Upstart Philadelphia's season has been filled with highs—which is good news for coach Doug Collins, who will remember every detail of it, whether he wants to or not
This is an article from the April 11, 2011 issue
The 76ers are facing the Heat on a Friday in late March, and Philadelphia coach Doug Collins will remember this game forever. It won't even matter who wins or what happens. Collins remembers almost every game he has ever played or coached.
There are benefits to being a human DVR. The 59-year-old Collins has not asked his video coordinator, Monte Shubik, for a copy of a 76ers game all season. At a recent staff meeting one assistant coach mentioned a loss to the Hawks in which Philly guard Lou Williams missed a dunk, triggering an Atlanta rally. "There was 5:14 on the clock," Collins said matter-of-factly, then recited every play that occurred the rest of the game.
"I don't know why I'm still skeptical," Shubik says, but he was. And so, in the middle of the meeting, Shubik started watching that Hawks-Sixers game on his laptop.
Sure enough, there was 5:14 left when Philadelphia's defensive possession started. The rest happened exactly the way Collins said. The game had been played almost four months earlier.
If you own an NBA team and you want to be instantly relevant, you can either start dating a Kardashian or hire Collins as your coach. In his previous three stops Collins increased the team's wins in his first year by 10 (the Bulls, in 1987), 18 (the Pistons, in '96) and 18 (the Wizards, in 2002). These 76ers might be his finest work yet. They were 27--55 last season. At week's end, with basically the same roster, they were 40--37 and sixth in the Eastern Conference.
Five of their top eight players are 23 or younger, and a sixth, Williams, is 24. They don't have a scorer among the NBA's top 50 or a rebounder in the top 15. What they have is some promising talent, a great attitude and a coach who sees the game in slow motion. Collins has gone deep into his bench, built a tough defense around stopper Andre Iguodala and implored his players not to commit turnovers. Since losing 13 of their first 16 games, they are 35--23.
On this night in Miami, Collins is matched against Erik Spoelstra, 40, who must make do with a normal high-functioning brain. Spoelstra has prepared by watching the Heat's last game on his laptop, some footage from his team's last meeting with the Sixers and five games' worth of scouting video.
Collins does not use a computer. Before every game he watches two hours of the opposing team's defense, but that is pretty much it. "He is probably wasting his mind in this game," Spoelstra says with a laugh. "He could probably be saving a lot of lives in the world of science."
Collins doesn't remember every single play, and sometimes he gets small details wrong. But generally, his recall is uncanny. Collins's friends say he has a photographic memory. Actually, a videographic memory is more accurate, though that just tells you how he remembers all these games.
What really matters, with Doug Collins, is why.
Kathy Collins laughs and says sure, her husband of 37 years has total recall of every game he ever played, "but if I ask him to pick up a gallon of milk ..." Doug admits he forgets that stuff. Half the time, he can't remember what road he is on. Tell him to take a left at the gas station and a right at the Dairy Queen, and he might not notice either. But ask him about the third quarter in Milwaukee in 1977 and he'll take you there in a second.
Collins remembers the things that matter most to him: people, Bible verses and basketball games. Yes, he remembers his kids' basketball games, too. He could peacefully watch his daughter, Kelly, play volleyball and soccer in high school because he didn't understand the nuances of those sports well enough to etch every play in his brain. But ask him about a basketball game he watched Kelly play at Lehigh, or when Chris played for Duke against North Carolina State in 1996 and ... "Duke is down two," Doug says, without hesitation. "Coach K calls a timeout, calls a play: dribble-handoff. Chris is supposed to hand off. He keeps it and takes the shot, and it rattles around about five times and goes in, puts them up one. N.C. State drives down the court and misses a layup. Duke wins—their first conference win. They go on to win eight of 12 and get into the NCAA tournament."
Impressive, right? But you know what would be nice sometimes? The ability to stop remembering.
What if Collins could forget, just for a day, what happened in the 1972 Olympic gold medal game in Munich? That is when he discovered that the game he loved would not always love him back.
With the U.S. trailing 49--48 and seconds remaining, Collins, a 6'6" swingman from Illinois State, showed all the traits that should have made him an Olympic hero forever. Brains: He anticipated a Soviet Union pass and stole it. Toughness: He was undercut on his way to the hoop, landed hard, slid into the basket support and blacked out for a few seconds. Poise: He drained both free throws, even though the scorer's horn went off as he shot the second. The U.S. led 50--49.
What followed was the most famous raw deal in Olympic basketball history. The refs inexplicably gave the Soviets three chances to score as time expired. On the third try they succeeded. Collins spent the night walking around Munich in stunned silence. He and his teammates still haven't accepted their silver medals.
