CJ McCollum On His Return, Wondering If His Career Was Over And The Birth Of His First Child
After Monday night's victory versus the Magic in Orlando, Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum discussed returning to the lineup for the first time since suffering a collapse lung on December 4, not knowing if he'd ever be able to play again, how he feels physically after sitting out for six weeks, the injury giving him time to spend with his wife during the third trimester of her pregnancy, welcoming their first child, Jacobi James, into the world, how being a father has changed his perspective and the difficulty of leaving behind his wife and newborn in order to join the Trail Blazers in the middle of their longest road trip of the season...
How did it feel to be back on the court after missing the last six weeks?
CJ McCollum: It felt good. It felt really good to be able to play the game I love again with my teammates. Go through a pregame routine -- it’s been a while. I haven’t played five’s since December 4, so that was my first, a little rusty, couple turnovers, stuff like that, but I felt good. I worked on my game, credit the staff. With my guys spending extra time before practice or after practice, players, staff, video guys, everybody making sure I’m in shape. Todd (Forcier), Lady Jess (Cohen), everyone just kind of making sure that I’ll be ready to go when I came back. So I’m appreciative and thankful of that.
How do you feel physically?
CJ McCollum: I feel good, I feel good. I worked extremely hard over the course of the last few weeks -- conditioning, building my body back up, getting up shots... I think you can tell.
Chauncey Billups said you two conversed regularly and that it was eating at you that you couldn’t be out there playing. What was that was like?
CJ McCollum: Not playing? It was tough man, hard to watch. I would generally watch most of the games with my wife and our dog and then my mother-in-law would come to town, my mom would come to town, we would watch and it was hard. But I’m thankful I had that time with my family, I’m thankful I could be with my wife throughout her entire pregnancy essentially. The last month, through that third trimester, all the appointments, I was able to go to. Obviously able to be there for the birth and being able to have a healthy, clean birth with no COVID. When we had that team outbreak, obviously I was worried because it was down the stretch for me. But it was tough to watch because they’re having fun, they’re competing and as a competitor, you want to be a part of that. It’s no fun, it’s never fun watching.
It didn’t look as though you were forcing anything in your first game back. Is that how you felt?
CJ McCollum: Yeah, I mean, I am who I am as a player. Obviously I can do a lot of stuff but they’re been playing well, a lot of guys are evolving into new roles. Obviously Anfernee is playing extremely well, Nas is playing well, those guys are kind of finding themselves and figuring who they are as NBA players. I already know who I am, I already know what I’m capable of, but just trying to play winning basketball. At the end of the day, that’s how I’ve always played my entire life, take the shots that are there, when you get an iso situation or a time throughout the game where you want to attack, I do that, take what the defense gives me. I’d like to get the four turnovers back but I thought I took 13 make-able shots. I missed a couple, made a couple and I’ll continue to kind of build my conditioning up, build my timing up and play the right way, play winning basketball and do whatever I can to help impact the game.
Obviously you would have liked to be able to play but was it a blessing in disguise to have the injury in that it gave you time to spend with your wife during the pregnancy?
CJ McCollum: For sure. All my injuries have been blessing in disguise, although unfortunate and weird. I fractured my foot last season on a layup and my wife’s grandmother ends up passing away. And if I wasn’t hurt I wouldn’t have been able to be there for here, I would have been traveling and things of that nature. So that was a blessing. I was able to go to the funeral, I was able to be with her during those times. And then this particular instance, I thought I had bruised ribs, right? And then it turns out I had a collapsed lung, which is crazy to think about. When you don’t know a lot about it, it’s very scary but I was able to be home during the third trimester, which is an extremely important time -- for people who have kids, they understand there’s a lot of nerves, there’s a lot of anxiousness, there’s a lot that goes into that. So I was thankful I was able to support her, be with her every step of the way, including throughout the birth, being able to be home a few extra days before I joined the team. I’m thankful for that, I’m thankful for the team for allowing me to get that time. This is a once in a lifetime situation -- maybe two or three depending on if you have kids down the road, but you only have one first child -- and the team, the ownership, they were great about allowing me to have that time, allowing me to kind of do what I needed to do to get myself ready before return.
You mention the lung injury was pretty scary, what were you going through in those firs few days when you were being diagnosed with right lung pneumothorax?
CJ McCollum: You hear collapsed lung, you think the worst. So first I’m thinking: Am I going to be okay? And then two, I’m thinking: Am I got going to be able to hoop again? Is this it? Nine years in, like do I got to walk away? I always put my health first and my family first. I got to talking to doctors, pulmonologists and speaking to specialists and they’re like ‘This is common, this happens a lot, these are things you have to do.’ But I was operating as if I had bruised ribs for a little bit and then I found out on the scan that I actually had a collapsed lung and it was just hard to breathe, hard to lay down on the right side, moving the arm and stuff, but then it progressively got better. I did some breathing treatments, some breathing exercises. I think the hardest part was seven days of nothing. I couldn’t hoop, I couldn’t lift, I couldn’t run so I’m just watching Netflix. I’m watching Boardwalk Empire, going on dog walks with my wife -- she’s trying to walk the baby off -- so we were just doing stuff and then I was just asking when can I get on the treadmill or something? I don’t want to take all this time not moving but also trying to do what I can to make sure my lung is good. Once I was able to pick it up, I start walking up an incline, running and then shooting free throw and then slowly, slowly transitioning back.
