PORTLAND, Ore. – They prepared Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum for the aggression everyone would come for him with on the court now, born of his rise as the Robin to Damian Lillard’s Batman, born of earning the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award, and yes, born of a summertime signing to a $106 million maximum contract extension.
In McCollum’s mind, nothing’s changed: He’s still the 5-foot-2 high school sophomore who couldn’t start on the varsity team, who struggled to find a Division I scholarship offer. In his mind, he’s still the Lehigh University star who passed on the NBA draft as a junior only to fracture his foot shortly into his senior year and wonder: “Did I just blow my only opportunity?”
“I’ve been a role player,” McCollum told The Vertical. “I’ve dressed in a suit on the end of the bench. I’ve been a [non-starter] in high school. I’ve been the guy with no scholarships trying to get an offer. I’ve been the guy taking ice baths in trash cans at Lehigh because that’s what we had.
“I don’t take any of this for granted.”
How the world comes to reach into your bank account, well, that’s a different story. First of all, McCollum makes $3.2 million this season. The four-year, $106 million contract starts in 2017-18, and yes, McCollum agrees there’s little, if any, preparation for the onslaught that comes with the contract.
For some, this is the hardest part: How do you learn to say no? How do you manage the balance between long-lost family and friends, foundations and charities, and those closer who’ll try to get over on your good nature?
“It’s insane,” McCollum told The Vertical. “People want to try to take advantage of you – who you are, what you stand for, the fact that you’re a nice person. And there are people out there who are genuinely sincere and genuinely need help. People close to me, obviously I’ll help them. But I can’t help everybody. I can’t contribute to every charity. I can’t contribute to every idea somebody has – a new invention, a new product. Everybody has ideas for how you should spend your money, before you even have your money.
“I have had some outrageous proposals. I just told [agent] Sam [Goldfeder], ‘Don’t even send me anymore.’ People are emailing him with ideas for starting a charity. Or a foundation. I’m like, ‘Hey, I have a donors fund where I give to the causes that have affected me, causes that I care about.’ People that I haven’t talked to in years will reach out – from numbers, for a reason, that I don’t have saved. You can’t save everybody. But I didn’t get here on my own, and I realize that. When the time is right, I’ll do what is necessary for those I care about. But you can’t save the world.
“They want you to invest. I tell people: I have a solid investment scheme. I’m hitting base hits and bunts for the rest of my life. I don’t need any home runs. I don’t need any get-rich schemes. I need to continue to save the proper way, find good percentage rates where I can get money from my money without touching my principle – and protect my assets for my future generations.”
For McCollum, what hasn’t changed are his Blazers relationships, especially with Lillard, a two-time All-Star. Golden State has the best backcourt in the NBA with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but Portland’s partnership of Lillard and McCollum makes a strong case for No. 2. For all the dysfunction that has existed between Washington’s John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Blazers guards have been a model illustration of the established star reaching out and uplifting, empowering his younger teammate – not trying to stifle him.
“Dame has deferred to me late in games,” McCollum told The Vertical. “You don’t always see that from star players. Coach would draw up a play for me late in a game, and he wouldn’t look at him like he’s crazy. He tells me, ‘Go get this bucket, man.’ There’s that type of relationship, where whoever has the better matchup, you go with him and you trust him.
“We never had to discuss taking a bad shot, or anything like that. We understand how hard we work, and winning is above everything. We want to win. Winners are recognized. Winners are paid. Winners become legends. Winners become legacy. They put winners’ banners up. They give winners rings.”
When you earn the Most Improved Player Award and get a max contract and belong to a team that most believe should win 50 games, everyone pushes harder and harder into your space. McCollum swears he sees it coming now, inside and outside the gym, and that’s the bold, new reality of his life. From where he came – from how he rose – C.J. McCollum knows this: If everything else is changing around you, well, you better not.
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