When I was a junior on the Lehigh University basketball team, our assistant coach Ryan Krueger came up to me one day after practice and asked, “Hey C.J., how serious are you about this journalism thing?”
I was a journalism major, and I also worked as an editor at The Brown and White, Lehigh’s student newspaper since 1894.
“Dead serious,” I told him.
“Well, I have this friend. He does some broadcasting. What if I had him come up to Lehigh and talk to you about the business?”
“For sure. That would be amazing.”
A few days later, this guy walks into the gym with a briefcase. I recognize him right away. It’s not just some local guy. It’s longtime NBA broadcaster Tim Capstraw.
I introduce myself, and we sit down and start talking about broadcasting. The next thing I know, he’s pulling out his laptop.
“Let’s call a game,” he says.
“Let’s … What? Are you serious?”
“Dead serious. Come on.”
He fires up a full college basketball game on his laptop, and as soon as he hits play, it’s like his whole demeanor changes. He gets that killer look in his eye. He smiles. His voice goes up a notch. He puts the game face on.
“We welcome you courtside to the CBS game of the week. I’m Tim Capstraw here with my partner C.J. McCollum. We’ve got a terrific matchup here tonight.”
And I’m sitting there starstruck, trying to figure out when to jump in.
“Uh … yeah, Tim. Wow. What a game we have here. Um. What I really like about this team is their commitment to defense.”
Tim presses pause and smiles. He gives me some pointers about how to do a good intro, which key points I should hit, and how to build up the atmosphere before the tip.
We call the whole first half together, with me acting as the color commentator, pointing out high screens and the different sets the teams are running.
The game moved so fast. I kept calling everything great. That was my fallback word.
Great defense. Great pick-and-roll. Great jump shooter. You don’t realize how much broadcasters have to switch up their vocabulary to keep things fresh.
I loved the whole experience. When it came time for us to wrap up and for me to get to practice, I didn’t want it to end.
Before he left, Tim gave me some final advice:
“C.J., you know the easiest way to get your reps up? Mute every game you watch on TV and call it yourself. That’s what I did when I was starting out.”
Ever since that experience with Tim, I’ve never watched a basketball game the same way. Even now, when I’m watching an NBA game at my house or at a hotel, I’ll often mute the sound and call the game in my head. I try to think of how to translate what I’m seeing into an interesting piece of insight that the average fan would be able to digest.
This was actually the inspiration for my Elite 101 features at The Players’ Tribune. And I hope that when my NBA career is over, I can expand my skills to the broadcast booth as well.
Media has always been my thing — whether it’s reading Zach Lowe’s in-depth NBA columns, or checking out what the analytics community is doing with data visualization and heat maps, or listening to Bill Simmons’s podcast. (Why were you trying to get me traded to the Cavs though, Bill? I heard that episode. Come on, man!)
Do I sometimes shake my head at the narratives that are created? Yeah, of course. (The Draymond Green locker room “tirade” isn’t a thing, people. It happens all the time in the league.) But I truly believe that the stories around the game are what make basketball so interesting. The media is responsible for making those stories come to life. The media is extremely important to me not just as an NBA player, but as a fan of the game.
That’s why I decided to launch an educational program called CJ’s Press Pass. The idea is pretty simple. I want to empower high school students to get hands-on journalism experience so that they will be better prepared to pursue a career in media if they think it’s for them.
We started in January with 30 students from Portland’s Madison High. I came to their classroom and explained why I have a passion for journalism and gave them their first assignment. They had to actually cover our game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
We gave them all-access media passes. They got to go behind the scenes to see how members of the media did their jobs. Not just the Portland beat writers and columnists, but also the TV broadcast team, radio team, sideline reporters, social media managers and others.
The students couldn’t believe just how many cameras there were at the game, how many AV wires were running all around the court, and how much communication goes on between people who help bring the game to life. All for a 48 minute game.
After it was over, the students got to conduct a special press conference with myself and Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool.
They grilled us.
Thankfully, we won the game.
My favorite question was, “C.J., can you take us through your pregame ritual and what you ate before the game.”
