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CJ McCollum diary: ‘You’re starting to see Zion unleashed’

New Orleans Pelicans guard talks about the rise of Williamson, Damian Lillard, what it’s like to play on Christmas Day and more

NEW ORLEANS — A touched CJ McCollum stood quietly taking in the memorable moment. Teenagers from the Boys & Girls Club screamed in delight as they opened their presents from the New Orleans Pelicans star just four days before Christmas.

McCollum did a lot for the community when he played for the Portland Trail Blazers and has already made an impact in New Orleans after being traded in February. But of all of his charitable events, he loves his Christmas one the most as he gets a chance to spend time with teens, laugh, talk about life, and compete in bowling.

On Thursday, McCollum scored a game-high 40 points, including 7-of-14 on 3-pointers, in a 126-117 win against the San Antonio Spurs. But on Wednesday, McCollum was with teenagers ages 13 to 17 from the Boys & Girls Club in New Orleans and Slidell who were originally told they were going on an architectural field trip.

The Boys & Girl Club kids were pleasantly surprised to arrive to Fulton Alley, where instead there was private bowling, food, gifts, and the Pelicans star. And when the kids opened their gifts at the end of the two-hour event, they screamed in delight for at least five minutes as they received a 10th-generation Apple iPad, two tickets to a Pelicans game and a McCollum jersey.

“We start bowling, talking trash, getting strikes, you are picking up the spares,” McCollum told Andscape. “But then you’re just connected on a different level. Ask them how things are going in life. How school is. Usually, this is the time where school’s winding down. You get that little Christmas break and then the new year break following it.

“It’s just a cool time to connect with the kids on a different level and be able to talk to them about life, what’s going on. Seeing their faces when they open the presents and go through those emotions is always touching. You understand the impact that you’re making when you get to see what it really means to them.”

Besides starring with the Pelicans, McCollum is a husband, father, new resident of New Orleans, owns a vineyard with his wife, Elise, in Oregon, is president of the National Basketball Players Association, and recently debuted a podcast on ESPN. The least of the 31-year-old’s worries is success for himself and his Pelicans, as he expects a potential franchise-altering season. Also added to McCollum’s long list of demands on his time is that he’s taking part in a diary with Andscape during the 2022-23 NBA season.

Draymond Green, Vince Carter, Trae Young, Fred VanVleet, De’Aaron Fox, Cade Cunningham, James Wiseman, and Josh Jackson have participated in previous diaries. McCollum plans to share insight into his life on and off the court during his monthly diary this season.

The following is McCollum’s third diary installment, as told to Andscape’s Marc J. Spears in which he talks about his holiday charity event, his inspiration growing up in Canton, Ohio, his commitment to social justice, playing on Christmas Day, playing alongside Zion Williamson, Damian Lillard becoming the Portland Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer, and more.

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson dunks the ball during the fourth quarter against the Phoenix Suns at Smoothie King Center on Dec. 9 in New Orleans.

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

“You’re starting to see Zion unleashed. I’m not going to say it’s his best form because he’s 22, he’s going to get better. But this is him maximizing his potential, his skill set and utilizing everything.”

You guys are starting to see what you thought you would see with Zion. I hadn’t seen him up close and personal before I came here. I had this idea what I thought it was like, then I played with him. I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like it. The way he plays, the efficiency, strength, the power. The finesse to handle and touch around the basket. He had a stretch of nine games around 30 [points], basically. Something ridiculous like that where you’re starting to see the comfort level.

The funny part is, he didn’t play for a year, so he was figuring things out. Feeling out the game. Feeling out his new teammates, new staff, offense. Getting comfortable jumping and landing again in traffic. Getting back into basketball conditioning. Now he’s finally getting comfortable and settled in to where he’s in his rhythm. He’s finding his spots, shooting 3s when he wants to. He’s getting to the free throw line.

Obviously, you see the highlight plays on offense. But the defense, he’s going to take it personal. He’s guarding. He had a shot block in the corner that was eerily reminiscent of the block he had when he was at Duke. You’re starting to see Zion unleashed. I’m not going to say it’s his best form because he’s 22, he’s going to get better. But this is him maximizing his potential, his skillset and utilizing everything.

His game-ending 360-dunk against the Phoenix Suns was icing on the cake for sure. Exclamation mark. Whatever punctuation you use at the end of a great sentence. Had played 37 or 38 minutes. Beating double teams. Dunking. Hit jumpers, [while] guarded. That showed you his conditioning. That showed you his athleticism. His explosiveness. Gamesmanship. Ability to allow fans to celebrate.

