Collins' KU farewell ends in triumph

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As it turns out, nobody in Collins's family won the bet. Forget about making it through his speech without crying. He couldn't even make it to the speech without crying.

He passed the first test early Wednesday morning, when he opened his front door and discovered that his fellow students from his apartment complex had tied balloons to the doorknob. He remained composed as his teammates reminded him of the significance of every little thing he did throughout the day. "We let him know, this is the last time you're getting taped. This is your last pregame meal," said the Jayhaws' freshman swingman Xavier Henry. During a quiet moment before the team's pregame shootaround Thursday afternoon, Collins seemed dazed that his four years in Lawrence had gone by so fast. "It's hard to believe it's ending," he said. "I'm trying not to get caught up in all the emotion. I'm trying to approach this game the way I've always approached it."

Finally, as he walked onto the court during a pregame ceremony holding hands with his mother and uncle, he could hold back no longer. The tears were already pouring down Sherron's face as he emerged from the tunnel. He blubbered away as he embraced his coach, stood at center court while cheerleaders tossed carnations at his feet, held his framed jersey aloft and trotted back through the tunnel alongside his teammates.

His efforts to contain himself gone awry, Collins predictably struggled throughout the first half against the plucky Wildcats. By the time Collins entered the locker room for intermission, he had missed all but one of his nine field goal attempts, and he had both of the team's turnovers. It was mostly due to Henry's sharp shooting (5-for-6, 15 points) that Kansas still managed to build a 45-38 lead, but there was no way they were going to put away such a quality opponent with their leader in mental disarray. "Coach [Bill] Self told me at halftime to just settle down and relax," Collins said later. "I had to give myself a little pep talk."

Kansas State opened the second half with a 7-0 run to tie the score at 45, but Collins settled down from there and took over. By the time he hit his first three-pointer at the 9:47 mark, Kansas owned a 10-point lead and never looked back en route to a convincing 82-65 victory. Collins's numbers on the night were respectable -- 17 points on 5-for-15 shooting (1-for-7 from three), 4 assists and 3 turnovers --- but KU got the win.

That, of course, is the stat that will define his career here more than any other. This was Collins's 125th win in a Kansas uniform, which is more than any player has amassed during this program's long and storied history. Those wins include four Big 12 regular-season titles, two conference tournament championships and one NCAA title. And he is not through yet.

The daring and guile Collins has acquired through of all that experience is the one thing that separates Kansas from its chief competitors as the NCAA touranament approaches. Syracuse and Kentucky are both capable of winning a national championship, but both teams start a freshman at point guard -- John Wall at Kentucky, and Brandon Triche at Syracuse. Collins admires their gifts, but he does not envy their responsibilities. "The best thing for me as a freshman was that we had a lot of depth, so I was able to come off the bench," he said. "I bet it's hard to run a team like that as a freshman. I don't think I could have adjusted that quick. I thought I knew everything back then, but I really didn't."

Collins' maturation at Kansas has not been confined to the court. After the game Wednesday night, he chuckled while recalling the first time he walked into his dorm room and met his freshman roommate, Brady Morningstar, the skinny, pale kid from Lawrence. "I thought, Oh my God, I'm not going to make it," he said.

Morningstar also remembered Collins as the proverbial fish out of water, but despite the culture shock, Collins did not have any problems trusting his new roommate. "I remember he didn't have sheets that first weekend. I had to go home and get some sheets for his bed," Morningstar said. "I don't think he had been around a lot of white people. He told me about how rough his neighborhood was in Chicago, how there was a lot of violence and drugs, but people around him were smart enough to see that he had talent so they didn't put him in that boat. We spent a lot of time talking, and he spent a lot of time over at my parents' house. I love that dude, man. He's my brother."

Once he had dispatched the Wildcats on Wednesday night, Collins finally faced the moment he dreaded. After crying some more while standing arm-in-arm with his teammates as they watched a video montage on the overhanging scoreboard, Collins took the microphone and began to address the crowd of 16,000 fans, none of whom saw fit to leave just because the game was over.

"I don't know where to start," Collins said, "so I made out a card." He held the white card aloft, drawing laughter. He began giving thanks to members of the team's support staff -- the trainer, the academic advisor, the strength coach. When he started talking about Morningstar, he had to stop.

"Me and Brady have a unique relationship," he said as his voice quavered. "That's like my brother. Him and his mother and father, the Morningstars, they helped me settle in. Coming from a big city to small Lawrence, it was so hard. They accepted me as their child." As Collins spoke, Morningstar sat on the floor with his head buried.

He made his way through the coaching staff -- of Self he said, "I always thought he was picking on me ... but everything he said would happen has happened" -- and broke down again when acknowledging the two dozen or so friends and family who were there from Chicago. Finally, he gave his thanks to the fans. "Some teams lose and fans don't say nothing to 'em. We lose and we walk on campus, it's like we won 'cause you guys are just so happy to see us," he said. "Hopefully this ain't my last speech in the Fieldhouse."

We normally read about the kid from a small town who traveled to the city and made it big, but Collins built his legacy by taking the opposite path. Self reminded the players in the postgame locker room that Collins would never have been able to make a speech like that in front of a crowd so large four years ago. Whereas he once looked at an unfamiliar roommate and wondered if he would ever make it in Lawrence, he now looked at that same pale face and wished he never had to leave. Asked afterward what was going through his mind as the game's final minute ticked away, Collins replied, "I didn't want to go off the court. Just wanted the game to go on all night."

Alas, it had to end sometime. All that was left was for him to say goodbye the only way he knew how. "I think my teammates wanted to send me off with a win," Collins said afterward, dry-eyed at last. "The way it ended was perfect."