is a weird feeling of not going into work the next day. You got your treatment time, you’re on schedule, and then it just stops. It’s just a unique feeling.”

Besides starring with the Pelicans, McCollum, 31, is a husband, father, second-year New Orleans resident, owner of a vineyard in Oregon with his wife, Elise, president of the National Basketball Players Association and he debuted an NBA podcast this season on ESPN.

During the 2022-23 NBA season, McCollum shared insight into his life on and off the court with the Pelicans during his monthly diary on Andscape. Draymond Green, Vince Carter, Trae Young, Fred VanVleet, De’Aaron Fox, Cade Cunningham, James Wiseman and Josh Jackson have participated in previous diaries.

Below is McCollum’s seventh and final diary installment, as told to Andscape’s Marc J. Spears, in which he talks about the Pelicans’ disappointing season, the loss to the Thunder, his impending thumb surgery, his torn ligament in his right shoulder, injury-plagued NBA All-Star Zion Williamson, the NBA and NBPA recently agreeing to a new seven-year collective bargaining agreement, not being in the NBA postseason for the first time in his 10-year NBA career and more.

New Orleans Pelicans coach Willie Green (left) speaks with guard CJ McCollum (right) during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on April 12 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.

The third quarter really hurt us and changed the game. We lost the third quarter by 15, 39-24. And just the little stuff, man. Transition baskets, a couple and-1s, offensive rebounds, a lot of stuff that has plagued us all year affected us, turnovers that led to points. But we competed, gave ourselves a chance, had a chance to win it down the stretch, didn’t get a stop and then they got a stop on us and that was the game. But it’s just a frustrating, frustrating loss whenever your season ends like that, especially at home in the game you feel like you could have won.

And you could have made your season last a little longer, give yourself a chance to play against a team that you lost to [April 9] in Minnesota. But this season just came down to the little stuff. Not taking care of business against the Houston Rockets. Not taking care of business when you got a lead on the [Los Angeles] Lakers and [then-Lakers swingman] Matt Ryan hits the shot for overtime. The window and the margin of error for victory is slim. It’s very small and as you get more injuries on the team, it gets smaller and smaller. Then you got to be that much more precise, and I don’t think we were always there from a precision standpoint and it cost us on the back end.

Forty-two wins instead of 43 or 44, 45 is the difference between us resting right now and giving ourselves and our bodies time to get ready for the first round. But instead, we cost ourselves. We lost to the [Orlando] Magic twice. We had some losses that we probably shouldn’t have had. We got some wins that from a scheduling standpoint we probably shouldn’t have won. But I always say in order to be successful and give yourself a chance in the playoffs, you got to beat teams that are under .500, win a lot of games at home and compete against the teams that are over .500. That gives yourself a chance to win 45 to 50 games.

It’s going to be weird, man, not being in the playoffs. But, honestly, it gives you a better perspective and appreciation of the process of what it takes to get into the playoffs and what it’s like to play in the playoffs. And for my body’s sake and for my mind’s sake, it gives me more time to rest and recover and retool some things, figure out ways I can get better for next season. And it also gives our young guys time to get better. And for some of the guys that are [injured], it gives them time to rest. A lot of guys who were in the position where they were either trying to get back or still rehabbing, now they have more time to properly rest and manage some of the things that they’re going through.

Everybody was just shocked and sad after the game. Everybody left it all out there. Played as hard as we could, put everything we had into the game plan, put everything we had into the season and you put your mind and body and soul into it and to not be able to win down the stretch is difficult. You’re coming in every day and it just stops, it’s over. A text message about exit interviews and your time for it. There’s nothing to do today. I told my PT [physical therapist], ‘Go home.’ Season is over now, but I’ll see some doctors next week and figure out what I need to do. But there is no point in me getting [rehab] work done tomorrow. What are we going to accomplish with that?

I got six months until the next real meaningful game is played, maybe even longer. The other realization is that you don’t know what the team’s going to look like next year. For a lot of young guys, they start to see change, start to see trades happen. Contractually for certain guys, maybe becoming free agents, maybe team options, player options, whatever the case may be.

New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum (left) with Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (right) before the game on March 27 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon.

