Collins needs a wizard's wand

Pro basketball: A man who hates to lose faces one of his toughest tests as he and Michael Jordan try to make Washington a winner.

October 25, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - He is returning to the NBA after a three-year absence. He is a hyper-competitive perfectionist who has never handled losing well and is now with a team in the midst of a nearly two-decade slump.

And you thought Michael Jordan is the only one who'll have to make major adjustments coming to the Washington Wizards. The roller-coaster ride is just starting for Doug Collins, the team's new coach.

Buoyed by an enthusiastic training camp in Wilmington, N.C., Collins has often been frustrated by his team's inconsistent performance in a 2-4 exhibition season that continues tonight in Toronto against the Raptors.

Chris Collins can tell much about his father's mood from their nightly long-distance conversations.

"There are good days and bad days," the younger Collins, an assistant coach at Duke, said earlier this week. "But that's what happens when you're rebuilding with a young team."

It has been six months since Doug Collins was at home in Arizona and took a telephone call from Jordan, then Washington's president of basketball operations. A couple of weeks later, Collins accepted Jordan's offer to replace Leonard Hamilton as coach of the Wizards.

"I had not thought at all about coaching," Collins, 50, said recently. "I really enjoyed my life out there in Arizona. I'd do NBA games [as a television analyst] for six months and then I'd have six months off. When Michael called, we spoke for about 30 minutes, and, at the end of the conversation, he said, `Would you think about coming and coach for me?' "

At the time, Collins had no idea that it would eventually mean coaching Jordan again. Their reunion with the Wizards comes 12 years after they were last together in Chicago, where Jordan's star was rocketing, but his competitive personality was clashing with an equally headstrong young coach.

Collins was fired by the Bulls in 1989 after three seasons, having taken a 30-win team that featured Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant to the Eastern Conference finals. Many, including Jordan, believed at the time that the Bulls needed a more laid-back coach, which led to Phil Jackson getting the job.

"The first time you get fired, it's devastating," Collins said. "The next time it happens, you realize it's just that they want somebody else."

His firing in Chicago turned out to be a terrific move as far as a more stable family life goes. There would be a six-year hiatus during which Collins and his wife, Kathy, watched their two children grow up. He eventually went back into coaching, with the Detroit Pistons in 1995, but his close relationship with his teen-aged son and daughter were forged.

"I had a few opportunities to coach, but I thought if I lose this time, I'll never get it back," Collins said. "Down the road, when I want that relationship with my children, it won't be there and it will break my heart. If they wouldn't feel the way they do with their mother and father, that's a far greater failure than being fired as a coach."

Family considerations played a part in Collins' decision to come to Washington. With their son four hours away in Durham, N.C., and their daughter, Kelly, teaching school in Allentown, Pa., it would make it easier for Collins and his wife to see their children on a regular basis.

But basketball was the bigger lure.

Collins is still very much the gym rat who grew up in Benton, Ill. Those who shaped him - from his high school coach, Rich Herron, to his college coach, Will Robinson at Illinois State, to the legendary Henry Iba, for whom Collins played on the 1972 Olympic team, to early pro coaches Gene Shue and Billy Cunningham - remain a vital part of his coaching philosophies.

"I had great teaching," Collins said. "I had a high school coach who was ahead of his time. Everything you did, you did with your heart. One thing I got from him was, `You can live with your mistakes as long as you know you're competing.' I went to Illinois State and played for the first black coach in Division I.

"He [Robinson] became an unbelievable man in my life. He taught me toughness. I immediately developed a trust in him. We boxed [as a team] every day before practice. We climbed a rope to the top of the gym. We ran 50 laps before practice. I said, `Coach, what are we doing here?' "

Robinson, now in his 90s and still scouting for the Pistons, told Collins: "You can't play basketball if you're not in great shape. You can't play basketball if you don't have arm strength and courage. And there's going to be some point where you're going to have to protect yourself."

Collins went from an obscure, undersized high school player who didn't start until his senior year to the third-leading scorer in the country as a college senior and the No. 1 draft choice overall in 1973. The Philadelphia 76ers were coming off a 9-73 season, the worst record of any team in NBA history.

"His whole life, he's had to overcome obstacles," said Chris Collins, who played at Duke. "He does a good job at changing [people's] habits."

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