A major lift for Loyola

Terps transfer Collins thrilled by welcome as he enters in on helping 'Hounds rebuild

State Division I Men

November 18, 2005|By KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG | KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG,SUN REPORTER

The basketball education of Loyola point guard Andre Collins did not begin inside a sterile gym with hardwood floors and perfectly straight lines, nor did it take place on one of America's many cracked, weathered outdoor blacktops.

Instead, everything can be traced back to a grove of trees, and a field full of dirt.

Collins, you see, grew up in tiny Crisfield on the Eastern Shore, a town with fewer than 3,000 people. There weren't a lot of basketball courts available, or money to build them, and so Collins' uncle, Arthur Whittington, took matters into his own hands. He nailed two metal rims deep into the bark of two tall trees on his property, then chopped down everything in between. Whittington didn't even bother with backboards. A court was born.

Each summer day, beginning at 7 a.m., Collins and his older brother, Andrew, would walk down the street to their uncle's house, and for hours, they'd race up and down the court, honing their skills. By sunset, the duo would return home, covered in dust. Though unorthodox, that homemade court eventually proved to be the perfect training tool.

"People ask me all the time, `How do you shoot so accurately?'" Collins said recently. "It's because of that court. You had to make your shots. You couldn't bank it off a tree or anything. You either had to lay it up, or make it. You learned to be accurate."

Collins has come a long way since those youthful summer days, when he was rarely spotted without a ball in his hands. He won a Class 1A state championship in high school for Crisfield, averaging 30.5 points and 9.0 assists his senior year; he attended and played for Hargrave Military Academy in an effort to raise his grades and SAT score; and he was part of a national championship team at the University of Maryland. But when he suits up for the Greyhounds this year - having sat out all of last season in accordance with Division I transfer rules - it will likely be the happiest he has been on a basketball court in some time.

"This is a great school and a great community," Collins said. "I think everyone is starting to see the changes in Loyola basketball. I'm just excited to be a part of it."

Loyola isn't a place Collins ever imagined that he would end up five years ago, but after taking the circuitous route to Reitz Arena, the school appears to be the right one for him. Though he worshipped Allen Iverson growing up, the 5-foot-9 Collins always dreamed of playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and for 2 1/2 years, he lived that dream with the Terps. He played some, but not enough for his competitive nature. When he still wasn't getting significant playing time early in his junior year in College Park - mostly backing up Terps guard John Gilchrist - he decided it was time to move on. Maryland coach Gary Williams tried to persuade Collins to stay, but his mind was already made up.

"I don't regret going to Maryland, and I don't regret going through that," Collins said. "It was very frustrating at times, but it made me the person that I am. I look at things a lot different now. It gave me more of a push, I think. My willpower is stronger. I feel like I can do anything."

Collins wasn't sure what he wanted to do after he withdrew from Maryland, but Loyola certainly wasn't one of the schools he had in mind. Delaware or Saint Joseph's, most likely, but not a Loyola, a small Catholic school with little basketball tradition to speak of, and one that could barely get 100 fans to come to many of its games. But when Maryland assistant coach Jimmy Patsos got the head coaching job with the Greyhounds in the spring of 2004, everything changed.

"On the way home from the press conference where I was introduced as the head coach, I called Gary [Williams] and asked him what he thought about Andre," Patsos said. "He told me, `Don't worry about size at that level, just find guys that can play. Andre can play.'"

Collins got a call from Patsos and decided it was fate. He committed without ever even visiting the Loyola campus. In an instant, Collins gave Patsos and the Loyola program credibility.

"Me and Coach Patsos had little run-ins when we were at Maryland on the court, but it was because we were both competitive," Collins said. "That's one of the things I love about him - he's fired up all the time. You need that in a coach. I tell people all the time, we're past the coach-player relationship now. We're able to have a friendship off the court."

Sitting out an entire season - especially one in which Loyola won only six games - was more difficult, however, than Collins ever imagined. He couldn't help his current team, and meanwhile, his old team was struggling in part because of Gilchrist's erratic, often selfish play.

"You know, Andre might have ended up playing a lot if he'd stuck around," Gary Williams said recently. "You just never know sometimes the way things will work out. I'm glad to hear he's happy, though. I want him to be successful."

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