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For C.J. McCollum and Brother Errick, Basketball Always Brings Them Back to Canton

CANTON, Ohio -- C.J. McCollum could hear the whispers around GlenOak High School in Plain Township, just outside his hometown of Canton, Ohio. He had followed in the footsteps of his older brother—Errick, a senior at the time—to join the Golden Eagles’ boys’ basketball team. But as a 5’2”, 108-pound freshman, with braces on his teeth and a jersey hanging down to his knees, C.J. became a prime target of disdain.

C.J. only made varsity because of his brother, the other students at GlenOak would gossip.

They weren’t the only ones who judged C.J. by his cover. One night in 2005, when C.J. and Errick were out to eat, a student from Hoover High School—GlenOak’s rival in North Canton—approached them. He told Errick that C.J. wasn’t good, certainly not good enough to make varsity without the last name McCollum—much less go on to play college basketball. Errick wouldn’t stand for it.

“I'm the younger brother, so I'm usually one to start stuff,” C.J. tells CloseUp360 over dinner at The Twisted Olive in Canton this past summer. “And Errick's arguing with this dude. I'm, like, 'Bro, don't waste your time arguing like this.'

“[Errick’s], like, 'Nah, he don't understand. He doesn't understand. Watch, my brother's gonna get a scholarship, he's gonna go to college and he's gonna go to the NBA.' And the guy's, like, 'Yeah, right, he's gonna go to the NBA. Yeah, right!'”

While the hate irked Errick, it motivated C.J. He channeled that disbelief into an eye-opening first year on the court.

“Getting buckets, man,” C.J. says with a grin. “I was averaging about 20 a game in about three quarters at 5’2”.”

Since then, C.J. has blossomed into a mainstay of the Portland Trail Blazers' backcourt, alongside All-Star Damian Lillard. Errick, meanwhile, has made a name and a career for himself in Asia and Europe. This year, Errick’s annual journey has him returning to Kazan, Russia, to play for BC UNICS—a 10-hour time difference and more than 5,400 miles from C.J.’s in-season home in Oregon.

Despite that disparity in time and space, the McCollums have managed to stay close to one another while maintaining a connection to their roots in the Hall of Fame City—all through the game of basketball.

Canton holds a special place in the McCollum brothers’ hearts. It’s where they grew up, went to school and put themselves in position to eventually play hoops professionally.

Separated by three and a half years, Errick and C.J. were typical brothers in their early days. Disagreements, sparring—anything that siblings do, they did it. During those spats, their father, Errick Sr., would intervene with a message they’ve carried with them throughout life.

“At the end of the day, he let us know that, 'You have nobody, but each other. If something happened to me or your mother, you can only depend on each other,'” Errick says. “And we just kinda kept that mindset and that's just how I view it."

As Errick Sr. helped settle any disagreements between the two, the brothers’ mother, Kathy Andrews, was the one to demand that a seven-year-old Errick include C.J. in everything he did—much to the elder’s chagrin.

"I think when we were younger, being the older brother, having older friends and stuff, you kinda want to go to your own march of your drum,” Errick recalls. “You want to go your own places. Sometimes you don't want your little brother tagging along.”

Over time, Errick not only got used to having C.J. around, but also grew to enjoy his little brother’s presence and appreciate his mom’s insistence that they hang out together.

“Anywhere I would go, my mom would make sure that C.J. would be right along with me," Errick says. "She would never allow me to go if he wasn't. I'm trying to, like, leave or trying to find a way to exit stage left, and she was, like, 'If you go, he goes.' So just from that moment, we always developed that friendship, me not considering even going anywhere without him. And that relationship just kinda strengthened over time.”

As they grew older, so did their bond. Although they were only in high school together for one year, C.J. and Errick were inseparable. When Errick first got his driver’s license as a sophomore, he would give rides to C.J. and fellow Canton native and eventual NBA veteran Kosta Koufos, who was a freshman at the time.

Both Errick and Kosta were on GlenOak’s varsity team in spite of their young age. C.J. joined them as soon as he arrived in 2005.