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

I understand the cycle of basketball and how volatile it is. It’s not an infinite game. The game lasts forever, but you don’t. You either get passed up or get too old for the sport. Change comes, right? Or your body fails you, the team just decides to go in a different direction or maybe there’s another opportunity out there that’s better for you and you take that opportunity. So, I’ve seen all the faces of it, understand the moment and the importance of the moment. The importance of each day where you’re building those relationships, that camaraderie, that chemistry and what it could look like when the season’s over. I think that’s what I was just trying, to enjoy the moment. Just enjoying being around your teammates, the staff, thanking them and just really having genuine conversations. It’s important.

For a long time, me and Dame [Damian Lillard] were the last two left [with the Portland Trail Blazers]. Now he’s the last one left. So, I’ve seen it. I understand the importance of the relationships that you build but also the importance of enjoying your teammates and your staff and the friendships that you build from it. Things can look a lot different, which is part of the game, but you just want to embrace it and enjoy those moments because you don’t know when you’ll ever be teammates with this same group, just to be real with you. You’ll always be friends with them, but you won’t always see them every day in the locker room, on the road, at restaurants.

For me, it was just more so about fighting through it [injury] and trying to do the best I can for the community that deserves winning, for the organization that deserves winning. And for my teammates, they’ve been through a lot, they’ve seen a lot and we were very injured. The last thing I wanted to do was just shut it down and watch and, in my eyes, waste a year of basketball, which although I wasn’t 100%, I still competed and gave us a chance.

The fight mode and the meds are wearing off. So, this was the most difficult season I’ve been a part of physically and mentally just because of everything that went into this season. From injuries to our players, to how the load has shifted, to what we’ve played through. But also, the 10-game losing streak like we’ve gone through. You talk about a roller coaster of emotions, right? Starting off No. 1 in the West for a good amount of time to 13th in the West. So, it’s just been a lot physically and emotionally, but the body rewarded me. I’ve done all I can do to preserve my body and to make sure that I was able to perform, considering the circumstances. And you sacrifice. You sacrifice every day. You sacrifice lifestyle, you sacrifice time with your family, you do what you can for this sport.

I’ve always been the person to understand that I can only play this game for so long. I’m going to maximize every day, try to get the best out of my talent, the most out of my talent and really just work every day to refine my tools to try to get better, to try to hone in on every ounce of talent that I have so that when it is over, when this season ended, I could say I can look myself the mirror and say I did everything in my power to make sure I was ready to play every day and to make sure I gave myself the best chance to be successful in our team. And I wouldn’t change anything in terms of my preparation, in terms of what I did on a day-to-day basis to get ready for each game.

My thumb is bad enough where I need surgery and I’ve needed surgery for a while. And I don’t like to talk about injuries because then people say, ‘Oh, he is making excuses.’ But the reality is I decided to continue to play, so I can live with the performance of my play when I decided to play injured. I can live with that. And it’s important as an athlete that you make decisions that you feel are best for you and your family. And for me and my family, it was more so about understanding this is my 10th year in league. We got a good team, we got a chance to make a run. And injuries that I have won’t have a long-term impact on my future, according to the doctor. So, I can play through some pain. I can play through some discomfort and see what happens.

And I’m comfortable with people seeing me at my best. I’m comfortable with people seeing me at my worst. I don’t have insecurity issues at all and I know who I am as a player, I know what I’m capable of. And for me, it was just more so about fighting through it and trying to do the best I can for the community that deserves winning, for the organization that deserves winning. And for my teammates, they’ve been through a lot, they’ve seen a lot and we were very injured. The last thing I wanted to do was just shut it down and watch and, in my eyes, waste a year of basketball, which although I wasn’t 100%, I still competed and gave us a chance.

I’m not sure what the rehab process is like, but I’ve spoken to a doctor that I’ve used before for hand injuries and she said I need surgery and that I should see her immediately after the season ends. Three months ago, I needed surgery but I have been delaying it. But I’ll see [my doctor] in the next week or so. And I’ve never had a hand surgery before so I don’t know what the process is like. I got a torn ligament in my right shoulder, so I’m going to get that evaluated. I’ll get another MRI in New York and then we’ll go from there … Hopefully, I don’t need surgery, but, yeah, I’m going to need some rest and continue to strengthen it and all those things.

I need to rest and recover, spend some time with my family, get my mind right. You go through the grind of preparing and trying to compete every day and you just get caught up in the life of an NBA basketball player in terms of the cycle of compete, recover, compete, recover, travel, compete, recover, travel. It’s very time-consuming but it’s very draining on the body.

