CJ McCollum on style, balance, and what being a role model means to him
On the court, he’s Portland's starting shooting guard. Off the court, CJ McCollum co-hosts a sports and lifestyle-focused podcast alongside Jordan Schultz of the ESPN+ show “The Boardroom”. A burgeoning wine connoisseur, fashion aficionado, and advocate of mindful living and meditation, the basketball star chatted with Esquire about how he balances his work schedule and personal life in the midst of an always on-the-go lifestyle.
“I think sometimes there’s this perception that players are supposed to be robots,” CJ McCollum says. Though he joined the league in 2013 as the first player to ever be drafted from Lehigh University, it wasn’t until his third season that he began starting regularly.
He’s seated across from me on a long, low bench in Los Angeles' West Hollywood neighborhood, and the sunshine bursts from behind his head like a Renaissance-style halo.
“People think because there’s only 24 hours in a day, we’re just supposed to play our sport and then go home and think some more about our sport,” he goes on. “They don’t think that we should care about other things, but the reality is that you can be really good at what you do for a living and have other hobbies.”
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Cultivating his personal style is one such pastime. While one might think his height would prevent him from buying suits off the rack, McCollum says he frequently finds his size, but usually has to get the shoulders tailored because his right side is noticeably higher than his left from shooting so many jumpers.
“When I first started off in the league, I wouldn’t even dress up to go to the game because back then people weren’t there to take your photos, and if they were they weren’t taking photos of me,” McCollum says with a laugh. “Now there’s all of these pages where they rank an athlete's style and it’s become a real topic of conversation. Over the years, I think I’ve perfected the 'swaggy-casual' look, but I’m also down to put on a suit and go to work. I like to keep it pretty classic, so something like a pair of Dockers chinos paired with a button-down or hoodie is super comfortable but also put together enough to wear at meetings or dinners.”
Chief amongst McCollum’s other hobbies is his podcast, Pull Up, which features interviews with high-profile talents ranging from rapper and social justice activist Common to Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner and Cleveland forward Kevin Love.
Over the years, I think I’ve perfected the 'swaggy-casual' look, but I’m also down to put on a suit.
Launched March 30, 2018, the project represents a part of the basketball player’s past that he was unwilling to part with, even after entering the league. McCollum studied journalism during his time at Lehigh University and wanted to put the skillset to good use.
McCollum always enjoyed talking, he says; growing up, he liked making jokes, expressing himself, and telling stories. He'd also watch SportsCenter and other ESPN shows just to see journalists cover games. “I wanted to be the person who goes and interviews the winning team or the losing team in the locker room,” he recalls. “As I got older, I realized there’s actually a field for this. When I started playing professionally, it made me realize that I had a voice in the league, one that gave me the chance to share a different side of our day-to-day life and the things that were happening on and off the court. I kind of saw it as an opportunity to give listeners a different dynamic of what we see and experience as athletes during games.”
In addition to analyzing sports, McCollum also wanted to create a space to share his affinity for wine—his current wine cellar holds around 600 bottles and his collection is already well into the 500s.
“I obviously wasn’t a big wine drinker growing up because I wasn’t 21,” he jokes. He didn't like it at first, but as he got older and his palate matured, he began to enjoy a nice bottle and pay attention to pairings. “Competitive people, especially in sports, want to learn about everything. So when you’re interested in something, you become a bit obsessive,” he says. “You start to research it and ask questions about it, and before you know it, you have a serious hobby because of how you’re programmed.”
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Fresh off of a recent tasting trip to Tuscany, McCollum eagerly recounts the history of the vineyards he visited and tells me that although he didn’t get around to grape stomping, he didn't leave without adding to his collection. Since he's based in Oregon, a state full of great pinots and cabs, he's reluctant to claim any favorites from Italy. He does, however, list Oregon wineries Soter and Freja Cellars as collection highlights, as well as Kosta Browne in California.
For more recommendations, just tune into his podcast: “We also have a wine segment where we break down different wines that we’ve had throughout that week and share price points ranging from, like, $15 to over $100,” he notes.
Timing was also a huge consideration when McCollum kicked off his podcast. “I was approached about starting it about four years ago, but I wasn't where I wanted to be in my profession. I felt like there was already a stigma around athletes doing other things, so I wanted to make sure I’d established myself as a player because if you don’t perform well on the court or you’re not at your peak, fans and media can start to read into things,” he explains. “It’s funny, though, because we launched the podcast almost two years go and we lost to the Dallas Mavericks the next day—so it was interesting to see the reactions.”
While McCollum laughs off the memory, he also admits that the pressures of being in the professional league can, at times, be overwhelming. “I think it’s taken me a long time to figure out how to balance it all. In the beginning there was a lot of trial and error,” he says. “Now I take a lot of naps and I meditate daily. I think that’s really helped me stay centered through good moments and bad moments.”
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McCollum has centered his passion for meditation in podcast discussions surrounding wellness. But perhaps more important, sharing meditation with kids who can benefit from it is one of his proudest achievements in his work with Boys & Girls Club of Portland.
“Boys & Girls Club had such an impact on me growing up,” he says. “It’s somewhere I was able to not just learn basketball skills, but also life skills.” His brother would drop McCollum and his brother off at 9 a.m., and for an entire day, they'd be free to use the computer lab, shoot hoops, and play ping pong. “That really changed my life because it gave me something to do that involved not being in the streets,” he says. “As an adult who has a platform, I felt it was important to give back to where it all started for me. I wanted to figure out how to make it even better for the kids who are there now.”
Partnering with Headspace to provide classes on meditation is just one of the programs McCollum has rolled out within the organization. He’s also launched coding classes complete with certification that qualifies course-finishers for jobs. McCollum has also brought in career centers to provide direction, opportunities, and guidance surrounding employment.
“For me, working in these capacities is all part of being authentic,” he says. “Obviously people are watching me so I know I need to be careful with the things I do and say, but in spite of that I’ve always tried to be authentic as a role model.” If he feels strongly about something, he'll speak up—regardless of the consequences. “I think the best example anyone can set is to stick to who they are and try to uplift their community in the process,” he says.
WHAT'S IN CJ'S BAG?