CHICAGO — “If I’m meeting Stephanie Izard I’ve got to be dressed up,” C.J. McCollum says as he shows off a wide smile and new dark colored wool suit. McCollum, who is only in the Windy City for Thursday evening before flying out to take a few days off during his All-Star Break, is no stranger to the craziness of the weekend, and made it a point only to say yes to one event this year.
That event, a crosstalk discussion with Izard, the winner of Top Chef season 4 and the owner of Girl and the Goat, was held away from much of the other All-Star events at a speakeasy-style cocktail bar next to an Urgent Care and sandwiched between a small strip mall and the Damen Blue Line stop in Wicker Park. It captured the vibe American Express was going for, and forced McCollum to alter his plans just a bit to talk the world-renounced chef — a fellow midwesterner — and mingle with fans. In classic McCollum fashion, one of those fans got him fired up about the Browns during the Q&A segment when asked how he’d fix his beloved NFL team.
McCollum is 28, but at times he can feel equally much older or much younger. He’s grown concurrently with fellow teammate Damian Lillard, and the pair show comfort and grace in the manner in which they operate on and off the court. Portland has allowed both to come into their own as individuals first, with their unique basketball skillsets blossoming in lockstep, and it’s hard to find two teammates with more vocal interests and personalities supporting each other regardless of wins and losses.
There’s still room for improvement, as there is for anyone in that nebulous “entering their prime” window. McCollum remarks on how Izard started her first restaurant at 27. “I’m 28 and I lost my airpods,” he jokes. It’d be foolish to let the wry smile and jokes give a false sense of security; just as McCollum can lull defenders into thinking they’re comfortable, the former Lehigh journalism major can keep his Northeast Ohio charm on his hip like the ball, ready to pull the string at a moment’s notice.
Dime sat down with McCollum before his chat with Izard, and discussed everything from travel, to how he approaches interviews like this one, to how he’s always looking to be better.
Martin Rickman: How does this experience come together and how’d you get in touch with Stephanie?
C.J. McCollum: Well, for one I’m an Amex user, so I think that’s definitely something that played a role in it. My agency reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in potentially sitting down with one of the best chefs in the world on behalf of Amex, and I felt like it was the right thing to do.
I think it’s going to be a great event. Obviously, when you have a chef like her in the room, to be able to ask her questions about not only food but restaurants. And then they brought in a lot of their special members in as well. So I think it’s going to be a really cool event.
And what is your relationship to fine dining and stuff like that? Because I know Canton is not really necessarily known as a food mecca.
Yeah, not exactly. Not exactly the food capital of the world coming from Canton, Ohio. But moving to Oregon and then being in different places, I’ve been able to experience fine dining. I’m looking forward to going to go in some of Stephanie’s restaurants. Obviously we have Amex to be able to get reservations pretty much anywhere throughout the United States. And we play in so many different cities that I’ve been able to taste a lot of different stuff. And I have a chef at home so I’ve been able to experiment with my diet, and really try some different stuff. But I’m excited about this pop-up tonight and I’m excited to try her food because I’ve never had it. But I’ve heard she’s amazing.
Do you have a place on the road that you always try to come back to? Do you have a couple of places in certain cities that you’re like, “Oh I got to go here?” Because I talked to guys, and they’re like, “Oh I’ve got to go to Catch when I’m in a city.”
That’s tough. I like to experiment. We definitely do Catch a lot. Dame likes seafood.
Yeah. Dame likes sushi a lot.
He likes sushi. It just depends on who I’m with at the time. I’m a room service guy cause I don’t like to leave. I’m lazy and I like to watch Netflix. But if there’s a steakhouse – I’m there.
What hotel has the best?
Best room service?
That’s a good one. Okay, okay. The best … I had some chicken noodle soup in the Bay. Weird, right? But I always try chicken noodle soup in certain hotels, and they have some of the best chicken noodle soup that I’ve ever had in the Bay. Miami’s room service is good, and they have like probably the best guac. You know, you’ve ordered guac and it’s not created the same everywhere. It’s pretty good there. Dallas is a good food city. That’s a city I go out to eat in. I go out to eat in Dallas a lot. Memphis, we go to the same barbecue spot down the street on Beale street.
What’s that one?
What is it called? It’s open until 3:00 AM though. As soon as we land, we had a back-to-back. We landed at 1:00 and Dame was walking. He’s like, “You coming?” And I said, “Bro, I can’t do it tonight.” And I didn’t do it, but I forget the name of it. But it’s literally right by the Westin where we stay at though. [Ed. Note: this is likely Blues City Cafe]
But I would say the top, I’d say Miami, San Francisco, you can’t go wrong in LA. We used to stay in the Marina though, and you can eat outside and you’ve got the nice, beautiful view. And I’ll give you one more city. I’m trying to think. Oh, New York. Yeah. I went to 4 Charles Prime Rib in New York for New Years, and that was incredible. That was probably … I’m a burger guy. Like I find burgers everywhere and that was probably the best burger I’ve ever had in my life.
Have you found that that travel has become something that’s become a part of your life now in recent years? Is it something that you’ve become more passionate about?
