NEW YORK — They’re both here and willing, almost always here and willing. Only, at this moment, they’re separated by the length of a basketball court in the center of the media universe.
C.J. McCollum, an overachieving guard for the Portland Trail Blazers, is down there on the baseline speaking with reporters — holding court, as it were — with a hoodie tightly encircling his face. Across the way is McCollum’s teammate, Damian Lillard, one of the NBA’s best guards, sitting on a Madison Square Garden bench with a small crescent of cameras and microphones surrounding him.
“We don’t do what we do to be publicized,” Lillard will say a few minutes later, and though his words might be true, the Blazers’ two best players are remarkably good at attracting attention. Good thing, because they need to be.
The Blazers have one of the NBA’s most lethal backcourts, but Portland is the league’s eighth-smallest media market, according to Nielsen, and even when the team is surging and the Western Conference looks vulnerable, it’s easy to forget about these guys.
Which is why they won’t let you, pulling the camera in with their play and keeping it there with their words and savvy.
Lillard and McCollum are young, talented and versatile. They’re also underpublicized, which is why it’s so interesting — and essential — that two former overachievers from small colleges have achieved NBA stardom in part because they’re skilled at creating their own megaphone and uniquely able to keep eyes and ears trained on them.
McCollum, a 27-year-old former journalism major with a popular podcast and the occasional guest column, has continued his media studies in an effort to reach “a better understanding,” he said, “of how I want to express myself.”
And Lillard, 28, is something of a media chaos agent: He had the NBA watchers watching him this summer as he broke news of reporters changing jobs, reminding them — occasionally by force — that no one at this level is in the business of keeping secrets.
“Nobody knew where I was getting my information from,” Lillard would recall, and the power and insider knowledge was at times intoxicating.
Lillard has expanded his profile and stirred up intrigue by deftly bending the media to his will. McCollum has used an increasingly insatiable media to grow his own platform, to sit next to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for what has become an annual — and surprisingly thoughtful — interview, and to inspire young people in his “CJ’s Press Pass” program by introducing them to his two favorite topics: basketball and journalism.
“It's important that we take care of our future generations,” McCollum said recently, “and expose them to some new things.”
Learning the craft
Years ago at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, McCollum called his mother with a little breaking news: He was quitting the business school.
A few weeks into his first semester, he wanted to write. And he planned to switch his major to journalism.
Kathy didn’t like it, but C.J. didn’t like how much math he had been asked to do. He’s not the first aspiring journalist to go looking for salvation in the written word, though his mom would sign off on it under one condition: He’d first write something for her.
He did, and though he doesn’t remember much about that first report, it was evidently good enough. Soon he was working a camera at Lehigh volleyball games, spending hours in the athletic department’s communications office, penning game stories from swim meets and field hockey matches.
A basketball lifer, McCollum began by researching the sports he’d be covering. A wrestling takedown was worth how many points? A 100-yard fly was what, now?
He’d eventually write and file his dispatch, and the articles with “Story by CJ McCollum ’13” at the bottom are something of a historical artifact at Lehigh now, a future NBA star humbly writing about the accomplishments of his classmates.
Not that his basketball status, which skyrocketed after the 15th-seeded Mountain Hawks upset No. 2 seed Duke in the 2012 NCAA tournament, granted him much in the way of scoring interviews. Sources forgot to call him or bailed on their appointments, so McCollum became something of a bulldog reporter.
Once, he’d remember later, a profile subject stood him up, and so McCollum emailed the subject and then texted. Nothing. So he looked up the phone number in the student directory, then tracked down the athlete’s practice schedule, then cornered his target in the school cafeteria.
“Whatever it takes,” McCollum said, and if he weren’t pulling down about $25 million a year from the Blazers, maybe it’d be fair to say he missed his calling. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way.”
McCollum became a lottery pick in 2013, though he maintained an interest in journalism. He wrote columns for the Sporting News and the Players’ Tribune. He delighted in interviews with former NBA stars-turned-TNT personalities Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith. He considered which questions were respectful and which weren’t, preparing for what he hopes is a future in broadcasting (the NBA league office and players association provide media training and other job-related programs for life after basketball).
