When an 18 year-old CJ McCollum arrived at the Lehigh University campus in 2009, he did so as a 6-1, 155 pound three-star guard whose scholarship from the Mountain Hawks was the only offer he received. He returned to Bethlehem, PA Sunday afternoon under decidedly different circumstances.
After finishing his career at Lehigh as the leading scorer in Patriot League history, leading the Mountain Hawks to one of the greatest upsets in NCAA Tournament history and being the only player in school history to play in the NBA, Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum had his No. 3 jersey retired in an emotional ceremony during halftime of Lehigh’s 73-71 loss to Holy Cross at Stabler Arena.
“It’s a blessing to be in that position where you get your jersey retired, be honored in that manner,” said McCollum. "I’m thankful, put a lot of time in, spent a lot of late nights in that gym, a lot of sacrifice but it’s nice to see everything kind of come full circle. I’m thankful.”
McCollum, who averaged 21.3 points on 44 percent shooting from the field and 38 percent shooting from three, 6.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.1 steals over the course of 111 collegiate games, ranks as Lehigh’s second-leading scorer in school history with 2,361 points and helped the lead the Mountain Hawks to two of their six NCAA Tournament appearances.
The now 6-3, 190 pound guard led Lehigh to two Patriot League Championships and was twice named conference Player of the Year. And he’ll forever be known for leading the 15th-seed Mountain Hawks in an 2012 NCAA Tournament upset against the 2nd-seed Duke Blue Devils. And as a true scholar-athlete, McCollum actually earned his degree in journalism despite having the opportunity to leave early.
“I ended up making Dean’s list a few times down the stretch of my career,” said McCollum. “I put a lot of time in, I balanced my time well and took advantage of everything Lehigh had to offer. I’m grateful for the opportunity and thankful I was able to get a degree from a school like Lehigh and also represent them in the NBA.”
Since getting his degree, McCollum was drafted by the Trail Blazers with the 10th overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft, was named the NBA’s 2016 Most Improved Player and signed a lucrative four-year contract. As the only player in school history to make the NBA, let alone achieve the level of success McCollum has, he usually draws crowds of Lehigh alumni, especially when the team ventures east.
“A lot of places we go on the road, even on the west coast, the Lehigh people come out,” said McCollum. “They’ve always supported me, always rooted and wanted the best for me even when I wasn’t playing, so I’m grateful and thankful.
“I’m the only one, so I think it means a lot more to them just because of the understanding of what it takes to get to this level. Being the only guys being able to accomplish it up to this point just kind of shows that anything is possible and that if you work hard and do things the right way, you’re rewarded in the long run.”
Now, Lehigh has rewarded McCollum by lifting his jersey to the rafters at Stabler Arena. While it’s possible that another Lehigh will some day join McCollum in the NBA, there will never be another No. 3 taking the court for the Mountain Hawks.