Growing up in Canton, Ohio, C.J. McCollum viewed sports as one of the only avenues to a better life.
The sweet-shooting guard became a rare success story, catapulting from Lehigh University to the NBA lottery before cementing himself as part of one of the league's best backcourts in Portland.
But McCollum knows few can make it out of Canton, or any town, to the NBA, and that's why he has been so dogged in his push to help children learn to read. His efforts to promote education and literacy in his new home of Portland earned the Trail Blazers guard the NBA Cares Community Assist award for November.
''Growing up in the inner city, a lot of kids didn't think reading was cool,'' McCollum said in a phone interview on Wednesday. ''I'm trying to show them that it is cool and the importance of growing and learning outside of their everyday lives, which is a lot of times sports. Sports are a lot of times our way out.''
McCollum was a journalism major in college, and that background drove home the importance of being able to consume information and open new and different possibilities. In November, McCollum teamed up with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Portland to open his first C.J. McCollum Dream Center. McCollum funded the project and picked out many of the amenities, from the colors on the walls to the 200 books on the shelves, 12 computers and furniture.
He has also been integral in building the center's curriculum, which includes guest speakers who educate children about various careers available to them. He also has developed the ''C.J.'s Press Pass'' program with Portland public schools to get high school students interested in journalism, and has even paid for the articles they write.
''It's crucial because you only know what you see,'' McCollum said. ''Growing up in the inner city, you might not see a lot of different career paths and different jobs. I know these kids will definitely appreciate seeing different career paths and learning how the speaker got to this point.''
McCollum, who is averaging a career-high 22.5 points per game and shooting 44.8 percent from 3-point range, said his goal is to open two dream centers per year over the next 10 years. He plans to start in the Portland area before eventually taking them back home to Canton.