I got a 15-month-old son. We’ll take a couple vacations. It’s a long summer, so probably get a vacation in May, get one in July. I don’t know with the way of travel is now and a dog. It’s like trying to figure out if you take a kid with you, or not. I’m unsure, but it’ll be nice to just do nothing for a little bit, man. Honestly, just to do nothing, relax and then start educating myself on things I want to be educated more about: wine, the wine business, the wine space in general. Going to pick out new vinyls, just going on walks, doing normal stuff that’s peaceful and therapeutic on the mind is more what I’m after. Finding things that bring me joy and bring me peace is extremely important to me. Learning more about real estate. Learning more about things that I’m passionate about, things that’ll be a part of my life forever. It’s important from an identity standpoint, but also stimulating and challenging the mind in other ways.

I’m looking forward to a full offseason where I can dedicate myself to things I care about while becoming a better basketball player. We’ll have some McCollum Heritage 91 Rosé coming out in the next couple of months and go from there and do more rollouts on the wine in the future.

New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum (foreground) and forward Zion Williamson (background) celebrate during the second half against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Smoothie King Center on Dec. 30, 2022, in New Orleans.

Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

He [Zion Williamson] did a lot of heavy lifting for us and he got banged up, suffered a setback and unfortunately wasn’t able to come back this season. I’m sure it was frustrating for him. It was frustrating for the fans of the city because of how good he is and what he means to our team and organization.

Zion has had a tough year, man. He worked really hard this summer to get himself ready and showed that he was ready by the way he started this season and played extremely well. He put us in a position to have a lot of success as a team, from [him] starting the All-Star Game to us being No. 1 in the West. He did a lot of heavy lifting for us and he got banged up, suffered a setback and unfortunately wasn’t able to come back this season. I’m sure it was frustrating for him. It was frustrating for the fans of the city because of how good he is and what he means to our team and organization. But that’s a tough situation to go through and he’s gone through a lot of tough situations in his career that I’m sure have been difficult and frustrating considering how talented he is as a player.

He’s a competitor. He loves the big moments and I look forward to him being able to experience some bright lights and big moments, especially in the postseason. And I look forward to us being able to play together and for more than 10 games, especially with BI [Brandon Ingram] as well. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t maximize our potential this season or get a chance to see it because we could have done something really special. Over the course of the season, we would’ve continued to get better, we would’ve continued to gain more chemistry and I think we could’ve really done something special. But this season is over, and now we move forward to next year and trying to get better.

In terms of accomplishing goals, this is absolutely my most disappointing season. But look at what we were able to accomplish considering the circumstances of having us together for 10 games and the injuries that we’ve gone through, not just with BI, who played in 45 games, with Zion, who played in 29 games, Jose [Alvarado], Larry [Nance Jr.] missed a lot of games, and Herb [Jones] probably missed almost 20 games this season. A lot of guys missed games and it was unfortunate, but it gave other players an opportunity like Trey Murphy to play extended minutes to show that he’s improved. And that was helpful for our organization and I think a lot of players showed growth this year. Did we accomplish all our goals as a team? No, we didn’t. It’s just the honest truth. But life will do that to you sometimes. It’s more about how you respond.

A lot of people worked really hard consistently over the course of almost two years on the pending collective bargaining agreement. Consistently having dialogue, consistently having conversations about ways to grow our game, ways to make our game better and having a pretty good working relationship with the NBA allowed us to come together, meet halfway in some areas and figure out ways to do what’s collectively best for our fans, for the game of basketball and our players.

Although we’ve agreed in principle, the term sheet hasn’t been completed yet. So, there’s still some things that are being amended and changed in regard to it and we still have to go through collectively. So, we still got a ways to go until everything has been ratified by both the players and the governors. I am happy with the progress that we’ve been continuing to make and things we’ve been able to accomplish on licensing, BRI [basketball related income], team audits, in-season tournaments, investment in the NBPA, in the PE [private equity] funds.

To the extent permitted by law, the NBPA will be entitled to invest in private equity funds that own multiple NBA teams and the things that the CBA prohibited against players and investing in teams will be adjusted accordingly. So, there’s some quality wins in there for sure, some great things that we’ll be able to accomplish off the court and a more vibrant agency. You negotiate for two years and you have a lot of back-and-forth. You do some things, some things get leaked, but the full story isn’t necessarily painted and told yet.