People talk about it all the time: give the fans a show. They buy tickets. They work so hard for the money to buy these tickets. He gave them the show. We gave them a show collectively and then he gave the kids something to talk about for the rest of the year. When they go back to school, when they talk to their friends [they’ll say,] ‘Did you see that dunk Zion did?’ As a kid and a spectator, you go to games, and you hope for those types of moments regardless of sport. You hope for moments that leave you in awe.

That was a cool moment for him coming off an injury, not being able to play. Probably was a lot of frustration built up that he let out in that moment. The fluidity and the combination of explosiveness and how hard he dunked it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen. It sounded like a jackhammer hitting the rim, first of all. [He] Was graceful with it, but still had the strength to just throw it down in the right way. Almost eye level with the rim. Crazy. He was angry, man, for sure. Very angry.

We play on Dec. 31 at the Memphis Grizzlies. You get to this point in life where you got a job, you don’t get to do a lot of things that you’re used to doing, and you sacrifice. That’s what comes with the territory and that’s what we sign up for. Take care of our families, play a sport we love, get compensated well. But there are sacrifices associated with it. Just have to embrace it and understand that later on in life, you’ll be able to do a lot of things that you can’t do now.

I played on two Christmases in Utah. I like to call it ‘The JV slot.’ The late time where everybody’s asleep. Everybody’s had three plates of food already. The late game. Nasty game time. Then you got to stay the night because it’s so late and you got to get to the next city. But it’s an honor and a privilege to be able to play on Christmas. As a kid, you wake up, open your presents, you eat breakfast. May my Aunt Renee rest in peace. She used to make these quiche dishes that we would have for breakfast. Exchange gifts with our family. Go home and we watch basketball all day. Now as an NBA player, I’m blessed enough to be able to have played in some of them.

As I get older, it’ll be really cool to have kids and wake up and see the excitement when they’re opening gifts and watch sports. Make my tea, relax. Listen to my … hopefully, fingers crossed, I’m getting a record player. Vinyl player for Christmas. I’m looking forward to that, too.

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (right) and New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum (left) talk before the game on March 30 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon.

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

I knew it was coming that Dame was about to become the Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. I recorded a video for him a month ago, knowing that it was that time. We taped it in the theater. Just giving him his flowers, it’s very important. I think a lot of people don’t appreciate or understand how hard it is to sit there in those places for so long. That’s a testament to being healthy. Because you need a little bit of luck to be healthy.

You’ve also got to take care of your body. You’ve got to be a phenomenal scorer. You’ve got to be efficient. You’ve got to be leader. It’s hard to stay in one market for a long time. Giannis [Antetokounmpo] and I were the only guys left in our draft class [2013] who were still on the same team that drafted us. Now it’s just Giannis. But I’m happy for [Lillard].

As a guy who is his teammate and still is his friend, I’m happy to see him accomplish that, understanding that there’s much more for him out there. But that was a cool thing for him to experience. I told him, I said, ‘You don’t really appreciate it until you’re probably done because you’re in a moment of working.’ He averages 27, 28 [points]. You knew it was a matter of time before he accomplished it and we all expected it. But when it happens, you should be celebrated.

My wife is big on holidays in general and loves decorating. We’ve already gone through the decoration phase of the house. The Christmas tree is up. I got my Black Santas throughout the house. All those different types of things. But it’s just cool to be able to spend time with family. We took our pictures with little man and going through the processes. He’ll be 1 year old on Jan. 10, and I’ll actually be out of town. My wife baked a cake for him recently. He had his little hands smashing the cake. It was so cute and precious. We wanted to make sure that we were able to collect some stuff because I’m on the road a lot throughout the season.

My wife put a lot of time into it. She made a fire carrot cake icing on there and everything. He liked it a lot. But I think it’ll be more memorable and special for us because it’s our first Christmas together as a family, with a child together. I’m looking forward to spending some quality time at home and then getting back on the road and playing basketball.

I’ve always grown up with Black Santas around. You might have one in the corner watching. Might have little ornaments, things of that nature. Generally, my mom did it when I was growing up. Then as I got older, we just got Black Santas. People give me Black Santas. My wife goes and gets them. I’ve received them as gifts. Get Black elves. It’s a cultural thing, but I think it’s important because representation means a lot. In the households I grew up in, we’ve always made sure that we had some Black Santas around it. I like it.

The op-ed piece I wrote in the New Orleans Daily Advocate was something with my partnership working alongside the NBA Social Justice Coalition, being on the coalition committee. Also, working on the social change fund board. Being a member of so many things in the NBA, and as the NBA Players Association president, I felt like it was important that I addressed some of the things that I’m seeing specifically in this market, being in Louisiana, being in New Orleans. It’s important that I address some of the things that I’ve seen in my life and growing up in Canton, Ohio, too.