He expanded his “CJ’s Press Pass” program, inviting youngsters to cover a Blazers game and file a story to the editor, McCollum himself. If a few of his fledgling journalists needed money, he’d slip a few dollars their way; if they required tutoring, he’d pay for it.
If nothing else, he said, his fascination with journalism made him a better interview subject. More patient when the questions roll in when he’s exhausted or moody, more open-minded when — as, say, just one example — a stranger approaches McCollum in two cities, collects his phone number, calls and sends multiple texts until one morning he calls just to make it stop.
“You guys have a job to do,” he’ll say, and perhaps no NBA player understands that better. “Once I went through everything at Lehigh and just having to harass people for stories ...”
And that’s when McCollum is interrupted, hearing that “harass” isn’t exactly the preferred verb of the dogged journalist.
No longer in the business of issuing clarifications, McCollum chuckled.
“I was harassing people,” he said.
A few months ago, Lillard and the NBA reporter Chris Haynes were debating the state of media in 2018 amid some reflection.
The men had known each other since Lillard was a Portland rookie out of Weber State and Haynes was a security guard who moonlit as a Blazers beat writer. By now, Lillard was an NBA star; Haynes, gregarious and tireless, had worked his way to ESPN and knew — perhaps better than anyone — how Lillard saw the media as a useful tool.
He had occasionally made headlines after being snubbed at the All-Star Game or created intrigue regarding his happiness in Portland. It was Haynes, after all, who earlier this year cited anonymous “league sources” when reporting on Lillard’s meeting with the late Blazers owner Paul Allen.
Lillard is under contract through the 2020-21 season — though he could find himself eligible for a “super-max” contract with Portland following this season — and so, absent a Kevin Durant- or LeBron James-style free agency pursuit, Lillard must find creative ways to entertain himself.
He appeared to tease the possibility this summer of joining James in Los Angeles, and when Haynes — who was being recruited by several competing media outlets — talked a while back, they discussed an unusual social experiment.
If Haynes opted to leave ESPN, what if it was Lillard who broke the news? Lillard loved it. In fact, he wouldn’t let it go.
“We going to do this?” Haynes said Lillard asked him more than once, and when the reporter decided to join Yahoo Sports, he didn’t announce it himself. He leaked it to Lillard.
“Sources:Free Agent reporter @ChrisBHaynes reaches agreement w/yahoo sports as Senior NBA insider,” Lillard wrote in September to his more than 1.5 million Twitter followers. “Will help build their NBA team. More coming”
How, players and reporters asked Lillard, did he know that? Who told him?
“Sources,” he’d flatly say, and if someone suggested he might have put Haynes in a bind by tweeting the news before Haynes himself announced it, Lillard shrugged because that’s what reporters do to NBA players all the time.
“Like, ‘sources say’ this happened or that happened,” the three-time all-star said recently. “And they don’t check with us all the time to see if it’s okay.”
Regardless, Lillard said, other reporters began reaching out. Was he aware of this possible move or that one? Two days after his Haynes scoop, Lillard dropped what briefly became known as another “Dame Bomb,” this time that veteran reporter Sam Amick was leaving USA Today for The Athletic.
In interviews, Amick and Haynes denied tipping Lillard off on that one, and even now, the player won’t say.
“Can’t reveal my sources, man,” he said.
If anything, Amick said he was less taken aback by how Lillard learned of his yet-unannounced job change than how meticulous he was. Lillard tracked down Amick’s phone number and personally sent him a text in an attempt to verify the news.
“The way he comported himself,” Amick said, “he’d do just fine in our business.”
Eventually, the regular season began and Lillard found other ways to pass the time. He said he talked himself out of breaking a false news story, and though he said he received scoops on other reporters as summer turned to autumn, he didn’t report them all. (According to Haynes, one was David Aldridge’s move to The Athletic from Turner earlier this year).
On a recent November morning, Lillard sat at Madison Square Garden and answered question after question. He asked a few of his own. He did group interviews and one-on-ones. He stayed until his messages of the day had been spread and until every journalist got her or his fill.
As he left the bench to head toward a waiting team bus, there was one final question. He of course indulged it: Why, considering his newfound reporting accuracy and burgeoning credibility, did he stop?
Why not keep it going?
“I made my point,” he said.