“A three-egg omelet with cheddar cheese, peppers and onions, two strips of bacon, plus a half a waffle with strawberries, and, of course, some home fries on the side. With an orange juice and a water. And then a salad with chicken and spinach. Then some pasta before the game.”
You have to get your nutrients in.
After the press conference, the students were on deadline. Their assignment was to report on the game using any lane they wanted — a game report, a column, a podcast, or a video.
The only rule was that they had to paint a vivid picture of the whole experience.
The winner got a prize, of course. The student who produced the best piece would get to help me cohost my weekly radio show on iHeartRadio, and they would also get their first big-time byline, right here on The Players’ Tribune.
Below is the winning piece from Madison High senior Hannah Ortloff. I loved how Hannah set the scene in her lead paragraph, and she did an excellent job with the pacing and flow of the story.
Hannah, in a few years, when you’re a professional journalist and I’m hopefully an aging vet with a few titles under my belt, please remember to take it easy on me.
Congrats, and great work.
By Hannah Ortloff
On the afternoon of Wednesday, January, 27, Madison High School’s library was filled with jittery teenagers and teachers alike as we eagerly awaited the arrival of Trail Blazer C.J. McCollum. Some were frantically trying to think of an impressive hard-hitting journalism question to ask the Lehigh grad, while others were discussing the best possible selfie angle, or if the NBA star would sign their stomach.
Once C.J. entered the room, any fears about whether or not we should feel nervous around him melted away. The room full of jitters turned quickly to one full of genuine laughter as soon as C.J. began talking. He had each one of us stand, say our name, age and, of course, why we love journalism. McCollum graduated from Lehigh University with a major in journalism, prompting him to start his new program, C.J.’s Press Pass, for aspiring journalists. Much to my luck, and the luck of many of my classmates, C.J. chose Madison’s journalism program to participate.
McCollum started by giving us a basic rundown of who he is, how he got to be where he is today, and what shows he is currently watching on Netflix. He then opened the floor for questions, with topics ranging from his college experiences to his opinion on tattoos. It was clear that C.J. is not some stuck-up, too-cool-for-school basketball player. In fact, he’s really not too different from the rest of us. As he pointed out, “I’m just like you guys, only I have a better jump shot.”
Wednesday afternoon was only the beginning of the fun. Four days later, on January 31, C.J. invited us to watch the Blazers take on the Minnesota Timberwolves. We arrived at the Moda Center two hours early in order to get our media-access passes and then took a full tour. We visited the broadcasting center to see how all of the behind-the-scenes coverage goes down, watched Damian Lillard shoot threes during warmups, and then got the chance to interview various reporters.
Like any Portland native, I’ve grown up attending Blazers games, but usually watch from the “nosebleed” section. However, this time, a few of my friends and myself were ten rows up from the court as part of “C.J.’s Crew,” which included complimentary C.J. McCollum towels and bragging rights. Afterward, we were invited to ask assistant coach David Vanterpool and C.J. some post-game questions. Once again, C.J.’s laid back charm became evident and any nervousness left over was soon gone. We left that night excited and energetic to share our experiences, but even more so, grateful for the opportunities McCollum had given us.
C.J. McCollum is a role model for not only aspiring journalists and sports fanatics, but for students everywhere. He is a great example of someone with passion and charisma, but a down to earth lifestyle. He loves his mom and isn’t ashamed about it, he follows DJ Khaled on Snapchat and he is able to live his dream of playing basketball without sacrificing his love for writing. C.J. pointed out at his first talk with us that a lot of players have different hobbies to pass the time off the court. Some make music, others watch Netflix, while C.J. chooses to write.
In addition to his written repertoire, which is impressive in itself (with works including an interview with NBA commissioner Adam Silver), C.J. also hosts two radio shows, one of which he is inviting us to come watch at the iHeartRadio Studio.
Overall, this experience has been something none of us will soon forget, especially as some of us head off to college. McCollum offered up some advice for us when it comes to the future: Figure out what you enjoy doing and what you are good at first, the rest should follow.
We asked C.J.’s Press Pass students to share their photos from the day with the Blazers. Scroll through a gallery of their images below.
Photographs by Abigail Reyes, Irissa Adams, Julian Daviau, Taea Hill, and Ziomara Martinez.