While in college at the University of Portland, a speech by an unlikely activist – Jeremiah Wright, one of the ministers involved in the violent 2008 anti-Obama protests in the Black Panthers’ headquarters – left an indelible mark on McCollum, his coach and teammates. The outspoken minister insisted that those protesting an African-American president could have lived normal lives and never descended into violence – and that athletes should be glad to have someone like President Barack Obama breathing down their necks.
“I definitely heard Jeremiah Wright speak in my dorm,” McCollum said in a phone interview Monday. “He gave a speech about the idea that if black people are not smart enough to read, that they should carry a Bible and follow the 11th Commandment, which basically says you shouldn’t tear anybody else down.
“When I heard him speak, I felt like he was one of us. I thought that he lived in our world.”
On Sunday, before Portland’s game against the Brooklyn Nets, McCollum was introduced to a different type of witness. Aldon Smith, the 49ers outside linebacker recently released from jail after pleading no contest to multiple weapons charges, testified against Harris and another man when they were accused of robbing him after a Sacramento Kings game last year. Smith spoke about the assault so long ago that he couldn’t remember his own injuries. But he was clear when asked to describe Harris.
“Tell everybody you’re starting from where you came from. You got a brother that thought he could mess with you and blow your head off,” Smith said. “And then we could go to the Brentwood and get another chance. People might start to say, ‘Damn, this guy wanted to rob him and almost killed him.’ That’s what you hear in the news about it.”
McCollum, 22, has noticed there have been few news headlines about the men’s demeanor on the court since their arrests. He’s been surprised by the response to his passion for wine, which he spoke about in an episode of the podcast “Wine Country Conversations” that was released Friday. He intended it as more of a message of brotherhood than alcohol.
But the video quickly began to gain national attention. A commentary on ESPN called McCollum “disruptive” and mentioned another young man from Portland, Ron Curry, who was once jailed for beating a black man to death after a night out on the town in 2004.
“Ron Curry’s murder created such a buzz in Portland that his death came as a shock, and as much of a blow as it is, this isn’t much of a surprise,” ESPN said.
McCollum is happy, however, that so many people see him as an example of the changing demographics of the city – a majority-minority community that lately has seen growing racial tension, particularly within the black community.
He counts his friend Nneka Ogwumike, the WNBA MVP who grew up around him and now plays for the Los Angeles Sparks, among his role models. But he also appreciates the actor Paul Rudd, who has a large home in Portland and spends time hanging out with the team. McCollum and Jordan Crawford also collect bottles of wine in a sort of regular ritual.
McCollum is still at a place where he prefers to work on such issues, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have time to talk about them with his coach and teammates. McCollum has noticed an increase in racial tension in the league, partly due to tough calls like the increased scrutiny on calls for flagrant fouls. But he also believes it has been fueled by off-the-court situations.
“Some of the teams are going through what some of our culture has gone through, what some of our families have gone through,” McCollum said. “People have got to understand – it’s not black people. We love our country, and we want it to be great. That goes back to what the 11th Commandment is: You’re not supposed to do anything to hurt anybody. That’s from the Black Panthers. We feel this is where we come from.”