As you just mentioned, you’ve had a lot on your mind with the injury, your wife being pregnant, being away from the team. Where is your mind at now after getting past those two big life events?
CJ McCollum: I think this is probably the most happy and at peace I’ve ever been in my life. I’ve generally been at peace historically but now to just see my son, see my wife, the joy that he brings to our family, seeing her healthy. Having a baby is a miracle in itself but then having a baby during a pandemic is like a completely different animal just because of all the things that could potentially go wrong, especially with me playing in front of 20,000 people and traveling city to city every day. It’s a lot. And you add in our COVID exposure the last month -- we went from no positives to like 18-plus within our organization -- so that was a scary time for me. But I’m thankful, I’m happy, I’m at peace. The game is fun, I work on my game every day. I got home and be a father, I go home and be a husband, a son, all those things and I think I’m just in a space that I think only fathers can probably relate to where you just feel really at peace, you really have a great understanding of what’s important to you or what means something to you and your family. I have purpose. I’ve always had purpose before but now I really, truly have a real purpose in my life, which is to be a good man and try to raise my son to the best of my abilities. I think that’s what brings me the most joy. The game is great, I’ll play great some nights, I won’t play great some nights but the consistency will be in my household and I’ll try to hold it down from there.
Can having that kind of peace in your life translate to the court or have an effect on how you play?
CJ McCollum: Absolutely. We’re all humans and I’m sure we’ve all gone through our own personal issues and personal situations that may cause doubt, may cause fear, may cause anxiety and I think we’ve all experienced that. But I think understanding where my family is at now, where my wife is at. I can see the joy in her face when I’m speaking to hear on FaceTime or when I’m talking to her in person, letting her know that hey, I’ve got to go back to work, I can see that everything is okay and I feel comfortable leaving. I’m sad to have to leave and go do things but I’ve got a job to do and she understands that and respects that. But I think it makes it easier when your household is stable, is solid an everyone is safe and healthy. I think it’s much easier to play and work and go out into the real world when everything at home is the way it should be. So yeah, I would say I’m in a much different space now that I was even to start the season. As the president of the (players association), I’m exposed to a lot. I see a lot, I understand everything behind the scenes and a lot of moving part that the general population may not always be aware of, especially our players. It can be scary at times when you know certain things are coming. Like, I knew we were going to have a spike in positives in January and I told the team this is what’s going to happen based on research, based on what I’ve been told. Literally a week later we had seven positives. Unbelievable, it’s like I predicted the future but I was just going by what I was told.
When you look at your son, Jacobi, do you see yourself in any aspect of him?
CJ McCollum: He’s so innocent and so precious, he’s like our little angel. I told my wife she’s my angel and she gave us an angel. You could see like, some of the features. He’s got my nose -- I got a big nose -- he’s got her eyelashes, he’s got her hair cause I got nappy hair, he’s got her nice hair. Just so precious, every movement. Even the cries it’s just like ‘Oh he’s crying, whatever.’ It’s 4 a.m., I’m trying to change the diapers it’s like, there’s not many things that bring joy even under those circumstances. It’s like, I wouldn’t want to sacrifice my sleep for generally anything but for him and my family, I’m at peace with it. Like, I’ve never been excited to change a diaper before and then I was trying to rush in and do it, like this is cool. He peed! He peed in his diaper! What color is the poop today? You know what I’m saying? Going through that as a father, it’s the best feeling in the world. Everything else outside of my life, it’s great and it’s cool to be in the NBA and stuff but that’s my pride and joy.
How hard was it to get on that plane from Portland to Orlando just a couple days after the birth?
CJ McCollum: It was tough man. I’m not a crier but I almost cried leaving my baby. It’s tough at the infant stage, he’s newborn, he’s fresh, the skin to skin contact is important those first four to six months of develop are crucial and you want to be around and a part of that as much as possible. So understanding that I have to leave him and then leaving my wife, she’s got help obviously, we’re forcing to to have help, but I’d like to be with her every step of the way to help her, to show her I’m here for whatever she needs and show the baby. So that was hard, very hard but I’ve got a job to do.
How did the birth go? Was it a home birth or did you do it at the hospital?
CJ McCollum: It was great, my wife is a trooper. She did what she had to do, we got through it. He was born at 11:59 and I was watching the Alabama game for a little bit, it was time, we turned some music on, put a playlist together for her -- like, what you want to hear? -- and we got through it. We had him at the hospital, at Legacy.
This is something you and Elise have wanted for a while. There must be a real joy in going through this journey and coming away from it with a healthy child
CJ McCollum: It’s the greatest feeling in the world, I don’t think anything compares to the feeling and joy you get when your child comes out. Nothing in my life will ever compare to that, it’s impossible. Maybe the next kid, but there’s nothing that you can compare it to because it’s truly a miracle.