CJ McCollum ’13, point guard for the National Basketball Association’s New Orleans Pelicans, entrepreneur and philanthropist, delivered the keynote address at Lehigh’s undergraduate Commencement Sunday, May 21, for the Class of 2023, sharing lessons learned on and off the basketball court in the decade since he graduated from Lehigh.
The undergraduate Commencement followed Saturday’s graduate Commencement and Doctoral Hooding Ceremony.
McCollum opened by reminiscing on his own Commencement a decade ago: “The last time I was in this stadium was 2013. Like you, my now-wife, Elise, and I paraded in our caps and gowns, our hopes and dreams stuffed in our sleeves.”
When speaking of the potential future career paths of the graduating seniors, McCollum referenced the changing landscape of the workforce as artificial intelligence (AI) becomes more robust and commonplace, and noted that a Lehigh education leaves graduates prepared to distinguish themselves beyond a degree.
“...Recruits need to differentiate themselves by more than a degree,” McCollum said. “Beyond your majors, Lehigh equipped you with increasingly valuable soft skills like critical thinking, ethics, empathy, resilience, flexibility and when needed, the ability to pivot.”
McCollum shared two personal examples of triumphing over adversity through dedication and hard work. The first time he overcame a devastating setback was during his sophomore year of high school, when, despite being promised a shooting guard position on the basketball team, the role went to a transfer student. Disappointed and coping with rejection, McCollum underperformed that year. The following summer, he resolved to become a stronger athlete; nearly every day, he woke at 5:30 a.m. for rigorous workouts, practiced throughout the day (shooting more than 1,000 shots daily), and rebounded with his father in the evening.
He then detailed what unfolded when he began his junior year, after a summer dedicated to improving his performance on the court.
“Game one of the season was my first career start. I went on to break the school record for points in a game and for three-pointers, shattering my career high of 18 points...three days later, I received a letter from Lehigh University,” McCollum said. “...By season end, I broke every school scoring record and averaged 25 points per game...and I was very excited about the work I put in to accomplish those goals. Without that big game, Lehigh may never have happened for me. But without the adversity and self-doubt, I wouldn’t have dug deep enough, or intentionally put in the work needed to succeed.”
The second story McCollum shared was from his sophomore year at Lehigh, when he was invited to compete for a spot on the Olympic basketball team. In his mind, he had secured the position, but was cut from the team after tryouts.
“I’ve never told this story, but at tryouts, each of us was given awesome gear, including [American flag] compression shorts with the team’s logo on it. After being cut...those shorts motivated me,” McCollum said. “It’s how we respond to and push through adversity that makes us the individuals we ultimately become. Most people walk away from their dreams just before they break through to success.”
McCollum continued, “It didn’t seem like it back then, but being cut from [USA basketball team] became my crucible. It made me hungry…and determined beyond reason. By the postseason, [Lehigh was] in the NCAA tournament facing Duke [University]. Then... on March 16, 2012 in the Greensboro Coliseum, Lehigh pulled off one of the greatest upsets in March Madness history! ...With that single game, I cemented my future as a lottery pick and changed the trajectory of my life.”