Yeah, I enjoy traveling. I enjoy it, but I also enjoy relaxation. Like I can’t wait to enjoy being away from basketball, you know what I mean? Because it’s just so consuming, so time consuming, and just mentally and physically draining. But I enjoy traveling in the summer. I enjoy going to Europe. My brother plays in Europe so I’m able to visit a lot of different places. The best seafood I probably ever had in my life was in Santorini. And that was like, when you see the water, you’re like, “They probably just caught it.”
The true catch of the day.
Yeah, it’s like the catch of the day. But I enjoy like the food experiences and just immersing myself in other cultures.
“For me it’s legacy. I want my last name to ring bells. When people hear my last name I want them to be like ‘he was a good dude, he did things the right way.’”
@CJMcCollum joined the Black History #BlackCelebration with the Black Student Union at David Douglas High School 🙌 pic.twitter.com/iG8XIDoazS
— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) February 25, 2020
Your relationship with your brother obviously is so important to you, having that close-knit person you can go to at all times. What does that mean? Especially with him continuing to chase his dream but kind of doing it on parallel tracks with you?
Yeah. It means a lot to me because that’s my mentor and my best friend. He helped raise me. My mom obviously raised us and my dad was involved, and my brother was like, the guy who was around. When your parents are at work, you just keep getting in trouble or you follow the leader. And he was the leader I’d follow and kind of showed me how to work, how to be a man, how to be responsible. And I’m grateful because, without him, there is no good version of me. I tell him all the time, there’s only bad versions of me that would exist without you.
Dame’s got a lot going on obviously too. And he and I talked back in November about how you get on this roll, and you’re able to start doing the things that you want to do outside of basketball. Obviously, that singularly basketball at times because it is time consuming. But we’re in an era now where it’s okay to not hide that you’re doing these things or you’re interested in these things. You’ve got all the work that you do with your podcast, but also with helping kids who dream to become journalists. What does that mean to you and how does that kind of help fuel you? Because I’ve found, when I talked to guys, those two feed each other, right? Like it makes you a better basketball player, but that also makes you better at these skills that you want to develop because you have this intense focus.
Yeah, it definitely helps you escape whatever you’re doing for a living and then, like you said before, narrow your focus. It’s funny because I got pitched the podcast in my second year of league, but I was like, “No, I haven’t really established myself. I already have radio shows. People will look at me like I don’t care about basketball.” So I told my agency, I was like, “I have to really establish myself as a basketball player before I start my second career or they’ll judge me.” They’ll be like, he doesn’t care. He is not focused. So I waited until year six and then I started a podcast.
And it’s been fun because people will think that it’s work, but to me it’s just me having a conversation, me really just talking about what’s going on in the world and bringing on different guests. And now being able to sit in my house or on the road in a hotel and have a conversation is a lot more productive than what I could be doing in Miami and certain cities. So I think it’s, like you said before, it’s fun, and then it gives kids a chance to see that there’s more to life than just sports. And obviously you use the basketball platform or whatever sport you play to get to a certain point, and then you pivot. I think for me, my pivot is life after basketball, being able to educate people, especially kids on what’s out there. And that’s why I created the CJ McCollum Dream Centers and CJ’s Press Pass.
You know, with Press Pass, how gratifying is that to know that you’ve got kids that you’ve taken under your wing and they’re going to look up someday and LeBron kind of said this yesterday about the Kent State thing. This is the most important thing he’s done, which, all these accolades that you have, that he’s had, guys like that making an impact in people’s lives individually, it goes such a long way.
There’s just so much more to life than sports. And obviously it means a lot to us and it’s how we provide for our families, but being able to change someone’s life, being able to impact a kid’s life or changing the trajectory is everything. I remember the first time I met Allen Iverson, I was in Canton. I went to Eric Snow’s camp and he brought him in, and just to be able to realize that he’s a normal person who just happened to be great at basketball. It kind of changed your perspective and outlook.
And LeBron, I grew up in Canton, and I’ve known Bron since I was 12. And what he’s been able to do in our community, what he’s been able to do for young people who come from messed up situations or situations where you feel like you can’t make it, he gives them hope. And now that they have resources, being able to go to school, being able to have food on the table. That’s half the battle right there. Now they’re providing scholarships for kids coming through the I Promise program. I think that’s amazing and it should be an inspiration to all of us.
With you having that background of understanding journalism and also now having the platform to speak, how do you see the evolution of the relationship between not just athletes and fans but athletes and journalists? And with your outlook of kind of understanding where the journalist is coming from, how does that change your, I guess, relationship with the people who are asking the questions when you know how to ask them and you’ve asked them yourself?
I think I’m more sympathetic because I have to harass people sometimes. Now I know what it’s like when they harass me. I understand they really need to get this story out and their editor is on their back, and they need this quote. Because when you get turned down, like I’m sure you’ve been turned down, I’ve turned down media requests because of time or whatever the case may be, and I’ve had people cancel on me last minute and it’s like, uh-oh. Like, “I was really depending on you, bro, like you would help me.”
So having that understanding of what that’s like, now, I take the extra time. But sometimes I would just tell them, “Hey, like I don’t have time today. Call me tomorrow.” Or like pull me aside after practice because I got a family. I got to get home to my family, or I’m on the road and I got 20 cousins out there that I see once a year, so I need to talk to them.