They’re two of the biggest adjustments for this particular young sportscaster: learning where to hold the mic during an interview, and working through the earpiece and a possible technical difficulty.
But what’s most impressive is the groundwork this up-and-coming commentator has made since 2013, considering his full-time job has been playing on the highest level of professional basketball. And not to mention, he’s become of the top 15 scorers in the NBA after being named last year’s Most Improved Player.
C.J. McCollum, 25, who received his journalism degree from Lehigh University, is the host of a sports radio show, a co-host for a pop culture show, the founder of his “Press Pass” program for high school students and an on-air TV guest throughout the NBA season. That included working the sidelines of the Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star Weekend to interview some of the players, notably Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook in attendance.
It was the first time in 11 years that Turner Sports had an active player fill a sideline role for an NBA game. Jalen Rose, a studio analyst for ESPN’s “NBA Countdown” show, was a part of NBA on TNT’s playoff coverage in 2006. After Turner Sports extended the special opportunity to him, McCollum made sure to put on his best Craig Sager impression by wearing a standout blue suit, which he had customized by his tailor, Antar Levar.
“It was a lot of fun, it was different for me,” McCollum told the NBPA. “Even with a journalism background, I had never worked to those extents. I’ve done interviews, I’ve done some sideline for ESPN pre- and post-game, but never done the game. So that was a unique experience and one that I really enjoyed.”
And speaking of the mic and earpiece, here’s what All-Star Weekend taught him about both:
“Just trying to keep the mic up. A lot of times you hold the mic down. You don’t know what level it should be at and how high it should be in terms of when you’re speaking into it, versus when you’re interviewing someone asking questions. So that was different for me.
“And the earpiece was a huge adjustment for me, and I’ve had malfunctions two times. I had a malfunction on TNT when they went to me, and my earpiece went out and I didn’t know it. So I was just standing there smiling. And then the cameraman pointed at me, like, ‘Talk.’ So I started talking and then [the earpiece] cut back out. And then when I was covering the  Finals for ESPN, there was a delay in my earpiece. It went out and I missed the countdown for me to go on live. So I was just standing there with a dumbfounded face for about 15 seconds, and I didn’t realize.”
But, he said, “I’ve enjoyed learning, I’ve enjoyed doing interviews and making mistakes. The experience and the national experience is what really gets you better.”
McCollum prepares himself for player interviews by thinking of “asking things that they wouldn’t normally be asked.” During the Rising Stars Challenge, he was most interested in the friendships between the young stars, being that they knew each other from the AAU circuit, the prestigious Jordan Brand Classic and McDonald’s All-American Game, and being one-and-dones entering the league.
He also got an exclusive with Westbrook, who was sitting courtside with Irving, to talk about his fashion—”He really didn’t want to do interviews, but he made an exception for me, so that was cool” McCollum said—and a conversation he wanted to have with the Spurs’ Jonathan Simmons.
“He’s a guy who went undrafted and has a great story about paying his way for a tryout in the D-League, which is amazing,” he said. “It shows how far he’s come being able to play for arguably one of the best organizations in the NBA historically in terms of  straight years of 50-win seasons.”
So what do his peers think of his interviews?
“They probably think that I’m better than what they thought. I think that’s the initial impression,” said McCollum, who was appeared on Sports Illustrated, The Players’ Tribune, NBA’s Facebook Live and “SportsCenter” during the 2016 NBA Finals. “They see me and they understand that I play and I know those guys, and then they see me put the suit on and they probably think it’s funny. And then they see that I actually know how to conduct an interview, and I think that loosens them up and allows them to see that, ‘Oh, he did go to school for this.'”
Now, McCollum is continuing to school the next generation of sports journalists through his Portland-based “Press Pass” program, as he launched its second-year initiative last month.
McCollum, who is the only active player with a journalism program, said the first year “went really well.” He partnered with Madison High School’s journalism club, which consisted of 31 students. And they covered events like Trail Blazers games and the Oregon Sports Awards, while getting a first-hand look at television production from NBA on TNT and Comcast SportsNet Northwest. In addition, content and social media professionals, from the Blazers to USA Today, showed the students the ropes with shadowing opportunities.