“When you're younger players playing with upperclassmen, sometimes there's a little bit of hate, a little jealousy,” Errick says. “So we always had each other to depend on.”

Long before C.J. was balling, Kathy decided against enrolling him in preschool. Since it was only part-time and the boys’ parents were divorced, they needed to make sure he could be in a place where someone was watching him the whole time.

So Kathy placed her younger son into kindergarten. She figured C.J. would struggle, and if he did, she could hold him back a year.

“But he didn't,” Errick says. “He thrived, he did well, so all along he was a grade ahead of where he was supposed to be.

"And so, his whole life, I'd just seen how he was dominant for kids his age and he always was playing with us. You're talking about kids who were three and a half years older than him. And then, I'm playing with kids who are also older than me, so now you're talking about five years older, six years older. So he was forced to mature earlier."

That benefitted C.J. in the long run. In the eight years he spent at GlenOak and Lehigh University, he was no longer known as the smallest player on the team—just the best.

C.J. McCollum

As a child, C.J. skipped preschool and went straight into kindergarten. (Cody Byler)

Before C.J. opened the eyes of NBA teams at his mid-major school, Errick carved a different path to the pros. The elder McCollum brother accepted a scholarship to Goshen College, an NAIA school more than 30 miles east of South Bend, Indiana. Prioritizing his education in business, he didn’t expect to catch the eyes of scouts—at least not those in the Association.

A four-time NAIA Division II All-American, Errick finished his collegiate career as the Maple Leafs’ all-time leading scorer (2,798 points), earning Mid-Central Conference Player of the Year and first team NAIA Division II All-American honors. That sustained excellence caught the attention of Barak Netanya (now Elitzur Ironi Netanya), a club in the Israeli National League, with which Errick began his professional career in the fall of 2010.

Nearly nine years later, the 31-year-old is just starting his second season with BC UNICS in Russia, following stints in China, Greece and Turkey that came on the heels of his time in Israel. Along the way, Errick won four straight titles in The Basketball Tournament with Overseas Elite and has stacked up accolades around the world—two All-EuroCup selections, two Chinese scoring titles, a Turkish Cup—but none compare to his accomplishments from the 2015-16 season.

On Turkish powerhouse Galatasaray, Errick was named EuroCup MVP while leading the Istanbul-based club to its first EuroCup championship. In late April 2016, he flew out most of his family—including Errick Sr., who’s uneasy about long flights—to watch that memorable run. 

C.J., though, couldn’t join. Fresh off a breakout campaign in which he averaged 20.8 points per game, the younger McCollum was busy helping the Blazers defeat the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs.

That instance aside, C.J. has visited Errick in Greece, Turkey and China. Israel wasn’t an option, since C.J. was still in college at the time, but he plans to add Russia to his family travel log soon.

Hectic schedules and commitments to their craft make it difficult for C.J. and Errick to stay in touch with each other during the season, though modern technology has made it easier for them to keep up. So, too, has Blazers' video coordinator and player development coach Jonathan Yim, who loads Errick’s games onto C.J.’s devices and helps with troubleshooting when the various streaming apps aren’t working.

“Playing in Europe in the '90s and even the early 2000s compared to playing in Europe now is completely different,” C.J. says. “Obviously you can live stream games. You got all those different apps and I'm able to watch games in HD on my iPad anywhere.”

When the Blazers are in Portland, C.J. typically watches Errick on his laptop before film sessions and during treatment at the team’s practice facility. When he’s on the road or Errick changes countries, C.J. adjusts his day accordingly.

Reversing the roles isn’t quite as easy with 10 hours between time zones. If Errick wants to catch C.J. live, he’ll have to either stay up through the night or wake up in the wee hours of the morning. If he can’t, the replay is always available on NBA League Pass.

“You get used to it once you get that sleep pattern going,” Errick says. “You kinda find his windows of when he's open and available, and the same with me. And then, you just stay consistent there, and then that's where you can keep your relationship as if you never left."

Though C.J. lives in the U.S., Errick visits Canton more often. It’s especially rare for both brothers to be home, but when they are, they work out together—whether at Walsh University, GlenOak, The Martin Center, the Greater Stark County Urban League or the J. Babe Stearn Community Center.