Collins did not know it then, but that moment would epitomize his career. He has led a basketball life full of almosts. When he was a freshman at Benton (Ill.) High, the varsity was loaded. ("We got beat on a last-second shot by Dale Kelley, our only loss of the year," he says. "Three of our guys got in foul trouble.") By the time he was a senior, the team was full of underclassmen, and he could only carry it so far. ("We lost to Mount Vernon in the sectional. I went 12 for 30.")
He played four years at Illinois State, then as the No. 1 pick in the 1973 draft joined the worst team in NBA history: the 9--73 Sixers. Almost immediately he broke his left foot. ("Missed 57 games, played the other 25 with a broken foot, and all I heard was that I was a bust.") In 1977--78, Philadelphia had the best record in the Eastern Conference (55--27) but lost to the 44-win Washington Bullets in the Eastern Conference finals. ("Wes Unseld tipped in a ball at the end to beat us.")
Collins could have been a three-point threat, but the NBA didn't add the arc until his career was about to end. He took only one three, and he missed it. ("It was a hoist at half-court to beat the shot clock.") A knee injury forced him to retire at 29. Two years later, when he should have still been in his prime, the 76ers won the title.
He turned to coaching, and after just three seasons as an assistant at Penn and Arizona State, took over a Chicago team with third-year guard Michael Jordan. Collins was 34. No matter. He was ready.
He would crouch in huddles late in games, loudspeakers blaring overhead, game on the line, and ... improvise. Assistant coaches were in awe. It is a form of genius, but as his longtime friend and assistant, Johnny Bach, says, "That strains the team, too. He is asking them to keep pace with the machine-gun mind."
In Collins's head, games never ended; they kept playing on an endless loop. "Once I started coaching, I couldn't sleep. My mind just wouldn't shut off."
His passion for the game, for his players—for everything—was uncontainable. Collins gave and gave. On the road he took his whole staff to dinner—coaches, video guys, everybody—and picked up the tab. After his Pistons lost in the first round of the 1997 playoffs, Collins called video coordinator George David into his office and wrote him a personal check for roughly $5,000, with no explanation. David demurred. Collins insisted: Take the check. Weeks later David realized Collins had given him a full playoff share out of his own pocket.
One Christmas, Collins decided to thank his lawyer John Langel for being such a good friend. He endowed a full scholarship at Temple's law school in Langel's name. When Collins runs a basketball camp, he knows the names or nicknames of all 250 kids by the second day.
"I want them to feel important," he says.
In Chicago and Detroit, giving was his problem. He couldn't stop. After losses, he would gather his team, pull up a chair and give a detailed breakdown on how it went wrong. Collins was not a big yeller, but as his former player (and current Sixers assistant) Michael Curry says, "It's not so much the yelling as the constant reminding. I think that wears on a guy."
Players would tune him out, and Collins was hurt. If he was so desperate to give, why were they so reluctant to take?
"It's not necessarily reflective of me," he says. "But when you're a fixer ... I think I'm a wound healer. If my wife were to not be happy on a particular day, I immediately think, Is it something that I've done? I always wanted players to be engaged. I want guys to be happy. I want people in my life to be happy. That makes me happy. And when people aren't happy, it's like, Well, how can I help them be happy?"
Collins's need to make everybody happy all the time meant that in the end, nobody ever really was. The year before he took over the Bulls, they had won 30 games. By his third season they were in the conference finals. Then they fired him. "I think they felt my style and my intensity, I guess my emotion ... that I [am not] the man they need to coach this team now," he said at the time.
In 1995 Collins took over the Pistons. After he led them to 46 wins, their second-leading scorer, shooting guard Allan Houston, left as a free agent, and they figured to take a step back. Instead, Detroit won 54 under Collins. By the middle of the next season, with the team reeling at 21--24, he was fired again.
Meanwhile, the man who replaced him in Chicago—his former assistant Phil Jackson—would win six championships with his old team. Collins started telling people that if he ever wrote an autobiography, he'd call it, Always a Winner, But Never a Champion.
Still, he gave. He was vacationing on Hilton Head Island when the 76ers won the title. He cheered. His family didn't ask him much about the Olympics "because it's too hurtful," Chris says. "There's anger there." But every four years reporters would want to talk to him about it, and every four years Collins would answer their questions. When he was an announcer on Bulls playoff broadcasts, he told viewers that Jackson was the perfect coach for that team.
For 20 years he was one of the great color commentators in sports, appealing to both casual fans and experts. (Spoelstra says even coaches learned about the game from listening to Collins.) Two years ago Collins was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame—as a broadcaster. It was well-deserved, and also fitting. They did not induct him for his playing career or his coaching record. They inducted him for his ability to see the game.
When the 76ers called Collins last summer, Kathy and the kids told him they would support him if he took the job, under one condition: He had to enjoy it.
And he has. Collins loves his team. He has not had to fine anybody for being late to a practice or bus ride the entire year. "Unheard of," he says. Chris was worried about him coaching such a young group, but Doug prefers it. It gives him a chance to teach players before bad habits become ingrained.
