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Cool under pressure

ATLANTA -- The scream came out at the end. Long and loud and passionate. Sherron Collins let out a yell to release the pressure that had been enveloping his Kansas teammates in the final minutes of Tuesday night's 71-66 victory at Georgia Tech. As the final buzzer sounded, Collins chest-bumped Russell Robinson and No. 3 Kansas walked off Bobby Cremins Court with its undefeated record intact.

But this game wasn't pressure. Not in Collins' world. Growing up in Chicago with crime, drugs, gangs, violence. Losing a son. Having another. A friend shot and killed outside your apartment. That's pressure.

You think two free throws against Georgia Tech with eight seconds left in a one-point game on ESPN is going to bother this guy?

"It is hard to get too rattled out there," Collins said.

After Georgia Tech trimmed Kansas' lead from 13 points with five minutes remaining to one, Collins held the Jayhawks together, knocking down two free throws before sealing the game with a steal and layup on Georgia Tech's final possession.

Collins left Atlanta with the team and headed back to Lawrence, where his apartment was going to be a little emptier than when he left it. Sherron's girlfriend, Re'Quiya Aguirre, and their eight-month old son, Sherr'mari, left for Chicago Tuesday morning after a visit to Kansas.

"After the game, I was like, ahh, he's gone, so he won't be home when I get home, but it'll be all right," Collins said. "I go home Saturday to Chicago for Christmas break, so I'll see him soon. I got Christmas presents for him."

Sherr'mari is Sherron's second son. His first, Sherron Jr., died 10 days after he was born on June 3, 2006. The baby was four months premature, and Sherron was there when he died.

"It tore him up," said his mother, Stacey Harris.

Sherr'mari has brought joy back to Collins, who grew up facing challenge after challenge in Chicago's Julia D. Lathrop housing development. It was a dangerous place for Sherron and his older brother, Steve,to navigate.

"It is basically a community with an invisible 60-foot wall surrounding it," said Jim Pottinger, director of the Daniel A. Cotter Boys & Girls Club Collins used to frequent. "The people within the projects stay there. People outside never enter. It is pretty much all single-parent families with very, very low-income, if any. It is changing now, but when they were growing up, they saw gangs, drugs and violence every single day."

Harris worked two jobs and was rarely home, and the Boys & Girls Club became a refuge for Sherron and Steve from potential trouble. "[Sherron] was there almost 24/7," Pottinger said. "You can't even say it was his second home. It was his first home. He spent more time [at the Boys & Girls Club] than he did at his apartment."

While there is a belief that gangs stay away from recruiting promising athletes because of their potential to succeed, Pottinger says that isn't necessarily true until athletes reach high school.

"At one time, both Sherron and Steve were going on the wrong path in elementary school," Pottinger said. "In seventh and eighth grade, they struggled with their academics. He could have gone the other direction."

But Sherron found his way to Chicago Crane High, and under the tutelage of coach Anthony Longstreet and the help of his uncle Walter Harris, he survived academically and thrived on the basketball court.

"[When he got to high school], it was the first time I saw him bring a book bag to the club -- with actual books inside," Pottinger said.

Not everyone around Collins was able to avoid the ills of the neighborhood. While he was in high school, Sherron lost his friend Cedric Collins (no relation), who was shot in the head shortly after leaving Sherron's apartment. Stacey Harris says Sherron couldn't stand to be around the apartment and stayed with his uncle for two or three weeks after the incident.

Collins thrived on the court at Crane, winning two city championships and was named a McDonald's All-American as a senior. By then, basketball was his ticket, and the community knew it.

"The guys in gangs made sure Sherron and his older brother didn't get into gangs because they had this gift," Harris said.

Coming out of high school, there was some question as to whether he would qualify academically, but he did and Kansas was the beneficiary, winning out over Illinois. (Collins' brother, Steve, is playing in his second year at West Valley Junior College in Saratoga, Calif.)

The pressure wasn't completely lifted when he arrived at Kansas: Sherron battled weight problems as a freshman last season, but halfway through the year he started logging more minutes and was a key player on the Jayhawks' Elite Eight team. His 20 points, six rebounds and three assists help Kansas win the Big 12 tournament championship in overtime against Texas.

This season, Collins scored 22 points in the opener against Louisiana Monroe, but suffered a stress fracture in the second game against Missouri-Kansas City and missed the next six. The Georgia Tech game marked the third game since his return, but he's still shaking off the rust.

"He's not close to 100 percent," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "He's a guy that can break a defense down. You saw glimpses of it [Tuesday]. He can get his shoulders past people and make the game easier for others. Two weeks from now, he'll be playing at a much higher level because his health will be better."

A healthy Collins could be the difference between Kansas reaching its ultimate goal: the Final Four, and being just another good-but-not-good-enough team.

"When we struggle, it is usually because we run out of perimeter weapons," Self said. "If Brandon [Rush] is not on his game or if Mario [Chalmers] is not making shots, how do we score? It is good to have a guy like Sherron that you really don't have to run a play for. He gives us something we don't have."

Should the Jayhawks make the Final Four in San Antonio, Collins will have a little extra celebrating to do that weekend. On the Sunday after the national semifinals, Sherr'mari will celebrate his first birthday. "[Being at the Final Four] would be a nice birthday present," Sherron says.

But that's a long time off. For now, his girlfriend and son, mother and uncle and high school coach and members of the Cotter Boys & Girls Club will follow his success from afar.

"He's playing basketball in Lawrence, Kan.," said Longstreet, Collins' high school coach. "If there's something better than that, you let me know."

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