By: Justin Lafleur, Lehigh Sports Media Relations
Senior men’s basketball standout C.J. McCollum is known most for his 30-point performance in Lehigh’s historic NCAA Tournament win over Duke last March. But what people don’t see is McCollum’s performance off the court - in the classroom, as a leader and in the community - which truly makes him who he is.
From day one, head coach Brett Reed knew McCollum was the right “fit” for Lehigh.
“One of the most attractive things was obviously his talent, but you could also see a high degree of character and basketball IQ out on the floor,” he said. “There was a value that he (and his family) placed on the academic profile of the university, his goals beyond basketball and how Lehigh could help his future. Getting to know him, I continued to walk away impressed with the type of young man that he was.”
McCollum has certainly been everything Reed could have hoped… and more. C.J. was recently named a candidate for the prestigious Senior CLASS Award, which encompasses the overall student-athlete. It focuses on four C’s: community, classroom, character and competition. Being named one of only 30 candidates nationally for such an award is arguably more impressive than his First Team All-America laurels.
“It’s definitely a tremendous honor to even be in the discussion for the Senior CLASS Award because it’s not just basketball,” said McCollum. “I think it just shows how far I’ve come as a person, and how far I’ve grown and matured.
“When I first came here, I was worried strictly about basketball and that’s how I carried myself,” McCollum continued. “I didn’t really socialize with others. Now I’ve reached out a little more outside my comfort zone in terms of joining different clubs and organizations. It’s helped a lot in terms of maturity, helping me on the court as well.”
Lehigh is the only men’s basketball program in the nation with multiple candidates. McCollum’s classmate Gabe Knutson was also named one of the 30 nominees.
McCollum had to make one of the toughest decisions of his life following last season, and his ultimate decision related back to Knutson and his Mountain Hawk teammates. After declaring for the NBA Draft, he withdrew his name for multiple reasons. One was to earn his degree, while he also felt there was unfinished business at Lehigh. The Mountain Hawks came within a win from the Sweet 16 last season and feature a strong nucleus in 2012-13, highlighted by the senior class of McCollum, Knutson and Holden Greiner.
“C.J. cares about his teammates to the point that he made a decision to come back this year,” said Reed. “He started a journey with his friends and his teammates, people who he really respects and appreciates.
“Because of that friendship and affinity for his teammates, it’s turned him into a very good leader, somebody who’s respected amongst his teammates,” Reed continued. “I think a big reason we have a family atmosphere and are unselfish as a team is due to C.J.’s overall influence and his unselfish nature.”
Following his decision to return, McCollum wrote an extensive piece published on Sporting News’ website titled “Why I’m returning to Lehigh for my senior year.” It fit right into his career goals (Journalism), which was a driving factor in his decision: to earn a degree from a prestigious university and set himself up for life beyond basketball.
“I always told my parents I would get my degree in four years; that was my main goal,” said C.J. “My brother got his and was a Business major. He’s currently playing overseas, but still has that degree to fall back on.”
It’s also important to enjoy college in general,” McCollum continued. “College is a fun time of your life. You build friends and relationships that last forever. I want to take full advantage of it.
“I definitely feel like we have a good team and we’re in a situation where we can improve on what we accomplishment last year. That’s the ultimate goal right now; take advantage of every day then walk the aisle and get my degree in May.”
McCollum is majoring in Journalism while minoring in Mass Communication and Sociology. He’d ultimately like to go into sports broadcasting and sports analysis, but enjoys writing as well.
“I would like to write stories, preview games and do whatever’s necessary,” said McCollum. “I think the more well-rounded I am, the better and easier it’ll be to start in the field.”
C.J. is interning in the Lehigh Sports Media Relations office this fall, writing game previews, feature stories and more, while also getting experience with multimedia. In addition, McCollum is Assistant Sports Editor for the Brown & White student newspaper, garnering experience in a multitude of ways.
McCollum is set up for great things on and off the court. He’s an Associated Press Preseason All-American (alongside players from Ohio State, Michigan, Indiana and more) and could be a lottery pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. McCollum’s statistics and accolades tell a story, but there’s so much more about C.J. McCollum the person that fans don’t know.
“I try to keep everybody loose,” he said. “This is an important year for us, but at the same time, the game is supposed to be fun. You’re supposed to enjoy every day. You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to do some things wrong on the court but as long as you’re playing hard and having fun, that’s most important. Never lose sight of that. Winning is great, but having fun and winning is better.”
Two examples stand out to Reed when thinking of McCollum’s character.
“As a freshman, he had a number of personal accolades heaped upon him, rightfully so, but he continued to deflect praise and give credit to his teammates,” said Reed. “It would have been very easy for his ego to bloom, especially being so young and at a young stage of development, but that foundation was there.
“I also look to the fact that going into this past year, we talked about personal goals versus team goals and how he’d have the opportunity to lead the country in scoring if he so chose. But I thought it would be best for our team, and we would be more successful, if he scored fewer points, got more people involved and demonstrate playmaking skills,” Reed continued. “Without any inclination of self, he immediately jumped to the second option, to score less and make his teammates better, for the ultimate goal which overarches what he tells me is his purpose for being here: to win as opposed to personal accolades.”
McCollum certainly became a playmaker last year, leading the Mountain Hawks in points, rebounds and assists. He may not be the best shooter, defender or rebounder, but his overall package is what makes him one of the top players in all of college basketball. Couple that with his intangibles and you have someone with his priorities in the right place. He is a role model to all he comes in contact with.
“It feels great to build a program, but we’re not done,” said McCollum. “We’re trying to build a legacy. When I was a freshman, the seniors did a great job of putting down a blueprint and I think we’ve done a good job of following that. Hopefully, when my career is over, the other guys continue to build on what we’ve done and continue to hang banners. Most importantly, continue to be good people, give back to the community and do the right things off the court.”