From childhood to the present day, the McCollums have always brought out the best in each other.

"I think you've just got someone to push you, someone who's gonna be honest with you,” Errick says. “When you're playing bad, when you're playing good, never gonna be someone that's gonna tell you lies or make you feel good about yourself. And I think that's something that you can't replace.

“Because I think often times the more success you have, the more people want to tell you how good you are or how great you are. So those people—maybe it's a few, maybe it's one person—who will keep it honest with you and let you know when you're not playing to your level, or you're not putting in the work that you need to put in. I think that is what allows players to have the career that they need to have, and it makes them invaluable."

This past July, C.J. signed a three-year, $100 million contract extension with the Blazers. Despite the good news, there wasn’t a party planned or anything out of the ordinary. Spending time with family was their first priority.

“We got all life to celebrate,” C.J. says.

And though he congratulated his brother upon hearing about the contract before it was finalized, Errick wasn’t taken aback by it. He’d seen the player that C.J. had become and how Portland had benefited.

“First time, it's more a surprise—the first contract,” Errick says. “Like, 'Oh, okay.' Like after his career, what happened. Then the second time, you don't want to take it for granted, but you kinda expected it. You seen it coming, especially when you see the figures going around the league, you'd seen guys getting re-signed. I know they made it further than any time they ever had at the Western Conference [this past spring]. So I figured it was a matter of time before Portland gave him the extension."

In September 2018, C.J. got engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Elise Esposito. This past July, Errick married his, Brittny Turner. Since both relationships began, Elise and Brittny have become close. Outside of supporting C.J. and Errick when they’re on the hardwood, the four of them take trips together when they can.

With C.J. and Elise’s wedding still nearly a year away, Errick has yet to plan out his brother’s bachelor party.

“I think that we got plenty of time to kinda figure out what I'm gonna do and how we're gonna execute it,” C.J. says. “Right now, it's just about getting ready for the season and, like we always say, you cross the next bridge when you get to your wife.”

Those offseason excursions aside, the McCollums prefer to keep things simple. For C.J., the “happy moments” come not from nights on the town or thrills fulfilled, but rather flipping on Netflix, settling in for a long nap, cuddling up with a good book or hearing his personal chef say, “Food is ready.”

"My life's boring, man,” C.J. says. “It's entertaining and then it's boring.” 

That lack of excitement is by design. Whether in-season or off, C.J., like Errick, takes diligent care of his body. He enjoys working out “for the most part,” but when his body gets sore, C.J. seeks relief through massage and hot yoga.

“We don't really do much,” Errick continues. “I mean, in the season, we're focused, just tailored to being locked in. So a lot of times, what you do has to be less physical or less tiring. We keep it simple, but if you take away TV shows and sleeping, that's high on the list.”

The brothers’ personalities are similar: as outgoing and friendly as they come. C.J. jokes that the clearest distinction between the two is that he’s light-skinned. 

Life after basketball isn’t something the McCollums have thought about all too often, but it is in the back of their minds.

C.J. has already put his degree in journalism to good use. He’s done sit-down interviews as a host, and has shown his talents in front of the television cameras and behind the microphone. His Pull Up podcast with Jordan Schultz is a hit with NBA fans and listeners everywhere.

When Errick is done playing, he feels his business degree can take him anywhere from human relations to marketing to sales, either in the world of sports or elsewhere.

“It's something that we're gonna have to think about as we progress,” Errick says of their post-career lives. “I'm 31. He's 28. And we just want to be ready to make that transition, so I guess now we're practicing and just preparing because at that age, you still want to do something. 

“Even though we're financially blessed, you still want to be productive and maybe make a difference in society doing something or maybe helping people, and I think that's important to me and my brother."

On a sizzling, sunny summer afternoon, the McCollums hosted their second annual two-day basketball camp at the J. Babe Stearn Community Center in Canton for 100 local kids between the ages of six and 16. The campers spent part of the proceedings rotating across drill and skill stations, with C.J. and Errick hopping around to offer hands-on instruction. The brothers also taught attendees the ins and outs of screen setting and off-ball cutting, showed them how to play a hoops-infused version of "Simon Says," and ate lunch while watching the young ballers scrimmage on two courts.