We talk about generational wealth and figuring out ways to continue to allow for our players to make decisions that improve their futures collectively. And you look at a lot of the [NBA] governors and how much success they’ve had in investing, how much success they’ve had not only in investing in teams, but the types of strategic investments that they made historically to grow the pie for themselves collectively, I think that is admirable. And I that’s what we aspire to accomplish in terms of versatility, in terms of the ability to invest in the proper things, not just sports.

What better way to provide not only a platform, but resources for our players besides the ability to invest alongside billionaires who have a track record of success? It’s very helpful for our players. It’s important that we continue to do things properly and we continue to put ourselves in position to maximize our earning potential, not just in the prime of our lives, but beyond our playing career. The relationships are important, but also what you do with your money is extremely important for the future of your family and yourself.

Team USA’s Bronny James shoots a foul shot during the 2023 Nike Hoop Summit on April 8 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon.

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

The game has changed so much. You would look at where we’re at now from an amateur athletic standpoint. Are they really amateurs now when they get NIL [name, image and likeness]? I was personally in favor of allowing younger players to get to the NBA faster when they weren’t able to be compensated in high school and college. It was disservice to our community, especially the Black community, that they weren’t able to go pro early. But you could go pro early in baseball and in sports of that nature. But now, the players that are good enough to play in the NBA are getting paid in college and high school.

Now at 16, 17, 18 years old, you see the NIL. The best players in the country are getting paid six figures or seven figures, which depending on what pick you go, is probably more than what you would make in the NBA if you’re a late first- or early second-round pick. This [NBA age limit] is a situation in which the league probably looked at it, the union probably looked at it and said is this something we need to rush right now. When, in reality, there’s a handful of players that are ready to play in the NBA at high school. There’s a handful of players that’ll probably go a little early that aren’t ready mentally, that aren’t ready physically, that still need the proper education.

Is this something that we need to change and will it have a positive impact or benefit on our league across the board? I’m not sure what that answer is, but I’m comfortable with the decision that’s being made personally, because of the fact that the players that are ready for the league are being compensated accordingly right now, and still have a chance to provide for their families and maximize their earning potential at that age and on that stage.

Bronny’s [James] NIL is what, 7½ million dollars? The Bayou Barbie [LSU women’s basketball star Angel Reese] is at $1.3 [million]. You got Arch Manning, the quarterback at [New Orleans] Newman [High School]. These kids are in high school with multimillion-dollar valuations. You look at [former NBA star Carlos] Boozer’s son [Cameron], if he goes to college, he’s going to be a millionaire. He might be a millionaire by the time he’s 17.

The landscape has shifted, which is great for our sport. And the other part of it is the education needs to come alongside these kids becoming millionaires earlier. This is a very important period in time where we have to teach them properly how to manage money, how to hire, how to invest, how to conduct audits on your business, how to do proper background checks on people they’re considering hiring. A lot of times it’s first-generation millionaires coming in.

I didn’t grow up with money. My family couldn’t have that type of income. So, the education component is huge and whether you go to college or not, or you have other avenues now that you can take, whether that’s through G League or over time going to Australia [to play professionally]. I say all this to say that being able to make money playing the sport in high school, you’re basically a professional already.

During this diary I just wanted to give a look inside what the season was like from my perspective. The life of an NBA player and the ups and downs of playing sport for a living. It’s never a straight line. It’s never a smooth ride. Everything doesn’t always go perfect. And I think that’s how life is strategically. There are random tests and battles that you’re going to go through and you learn from them and become better from them. And I think more character consistently is built based on the trauma and the obstacles you face throughout life.

And the same goes for sports. You get more character, you get more appreciation of the day-to-day life. When you’re healthy and you go through an injury, you don’t take health for granted. The same goes for life when you see family members that may be sick or going through stuff and you stop taking things for granted. Like not going into the playoffs, those little things, I think it’s really good for the psyche if you can handle it and it’s really about how you respond to it and what you do with it going forward. And if you absorb it and you learn from it and you use it as motivation in the future, it’s a great tool for all of us to use. And I’m thankful for the obstacles I went through this season and look forward to becoming better.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.