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  • John Collins comes from a military family. On Memorial Day—and every day—he remembers the sacrifices his mother and father made for him.
By Alaa Abdeldaiem
May 27, 2019

It hit him—the overwhelming feeling of gratitude and respect, the magnitude of the struggle and sacrifice his mother and father had to endure—as he was getting ready to move from Washington to South Florida in 2010.

John Collins was only 14 years old when his mother, Lyria, decided to retire from 21-plus years of serving in the Air Force. The pair was ready to start a new chapter in their lives, move closer to family members still living in Lyria’s native home in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

But local community members wouldn’t let them leave without a proper send off. Collins—now coming out of his second NBA season with the Atlanta Hawks—remembers witnessing a flood of people embracing his mother, thanking her for her sacrifice and service. They honored her. Praised her. Cherished her.

And in that moment, Collins realized he’d be doing the same for the rest of his life.

“It just all hit me all at once,” Collins told Sports Illustrated. “Just to see all the people come and give their gratitude, the magnitude and respect I had toward military parents started to grow even more. It was in that moment, when I saw the culmination of all of those years of service, that it started to solidify what her service meant to her, meant to people and meant to me. Now, I feel it every day.”

It’s easy to see why. A much-improved sophomore season with the Hawks has Collins shaping up to be the 2017 NBA draft’s best-kept secret. After missing the start of the 2018 season with an ankle injury, Collins’s December was about as good as it can get for a young big man: 21.3 points and 12.9 rebounds in 31.9 minutes a night on 57.3% shooting.

He averaged 20.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game over the final 53 contests—shooting 55.7% from the floor and 37.3% from beyond the three-point arc—and finished the season averaging 19.5 points and 9.8 rebounds in 30.0 minutes per game. He was named a Rising Star for the second straight year and took part in the All-Star Weekend dunk contest.

All that, and he’s still just 21 years old.

“I can’t even begin to describe the amount of growth I feel like I’ve experienced, even if you take away the basketball aspect,” Collins said in reflection of his sophomore season. “Living the life of a professional athlete alone helped me mature in so many ways. I feel like the basketball was going to handle itself. Getting better for me is not a big deal; I know I have to go in and put in a ton of work. But off the court, the journey I have been on has been one of a kind.”

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It’s a journey that couldn’t have started without the sacrifice of his parents, however. Throughout his mother’s time in the Air Force and his father John’s years in the Navy, Collins’s family was regularly on the move. He was just one year old when they separated while his father was in Washington and he and his mother remained in Utah, where Collins was born.

The two sides were reunited with joint military orders to Guam on a base that housed both branches shortly afterward. When he was three, Collins and his mother moved to Turkey on special orders while his father returned to Washington.

Matters became more difficult for Collins’s family after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. As a non-combatant, Collins was forced to leave the foreign base and move in with his grandparents in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It wasn’t until a year had passed that the family was reunited in Washington on a base near Tacoma, where they stayed for nearly nine years.

“It wasn’t easy for my mom, who grew up on the islands with her family always around, to be so far away from them,” Collins said. “And it wasn’t any easier not really having lifelong friends to rely on as many people would, spending their whole life in a town or state.”

But Collins and his mother made the most with what they had. Taught to always keep things in perspective during the constant changes, Collins learned to see the positives in every situation. One of those benefits became Collins’s ability to travel the world at such a young age, an upside the power forward said taught him “how to be versatile and adapt to new environments.”

“Not having a place to call home truly throughout my childhood showed me how to make new friends and talk to other people and be a more interactive person as I got older,” Collins said. “That’s something that still benefits me till this day.”

Collins also had basketball. At first just an avenue his mother used to help him stay active, Collins began to realize that basketball was also a means to building lasting relationships and practicing discipline.

Before long, Collins couldn’t not be on a court. He started joining teams on military bases at the age of seven, keeping his love for the game alive until he moved to Florida in 2010. There, his mother continued to invest in his development, signing him up for travel teams and encouraging Collins to “be the best I can be.”

Collins always knew he wanted to play in the NBA, but it wasn’t until his senior year at Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach, Fla. that he started to wonder if he actually could.

“I was never considered a top recruit coming out of high school, but I knew I had a good shot of going Division I,” Collins said. “The NBA is a big step, though, and you have to either kind of be fathered into the league, or have a nice trail of hype coming in. I didn’t have either of those things, and it was about figuring out if I could make it and what the best way to do that was.”

Together, Collins and his mother decided that attending Wake Forest was the answer.

They were right.

Despite averaging an underwhelming 14.4 minutes and 7.3 points his freshman year at Wake, Collins started turning heads with an impressive 26.6 minutes and 19.2 points a contest during his sophomore campaign, earning himself ACC Most Improved Player honors and a slot on the First-Team All-Conference squad in the process.

Atlanta was so impressed with his growth they nabbed him with the 19th pick in the 2017 draft.

“Going No. 19, regardless of the spot, it was an amazing, life-changing moment forever,” Collins said. “That was the first step of all that sacrifice paying off.”

It didn’t take long for Collins and his mother to see the rest of it to come to fruition. The young Hawk tallied at least 13 points and five boards in five of his first seven NBA games, making his presence known with hustle, scrappy rebounding and an insane amount of jams by the time his rookie campaign came to an end. As a result, Collins was named to the NBA’s 2017-18 All-Rookie Second Team.

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And with a strong outing in his second season, Collins—joining forces with rookie standout Trae Young—believes he gave the team a glimpse of the promising future ahead.

“It was definitely very impressive to see Trae step in and play the way he played, especially for a guy his size,” Collins said. “To see him step up and take a leadership role and play the way he was playing, there’s a reason why he’s a candidate for the Rookie of the Year award.

“As a team, we’re very young, but we’re all trying to make the playoffs,” Collins added. “We have great chemistry with each other already, have another year to add on to that, and with Trae and Kevin [Huerter] both on the rookie team this year, it shows you the pieces we have to play with, potentially coupled with two more young guys to come in. We can definitely make a playoff push this upcoming year and just continue to grow and develop as a young core.”

Before preparations for the 2019 season begin, however, Collins decided to take the time to remember his military roots, volunteering with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) Good Grief Camp during Memorial Day weekend.

The event took children who have lost a loved one in the Armed Forces on a tour of the Pentagon and 9/11 Memorial in Washington, D.C., before hosting a Jr. NBA clinic for the youth. Collins helped expose approximately 300 campers between the ages of four and 18 to a positive, supportive outlet to cope with their loss.

“This volunteer opportunity called out my name,” Collins said. “I just hope that the kids learn that, although their mentors and life leaders are no longer with us, they still have the world at their hands. We’re here to provide a mental uplifting and let them know that everything is going to be OK, and that even in tough times, there is always another step forward that we can take. It’s a reminder that there is someone there for them during their time of need, and that’s us.”

And as he aims to constantly serve as a reminder for others, Collins will also remind himself of his own personal truths. That he wouldn’t be able to give back had it not been for his parents’s sacrifices. That he wouldn’t be in the NBA without his mother’s years of service.

That, when it’s all said and done, he’ll always have her to thank.

“The reason I am where I am today is because of my mom,” Collins said. “Memorial Day is just one day out of the year, and that’s not enough to express my gratitude and love for all she’s ever done for me. I’m forever grateful.”

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