The McCollums concluded the camp with a half-hour Q&A session and a special giveaway. C.J. handed out a Trail Blazers jersey and gear from Rip City, and Errick dispensed autographed posters and other goodies. The smiles on the campers’ faces said it all.

“I went to a lot of different kids camps. I’d seen how it changed my life, how it affected me, the friendships that developed and the competitiveness that it brings out, and it was a no-brainer for us to just try to figure out how to do it,” C.J. says. “And once I pulled out of USA [Basketball], there were some open dates and I just tried to line this thing as soon as possible."

“It’s important to always have roots at home,” Errick says. “Even if you can’t be here often—like me being abroad all the time, C.J. being on the west coast—any time you get an opportunity to come home, it’s an inspiration sometimes to the kids in the city.

“Because they look at you and anything you did, they feel like they can attain that as well just because you came from where they come from. It’s not unattainable. It seems realistic, or just being able to be around certain type of people. At least for when I was a kid and when C.J. was a kid, that’s how we felt when we met people who were in a profession that maybe we desired, or we had interest in doing something that they were doing.”

Between Oregon and Ohio, C.J. has been doing kids camps since his second season in the NBA. He remembers when fellow Canton native and NBA point guard Eric Snow opened his doors for local youngsters with big dreams, so the Trail Blazers guard aspires to leave his own mark in the same way.

“I like basketball. The kids like basketball,” C.J. says. “A way to give back, but also teaching them life skills. Summertime, it’s a dead period. You got travel basketball, you got summer school programs. We’ve got a lot of kids playing video games, so how do you get ‘em out the house, but still make it fun and interactive?”

C.J. Errick McCollum

C.J. and Errick hosted their fourth annual basketball camp in Canton this past summer—their second at the J. Babe Stearn Community Center. (Cody Byler)

C.J.’s community work has gone beyond basketball camps. In September 2018, he opened a Dream Center at the Blazers Boys and Girls Club, where underserved youth can learn, explore, create and grow using new computers, books, art and other technological tools.

Since he doesn’t live in Ohio full time, C.J. can’t manage a Dream Center from across the country. So while he hopes to bring one to Canton, his main priority back home is to continue with his basketball clinics.

“I'm 28, so we got hopefully a lot of time to do those things," C.J. says.

For C.J. and Errick, their career paths through the game inspire the work they do with the kids camps. If the McCollum brothers could find success on the court, despite a deficit of size and athleticism, so can the next generation of Cantonian hoopers.

“To see a picture of C.J. when he was 5’2” or a picture of me when I was 5’5” as a freshman, it gives 'em hope,” Errick says. “Maybe you'll grow or maybe you can still succeed in being who you want to be.”

“It's always nice to see people happy, see people actually enjoying your presence, enjoying the knowledge you're passing to them,” C.J. says. “Being able to interact and just giving them a different type of experience that they normally don't get to have, that's always cool."

Once scrawny kids with droopy jerseys, C.J. and Errick are now pillars of the community in Canton, even though they mostly live and work thousands of miles away. As for that person who, in 2005, told C.J. what he couldn’t do, what he wouldn’t accomplish? Well, let’s just say, those two have reconnected.

“I told Errick, 'Guess who I got tickets to a game for the other day?' He asked me who,” C.J. says. “I'm not gonna give him the publicity of saying his name, but I do give him tickets.

“I told my fiancee the story later, and she was, like, 'He is so excited to be there. He took a t-shirt home.' And I was, like, 'Good. I hope he soaked it all up and enjoyed it, and remembers the conversation we had over 10 years ago.'”

Sweet, sweet vindication.

“It was just like a good wake-up call for him to understand that,” C.J. says. “Be careful what you say to people and understand that anything is possible. And don't ever cast your doubt or your fears on your perception of what's possible onto others because you can't do it, because you think it's not real. And I'm glad he was able to experience that game and see who I really am."

 

Spencer Davies is a veteran NBA writer based in Cleveland. Follow him on Twitter.

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