He delegates almost all the defensive strategy to his assistants—they tell him the plan, and he gives his approval.
"Maybe one or two times has he kind of overrode it the whole season," Curry says.
Collins says his assistants have "taken half the workload off of my plate," but really, he shoved half his workload onto theirs. He doesn't want his players overdosing on Doug Collins.
"When I need to say something, I say it," he said. "When they hear my voice, I want it to be important. And I don't want them to hear it too much."
Collins inherited a 20-year-old point guard, Jrue Holiday, who admits, "There was a period where I was just throwing the ball away." Collins harnessed Holiday without slowing him down. Now Collins sees Holiday as a future All-Star, and Holiday says, "There's been times when we've messed up and he handled it well. He says if he was younger, then he would have just killed us. My career is going in the right way because of him, because he's here."
Collins is still a wound healer at heart. He says his team should be a "sanctuary" for his players. He frets about keeping 23-year-old center Marreese Speights on the bench—not so much because of Speights's skills but because "I find him to be one of the nicest guys, one of the most engaging guys, and I don't have the minutes I'd like to get him. Mo Speights is a hell of a guy."
But he also says, "I've learned the one thing you can't do. As much as you would like to be able to change people, you can't. They have to be willing to change themselves."
He changed himself. Oh, his mind is as active as ever—in the summer he does 10 crosswords a day—and losses still chew him up. But now he vents to his coaches instead of his players.
Collins has a reputation as a perfectionist. It isn't quite accurate. "I'm an idealist," he said. "I want things to be right." A perfectionist needs every play to end successfully. An idealist needs every play run properly, to the best of the team's ability—regardless of outcome. Collins can live with missed shots or getting outplayed, but he can't accept a lack of effort and teamwork.
Fans still see the guy with sweat on his brow and anguish on his face. They don't see his favorite Bible verse (Prov. 3:5--6) tattooed on his right breast or the names of his four grandchildren tattooed over his heart, twin reminders of what matters even more than the games. In American sports culture a man is his résumé, but Collins no longer defines himself by what he hasn't accomplished. Now he is comfortable with who he is: never a champion, but always a winner. He says, "The game has been good to me."
When Chris Collins was a boy, his father told him before they played one-on-one, "I will never let you win." Wins were something you earned, and Doug would not cheapen the experience. Doug would beat Chris in driveway games, and Chris would go to his room crying. Chris would come back, and Doug would beat him again.
"I'm so fortunate for that," says Chris, 36, who is now an assistant at Duke. "When I did win, how good that felt."
"And then we never played again."
Now they talk on the phone every day. Doug watches the Blue Devils on TV, calls Chris afterward and runs through every important play, in order, from memory. And when Doug made the Hall of Fame as a broadcaster, Chris was there with a surprise. Chris had worked on Mike Krzyzewski's staff at the 2008 Olympics, and USA Basketball had given all the staffers gold medals. At a family dinner, Chris gave his medal to his father.
"Really, more than anything, that's what's belonged in our house all these years," Chris says. "Because that's something he did earn. He was cheated. That may be the proudest thing I've ever done."
The gold is in Doug's home office, along with the six watches that Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf gave him after each Bulls championship. As it turns out, Collins is not the only one who remembers. The Bulls fired him, but in 2008 they nearly rehired him. (He and Reinsdorf decided not to risk their friendship by working together again.) The Pistons fired him, but in 2009 they nearly hired him again. Jordan supposedly tired of Collins's overbearing ways, but in 2001 he hired Collins to coach him in Washington. Now the 76ers, Collins's old team, gave him a four-year contract to revitalize the franchise.
"I honestly believe there is something far greater than basketball that brought me back here," he says. "I don't know what it is yet."
Maybe it's the chance to live near his daughter and her husband and two sons. Maybe he is supposed to reconnect with the city where he played.
Maybe he is there to watch his young 76ers lead the Heat for most of a Friday night in late March, only to lose to a more talented team.
Or maybe the answer came when Philadelphia started 3--13. It was a brutal stretch, as Collins would be the first to tell you. There was a loss to the Thunder: "We're within three. We give up a lob to [Russell] Westbrook with one second on the shot clock, with 2½ minutes to go in the game." To the Wizards: "We give up a three, and they go ahead and beat us in overtime." To Washington again: "We're up three, miss two free throws, we foul them shooting a half-court three, they make all three, we lose in overtime." To the Raptors: "It's a tie game, [Andrea] Bargnani scores to put 'em up two. We go dead in the water and can't score."
Down in Durham, N.C., Chris was thinking, "Man, I don't know how much of this he'll be able to take." But in Philadelphia, Doug decided the 76ers were playing winning basketball. They just weren't winning. He slept well.
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