PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The NBA has been suspended for nearly 100 days and Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum says it’s been some of the busiest of his career.
“I’ve been more busy now than I was in season,” McCollum said.
That’s partially because as a vice president of the NBA’s Player’s Association, McCollum has been one of the liaisons between the league and the rest of the players to make sure everyone feels as safe and taken care of as possible heading in the July restart in Orlando, more on that in a moment.
It’s also because McCollum has been putting the finishing touches on what he calls ‘a passion project he was able to bring to life: his own wine brand.
When I asked McCollum how he went from passionate wine drinker, to wanting to start his own brand, he laughed and said, “it’s a long process.”
The process began in college when his then-girlfriend Elise Esposito, introduced him to wine. It was far from love at first sip.
“I wasn’t a big fan of it early on, I don’t think my taste buds had evolved, I was used to the other stuff,” McCollum joked.
McCollum may not have loved wine, but he loved Elise and because she loved it, he learned to love it as well.
“As I kind of evolved and knew that she liked it I tried to learn more about it.”
Being drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers introduced McCollum to a world of wine he never knew.
“This is like the gold mind for Pinot Noir. You’ve got the Willamette Valley, you’ve got the Chehalem Mountains, you have so many different areas that allow you to taste so many different varietals around here, I was in wine heaven.”
Veterans of both the NBA and wine like then-teammate Evan Turner quickly took McCollum under their wing and the jump from dabbling in wine to becoming a connoisseur in his own right was as quick as his step-back on the court.
“We began to go to different wineries, different vineyards; fast-forward I purchase a house with a cellar I have to fill it up,” McCollum says with a grin. “I knew at that point I wanted to learn more about pinot, I wanted to take advantage of what was out here.”
McCollum partnered with Adelsheim Winery, the same vineyard who produced the Trail Blazers 50th Anniversary Commemorative Wine. They taught him everything he needed to know about the wine process, from how different soils add different flavors, the difference between stemmed and e-stemmed to the difference in turn-around time (champagne takes three years, Pinor Noir can take 10 months).
McCollum says he enjoyed learning about every aspect of the process, especially when it came to making, and tasting, probably the funnest part according to McCollum, the wine he wanted to put his name on.
And so McCollum Heritage 91 was born.
“The McCollum name means a lot to me, and I felt like it’s something we should include on the bottle” McCollum explained when describing how he settled on the name.
“Heritage is huge, understanding your lineage and where you come from,” McCollum shared after explaining the DNA testing he’s done to learn more about his African roots. “Heritage was also the street I grew up on in Canton, Ohio, so it felt like it was the right thing to do.”
The number 91 represents the year both he and his now-fiance Elise were born.
His first wine is the McCollum Heritage 91 2018 Chehelam Mountains Pinot Noir, available in September.
Teammates have come and gone in McCollum’s seven years in Portland, but having wine together on the road has been so constant, CJ is the one most responsible for which bottles the team orders at dinner.
“Typically I get the menu I get to pick it out,” McCollum said. “Coach Terry [Stotts] likes a lot of different cabs, so he orders the cabs, I order the different Oregon Pinots, then Geoff Clark, the head trainer, he orders a lot of different wines so we have a nice little system going.”
And McCollum isn’t shy about trying to convince his teammates to get on his wine level.
“It’s been cool to see how people have kind of evolved, [Damian Lillard] specifically he’s more of a white wine guy and I was like, ‘bro, you gotta stop drinking that stuff and move over to the red.’ Now he’s slowly started drinking red wine.”
Past teammates like Turner, the Clippers’ Moe Harkless, the Magic’s Al-Farouq Aminu and more have hit McCollum up, setting up wine dates for Orlando.
Which is what has taken up the largest chunk of McCollum’s time in quarantine: the logistics, details and safety protocol required to bring hundreds of people into a bubble to play a contact sport during a global pandemic.
“It’s been a hectic process I’ve been on the phone much more than I would like to be with calls about the restart, conference calls, talking to the executive committee, talking to the NBA, talking to players going back and forth, answering questions, talking about concerns trying to figure out how to make this as safe as possible.”
He’s an NBPA vice president, but he’s also one of the players who has to figure out personal logistics of getting ready to play and stay in Orlando, for what the Blazers hope will be a long time.
“You’re trying to get your life in order while still working out, while still training, and figuring out like what do I pack?
Despite all the logistics, McCollum feels confident the NBA is trying to do everything they can to protect players as they return to play.
“I think the NBA is trying to make it as safe as possible, trying to cross their t’s and dot their i’s and this is as smooth as it can be.”
The NBA has also sought to make it as comfortable as possible for players while they spend up to three months in the “bubble” in Orlando, Florida providing 24-hour VIP concierge, a players-only lounge where players can watch TV, play NBA 2K and game as well as access to pools, trails and providing manicurists, pedicurists and barbers.
That last part is particularly important to McCollum.
“I told them the other day I need a beautician readily available to braid my hair, because I’m going to rock braids for a little bit,” McCollum said with a smile.
After plans were finalized there was a players-only call that included McCollum, Carmelo Anthony, and Zach Collins from the Blazers in addition to nearly 80 players from around the league who expressed concern that playing basketball would take away from the calls for change for black people and people of color in America.
McCollum believes the impact the NBA and it’s players, about 70% of whom are black or people of color, can return to play and create the change they want to see in the world.
“I think there’s a way in which we go about it that we can impact society, more specifically black people and people of color in a positive light,” McCollum said. “Being able to use our platform, understanding there’s going to be millions and millions of people watching and that’s going to give us a great opportunity to put light on things, like voter suppression, like the inequality a lot of blacks are facing right now.”
McCollum specifically pointed to businesses as a place stark in it’s inequality. Of the 2020 Fortune 500 Companies, only 5 have black CEOs, a mere 1%. In the NBA, the majority of players are black or people of color, it is far from that on the executive level.
“We’re talking about a way to get more people of color in high positions of power. We have to be closer to 50% when 70%+ of the NBA is African-American. We’re good enough to play but why aren’t we good enough to be in positions of power? Or coach? So those are the types of things we’re trying to work on.”
“The NBA has been great in those conversations. We can’t demand equality from others until we demand equality from ourselves.”
Pipelines, internships, prioritizing and promoting black businesses; it’s all a part of the conversations players like McCollum are having with the NBA as they figure out how to return to play, that will be the start of a new normal.
“The big factor that I want to be a part of is the educational aspect, because there’s a lack of equality in how black students are treated, there’s a lack of equality in the school, in the school district. There’s a lot of schools out there that have security that carry weapons but don’t have guidance counselors so how do we better figure that situation out going forward?”
It starts with the platform they have in Orlando.
The Blazers are hoping they have a long time in the limelight in the Sunshine State, currently sitting 3.5 games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the final playoff spot in the West. Portland will be without Trever Ariza, who made the decision to opt-out to spend time with his son, but will be adding two familiar faces in center Jusuf Nurkic and forward Zach Collins, something McCollum knows will be a boost to his team.
“I think we’re in a position where we can do a lot of damage. Nurk coming back is going to be great, he looks great, he’s moving well I know he’s excited to play. Zach’s been itching to get back out there.”
“Really excited to see how we mesh together.”
The McCollum Heritage 91 2018 Chehelam Mountains Pinot Noir will be available to purchase September 15th.