LeBron James might be a Laker, but this NBA offseason belonged to CJ McCollum.
It all started in late July, when McCollum hosted Kevin Durant on his podcast, Pull Up with CJ McCollum. At one point during their conversation, the two stars sized up the Western Conference. McCollum suggested his Trail Blazers had the talent to make a title run, right past Durant's Warriors.
Durant laughed. "I suggest you just keep playing man and don't worry about what goes on at the top of things," he said.
Their discussion continued on Twitter, where McCollum called Durant's decision to join Golden State in 2016 "soft." Durant, in a tweet, fired back with an all-timer—"I just did your fuckin' podcast"—and indirectly called McCollum a snake. Shortly thereafter, McCollum tried to put the feud to rest, but it was too late.
All the better. Pull Up had averaged roughly 20,000 downloads in the 15 episodes before Durant came on. The Durant episodes—the interview was broken into two parts—each cleared 105,000 downloads. Since then, Pull Up has tallied around 58,000 downloads per episode.
"I told KD, 'I'm gonna have to send you a more expensive bottle of wine, because I'm doing numbers on this podcast right now,'" McCollum says.
Across the NBA, player-hosted podcasts are making waves. McCollum's pod fueled one unforgettable Twitter beef, and it has now ensnared him in the Jimmy Butler drama. Pull Up has also featured sincere moments, like when Dwyane Wade opened up about the merits of therapy.
Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson form a rare players-only podcast tandem, and they've booked peers from the ever-busy LeBron James to Tristan Thompson at the height of his Kardashian-inspired frenzy. JJ Redick, Danny Green and Draymond Green each operate their own shows, too. MLB and NFL players have joined the party as well, headlined by CC Sabathia and the retired Arian Foster, respectively.
The format and results vary, but these player-podcasters have by and large found a formula that works.
While the shows might not constitute conventional journalism, complete with probing questions and sometimes awkward moments, they make for a trusting outlet where athletes can open up, learn about each other and deliver their messages safely.
"We give athletes a chance to talk about whatever they want," Jefferson says. "We cut out more good stuff than people would ever imagine. If [an interviewee] calls us and says, 'Hey, remember on my second glass of wine I said this—I think you should take that out.' Fine. We cut things because we don't want that drama. I just want your story."
In some sections of sports media, Jefferson worries, "It's less about the story, more about the headline. I think that takes away from the true story, away from what I think people would enjoy."
On Road Trippin', the goal for Jefferson and Frye is to make their guests feel at ease. They started their podcast as teammates in Cleveland, when the Cavaliers were the most scrutinized team in sports. Every loss was a disaster, and mild internal strife was front-page news.
"I started to see how things like social media could change the narrative of a team and how it's viewed," Jefferson says.
"The way they perceived our locker room wasn't as tight as it really was," Frye says. "It was just like, 'Dude, we're a really close team!'"
That dynamic has been easy to observe on Road Trippin', which adopted a free-flowing approach. Its debut episode featured Kyrie Irving solely because he happened to wander into the training room where Jefferson and Frye were recording. They do no preparation for each interview, Frye says with glee. And yes, interviews involve wine consumption, which adds "a very new element to the sports world," as Jefferson notes.
Other player-hosted podcasts are a bit more structured.
McCollum, whose show is produced by the Cadence13 podcast network, researches each interview subject and prepares questions in advance. He is largely striving to make idolized athletes relatable.
"Getting superheroes and All-Stars talking about times when things weren't going their way or when they had doubts is great for society," he says.
McCollum has not only discussed the benefits of therapy with Wade, but he delved into literature with Jaylen Brown and comedy with Blake Griffin.
"It's a brotherhood in all of this," he says. "There's a mutual respect level you have for NBA players because you know what it takes to get here—the struggles, problems, injuries, doubts, pressure. [These] people are the backbone of the family—everyone's problems are their problems. We can relate. So just to have a genuine conversation with someone who doesn't want something from you is crucial."
McCollum, who studied journalism at Lehigh and served as an editor at the school's paper, has also expanded his focus beyond the NBA and its players. He often talks about his hometown Cleveland Browns with admirable expertise, and he welcomed Billions co-creator Brian Koppelman (a podcaster himself) onto the pod in June.
To McCollum, the pod is part of a bigger calling. That's evident in his work as a contributor at the Players' Tribune, where he once authored a piece titled "Why Journalism Matters." In the prime of his basketball career, the Blazers guard is building a mini media empire.
Naturally, McCollum understands headlines sometimes rule the day. That lesson was underscored in the aftermath of the Durant interview.
Over the summer, McCollum went on China Central Television and responded passionately to a question about the Monstar-esque Warriors, calling the idea of forming a superteam via free agency "disgusting"—twice. His comments were then quoted and thrown back at him on Twitter, where he tried to explain and defend himself to little avail. A Warriors fan named Jennifer Williams told McCollum to "win a playoff game then talk," as the Pelicans swept McCollum's Blazers out of the first round in April. In response, McCollum tweeted an instant classic: "Im trying Jennifer."
"It was unfortunate that some guys blew it out of proportion, but that's life," he says.
Far from being sworn enemies, McCollum and Durant get along well, going back to when the former attended the latter's skills academy as a young baller. McCollum wasn't even bothered by the Durant tweet that warned of "snakes in the grass."
"I thought that was perfect—hilarious," McCollum says.
"People take life too seriously at times," he adds. "Some people are just trying to get a reaction, or internet famous. I always say common sense ain't common. You can't win over everybody. There's some people out there that think LeBron can't hoop, that [Michael] Jordan's not good."
People such as Jennifer?
"Shout-out to Jennifer!" McCollum says. "We're trying out here."