This year, McCollum has teamed up with the Prep2Prep organization, opening up the “Press Pass” student body to the Portland Public Schools district and Boys & Girls Clubs of Portland Metropolitan Area. And through the partnership, the students involved—who are accepted for their academics—are able to get paid writing about local high school sporting events, while receiving mentorship, networking contacts and personalized feedback from professional journalists.
“It’s unique because this year they’re going to have a chance to make money, covering different events across different sports and different levels of sports,” said McCollum, who was an assistant editor for Lehigh’s newspaper for three years. “So that’s the biggest thing—real life, mentorship on a day-to-day basis. That’s huge.”
One professional advisor 20 hand-selected high school students have already met is NBA on TNT sideline reporter Lewis Johnson, during the Feb. 13 Blazers-Hawks game. He allowed them to follow him behind the scenes, including inside the production trucks. They also toured the Moda Center and attended the postgame media availability.
“I think it’s just important for them to understand exactly what it entails,” McCollum said. “So that way, they can decide if it’s for them or not, if they really want to do it. That’s the biggest thing—seeing first-hand if this is the career I want to take and how good you can possibly be at it.”
Later this month, on March 24, the same group of teens from the Feb. 13 game will visit McCollum when he co-hosts—always alongside Terrance Scott a.k.a. Cool Nutz on Fridays from 10 p.m. to midnight—his “Playlist” show on JAM’N 107.5, Portland’s No. 1 station for hip-hop and throwbacks. During the show—where they discuss “whatever is going on in the world,” McCollum said, from the latest movies to Nicki Minaj and Remy Ma to Donald Trump—the teen with the best column, video or podcast from the Feb. 13 game will be featured.
He also hosts a weekly radio special, “The C.J. McCollum Show,” on iHeartRadio’s Rip City Sports Radio 620. The shooting guard, whose segments highlight the Blazers and air on Thursday mornings starting at 8:17 a.m., said his radio voice has become “like second nature.”
“It just comes naturally now, to the point where you just hit the switch and it comes on,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for so long.”
He first went on the airwaves during his rookie season in 2013-14, when he hosted “Year One with C.J. McCollum,” which ran on Sirius XM NBA Radio. In the past four years, some of his favorite guests have been ballers Rick Fox and Skylar Diggins, rappers Too Short and Sage the Gemini, talent from E! News and athletes across multiple sports.
And for his dream guest?
“I don’t have one besides Beyonce. We can always discuss Lemonade,” he said. “Obama, that would also be a good one.”
Also off the court, McCollum is expanding his Dream Centers to two more locations in Portland—one of which at another Boys & Girls Club—and he’s currently raising funds to support those spaces coming in the spring and fall of this year. The first Dream Center, which he personally funded and designed as an “innovative learning room,” opened last November in collaboration with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Portland Metropolitan Area.
He did everything from renovating the rooms with new furniture to providing laptops, headphones and other appliances to implementing a Code computer science curriculum to purchasing more than 200 culturally relevant books. With the Boys & Girls Club serving students from diverse cultural backgrounds, and to help them find inspiration through people of the same ethnicity, he chose books like Black All Around, Grandfather Counts, The Road to Santiago, Louis Socalexis: Native American Baseball Pioneer and Coming to America: A Muslim Family’s Story.
In addition, McCollum has set up a guest speaker series, which will include everyone from local entrepreneurs to some of his corporate partners, as well as literacy and exploration clubs—all to engage the youth in diverse educational and career opportunities.
“I know as a kid for me, I only knew what I saw—doctors, dentists, lawyers, drug dealers, rappers and athletes,” he said. “So it’s being able to tell them exactly what’s out there and show them that the world is a lot bigger than they see.”
His focus on exposure for the kids extends to his involvement with the Blazers’ Player Community Ticket Program, which is now in its second season. McCollum, along with a few other teammates, help send 120 Blazers fans to every home game. At the arena, he has his “C.J’s Crew” section, and his attendees represent different organizations he works with that cater to underserved communities and education.
“I’m thankful to have this platform and just trying to take advantage of it all,” he said.