Being a young Black man who was close to making some poor decisions but had some good influences around me, who had the right people steer me right when I was thinking about going left, I just wanted to share my personal story of what it was like. But [also] ways in which we can improve our communities consistently: ways in which we can improve the justice system, ways in which we can improve prison reform, ways in which we can improve what we’re seeing with some of our young minorities who are impacted in the juvenile system.

Having conversations and education-based sessions around learning and how to deliver, the op-ed just, it made sense. Living in Portland there was different needs that we needed to target. Different areas that we needed to focus on, because that’s a different market, different demographic. Coming here to the South, obviously you got Angola prison, you got a different population. You got a different type of crime and a different crime rate. I wanted to make sure that I’m specifically focusing on need-based areas. I also participated in a fundraiser called The People’s Fundraiser. They work with public defenders to help support the families of the currently and formerly incarcerated during the holidays.

This is a specific area of focus for me because I know it’s needed but also [because of] how I grew up. What I was exposed to, having family that have been locked up and watching the transition, that’s why it’s impactful. I’ve seen it. I’ve got cousins, I have family members that have been locked up for crimes that they committed. Everybody’s done some things they’re not proud of. But [it’s hard] for them to try to transition back into society, the label that they’re faced with. There’s a lot of barriers that they’re facing. I’m not against doing time for crime. It’s about making sure that it doesn’t become a cycle, that they have the right resources at their disposal so that they can overcome some of the mistakes they’ve made and right their wrongs.

It’s important we’re targeting areas that we play in, because we’re here, we live here. It’s a main focus, but there are 30 NBA teams. There are 30 different cities. We got players from all around the United States, all around the world. We all have our own issues collectively, independently, but also targeted areas that we all specifically care about and want to focus on. It’s important that guys continue to dive into that, educate themselves, figure out ways to make this world a better place.

Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum hands gifts to children from the Boys & Girls Club at his charity event at Fulton Alley in New Orleans.

New Orleans pelicans

We [the charity] do iPads historically just because that’s the gift that keeps on giving from an education standpoint. You can do your homework on there. You can research. You can study. You can write. You can play games on there. It gives you a lot of different options from a versatility standpoint. But it’s also as a kid growing up and then seeing how kids use computers and how they use the internet, it’s a very important tool they’re utilizing hopefully properly.

The cool part will be them being able to remember these moments later on. Obviously, we’ll take pictures and do that type of stuff. But I’ve always historically shied away from having media at certain types of events because I don’t do it for them. I do it for the kids and the enjoyment of giving back. But being able to recount some of these memories in the future will be cool, especially for them as well.

The pro athlete that inspired me growing up in Canton, Ohio, was [former NBA guard] Eric Snow in a sense of you idolize people who come from places like you. People who look like you. People who are successful. I always heard about how successful E. Snow was. But I also heard about what type of person he was, and he gave back with a kid’s camp. As a kid, I grew up playing sports and I worked for the community centers. I worked for the Urban League and had membership at the Boys & Girls Club. You want to go compete and you want to be around pros and E. Snow was one of the first pros that I was exposed to.

Obviously, we had Gary Grant, Keith McLeod and I ended up meeting them later on in life and knowing them and being friends with them. But E. Snow did the kids camp every year and one of the things he taught us was the importance of our work, the importance of treating people respectfully for the importance of working for what you want in life. He never did a free camp. He always charged $10, and he would say, ‘I’m charging because in life nothing is free, and you guys have to be able to motivate yourselves to work and a lot of y’all wearing Jordans and things of that nature. You can figure out how to get Jordans, you can figure out how to get $10 for this camp.’

Obviously, if kids couldn’t pay for it, he could take care of it. But that was my first real exposure to an NBA player as a kid. I just watched how he moved. I was superyoung. He was teammates with A.I. [Allen Iverson] and then he continues to have the camp. Obviously, his career continued to progress. But I was like 9, 10, 11, 12, 13. I was able to be around him, to be able to touch him, to be able to ask questions, to size him up. Not in the sense of from a competitive standpoint, but OK, he’s only 6-3, he’s like 220 [pounds], different body type. But nice guy. He works hard.

I can pick his brain and he came from the city just like I did. That was my first real exposure. Then meeting Keith McLeod, being able to talk to him. Working out with those guys, working out with Keith, running the Monument Park stairs with them. Then obviously I played with [former NBA player] Kostas [Koufos]. As I got through high school, I could see, ‘Hey, this is how I have to work. This is how I have to approach the game.’ My brother ends up going overseas. Then I got a professional in the household, so I know how to carry myself.

I would say those were very impressionable moments for me, in my youth. I take that with me as I do different things in the community, but also as I have camps. When you have these little conversations in gyms with kids, it impacts them forever. I remember playing LeBron [James] in one-on-one when I was 12. You don’t forget certain things as you grow older. I want to make sure the moments I have with kids are memorable.

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.