CJ McCollum came into his own this past season, finding his footing as a second-year member of the Portland Trail Blazers and developing into a solid role player on a contending team in a tough Western Conference. But the process to become that player—and, potentially, a much better one—didn’t begin last summer, or even the summer before that; it originated, in all likelihood, during his first few months on this planet, with a toy ball and a plastic hoop in a small baby crib. We spoke with the Canton, OH, native about his life-long hoops obsession.

SLAM: How’d you initially fall in love with the game of basketball?

CJ McCollum: My mom and my dad played in leagues when I was really young, so I remember watching them play. My dad was a big [Michael] Jordan fan—he loved Jordan and would always watch Mike. And I used to sleep with a ball in my crib, so it was just always a part of my lifestyle. Then my brother played, so I followed his footsteps. The game’s been good to me ever since.

SLAM: Do you remember the earliest courts you ever played on?

CJ: We used to shoot the socks in the hamper and all that stuff. We had a hoop on the door, so my brother and I used to play one-on-one on our knees, you know, all that stuff that kids do. And we always played outside. I actually had a court, and we used to play on the court outside, lowering the hoop to get some dunks in and then raise it back up and go to work.

SLAM: Did the sport come naturally to you?

CJ: It was something I had to work on, but I always had talent—I just couldn’t shoot. I could get to the hole, all right hand, because I hated using my left hand. I used to always miss left-handed layups. I couldn’t really shoot until the end of the eighth grade—that’s when my jump shot started to get good.

SLAM: Is there anyone who pushed you from being an average kid who liked basketball to what you became as a high school player?

CJ: My brother, definitely. Without him I wouldn’t be where I’m at. He was and still is my best friend. We work out together when I’m home and I talk to him constantly, even when he’s in Europe [where CJ’s big bro plays professionally—Ed.]. My mom raised us to be best friends and to push each other. I remember there was a time when he hated me being around because he’s two and half years older, and my mom used to make him put me on his team. It started where it wouldn’t count when I got the ball—they were just empty possessions—then when I started getting better he wanted me to be on his team and to come play with him. It’s funny how it’s come full circle.

SLAM: When did you realize that you could hold your own on the court?

CJ: I think when I got to high school I continued to get better—my brother graduated  after my freshman year—and my sophomore year I was finally by myself, just me and Kouf [Kosta Koufous, who also attended GlenOak High School in Canton.—Ed.]. I was more of a role player, not dominating yet. Once Kouf left and it was just me, I think my first game of my junior year, I had like 54 points in my first career start and I was like, OK, I’m ready now.

SLAM: Do you remember the first basketball you owned?

CJ: My mom probably bought me my first ball. I’m sure my dad put one in my crib as a little toddler, but my first real basketball, my mom probably bought it. It’s funny, I used to sleep with the ball until I realized how dirty it was. I was like, I can’t be doing this. I can’t be putting this ball in my bed anymore.

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Adam Figman is a Senior Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @afigman.

Image via Getty

Previously:
Victor Oladipo: That’s What Maryland Does
DeMar DeRozan: Compton’s In The House