Doug Collins relishes challenge of reviving 76ers

Doug Collins envisions his 76ers as a team that plays good defense and looks to run. "I don't bring a style," he said. "I bring my personality, which is competitive and high energy."
Doug Collins envisions his 76ers as a team that plays good defense and looks to run. "I don't bring a style," he said. "I bring my personality, which is competitive and high energy."
Posted: July 04, 2010

ORLANDO - Outside the University of Central Florida Arena, where Doug Collins was conducting his first practice as 76ers coach Friday, rain fell on a bronze statue of the college's mascot, an armored knight astride a galloping steed.

The sculpture on Gemini Boulevard seemed an apt symbol for the task confronting Collins, the perpetually boy-faced whirlwind who is returning to Philadelphia and the troubled team that made him its first overall pick in 1973.

After several conversations with owner Ed Snider, Collins, 58, knows that his quest is to rescue this distressed franchise, to arm himself with all his natural optimism and joust with the twin dragons that long have terrorized the 76ers: apathy and losing.

It's too early, of course, to gauge whether that's a fair fight. But if nothing else, the considerable challenge should provide Collins with an outlet for all the bubbling passion that seven years of broadcasting, daily workouts, and family visits couldn't unleash.

"I had some outlets," Collins said Friday during an interview that followed practice with the Sixers' Orlando Pro Summer League team, "but I had some energy that was pent up. There's no question about that."

His energy, not to mention his patience, figures to be tested as he tries to transform a team that finished 28 games below .500 in 2009-10 and, at times, seemed close to slipping off Philadelphia's sports radar.

"We've got to get our fans back," Collins said. "We've got to start winning and get our fans excited about the 76ers again. . . . We're selling hope. This is about hope. We have hope that we have a chance to be good. . . . There's a lot of volatility in the Eastern Conference. This whole Atlantic Division can be ours, if you start looking at it, in the near future."

That undoubtedly sounds far-fetched to anyone who recalls that the division-winning Boston Celtics finished 23 games ahead of the 76ers last season. Eddie Jordan's Sixers ended another playoff-less year with a 27-55 record that was as desultory as their attendance.

It's nothing, though, when compared to what Collins faced 37 years ago. A small-town Midwesterner - he still uses phrases such as "super-duper" - the star of the star-crossed '72 U.S. Olympic squad joined a 76ers team that was an all-time-worst 9-73 in the '72-73 season.

He quickly got off on the wrong foot by breaking one of his feet in training camp.

"It was tough," he recalled. "Here we were in Philadelphia, coming from a very small town, going to a team that went 9-73. I was hurt, my wife was pregnant, and it was like, 'OK, we're in the big city now. Let's go.'

"It was probably the biggest learning experience of my life."

Another one almost certainly awaits.

'A real team'

Collins will demand defense and perimeter play from the young and relatively faceless 76ers. It was, in fact, their youth and anonymity that drew him back to a city he repeatedly said he loved.

He had coached a superstar-led team in Chicago to three consecutive playoff appearances. But that ended badly when Michael Jordan reportedly grew disillusioned with him and Collins was replaced by his assistant, Phil Jackson. Then it was on to modest success in Detroit (121-88 in two-plus seasons) and, finally, the sobering reality of the Washington Wizards (74-90).

"I think there's a lot of different ways to win," Collins said. "You've seen teams that win championships with a super-duper star like Kobe Bryant. Those championship teams with Michael Jordan certainly had a great, great player. But I look at Detroit, where they were a team. The sum of the parts was greater than it was individually.

"We're going to have to be a real team. And I think we can do that. . . . Collectively, we've got a chance to do well."

He envisions his 76ers as a team that plays good defense and looks to run. With No. 1 pick Evan Turner, Jrue Holiday, Andre Iguodala, and Lou Williams, he hopes to capitalize on its perimeter potential, running pick-and-rolls, hitting open jumpers, occasionally kicking the ball inside to Elton Brand and Marreese Speights. (Turner, Holiday, and Speights are here.)

"They've got some talent and some young pieces," he said. "I've always been a guy who likes going somewhere and building it. Philadelphia is a great place to do that."

Snider already has laid down a gauntlet, noting in the news release that marked the coach's May 21 hiring that he anticipated "immediate impact."

"I don't feel that as pressure," Collins said. "I feel that as a compliment. The owner believes in me. Mr. Snider owns this team. When he sits there and watches the Flyers, I see the joy he has in that team. I want him to feel that way about the 76ers.

"I want it to be great for him. I don't want the Flyers to be great and the Sixers awful."

To that end, Collins said he would find a style that fits his players.

"I don't bring a style," he said. "I bring my personality, which is competitive and high energy. I've got more energy than most guys 35 years old."

That was evident on his first day on the job. He spent it by talking a lot, by patting players on the back. When the 12 youngsters here for a series of games that begin Monday made mistakes, he stopped them and had them run sprints. They worked out in the morning, took a lunch break, then returned for an evening session.

Wearing shorts and a USA Olympic T-shirt - his son Chris, a Duke assistant, was on Mike Krzyzewski's staff at the 2008 Games in Beijing - Collins bounced around the gym, chattering, encouraging, whistling, whispering to assistants.

He clearly was a man happy to have a whistle hanging from his neck again.

'I know the city'

While he was doing TNT games the last seven years and, with his wife, Kathy, regularly visiting children and grandchildren in West Chester and North Carolina, a few teams, including the Bulls and Bucks, were interested in giving him a fourth NBA head coaching job.

"I had some opportunities, but there were only two cities that I would have done it in - Chicago or Philadelphia," he said. "A big part of that is the comfort level my family has in both those cities. Especially my wife. I didn't think it was fair at this stage of our lives to ask her to go somewhere and start over again. My daughter is right up the road in West Chester. And I feel like I know the city."

Playing high school and college ball in rural Illinois, Collins managed to avoid criticism and the spotlight. The only time he was on national TV was during his Olympic tenure.

Those '72 Games, of course, ended in controversy when, after what appeared to be an American victory in the gold-medal game, officials put several seconds back on the clock and the Soviets won. Angry and upset, the Americans refused to accept their silver medals.

It was in Philadelphia that Collins first experienced criticism. He knows he will hear it again, and that's fine with him.

"I found that it drives me," he said. "It's like, 'I'm not going to fail.' And so it was always a blessing to me."

The one similarity he sees between the bad 76ers team he joined decades ago and the one he now will coach is that both suffered from a disconnect with the fans.

"Back then, the only team that was any good was the Broad Street Bullies," he said. "The Eagles were terrible. The Phillies were terrible. The Sixers were terrible. But I saw the passion and the love the Flyers got, and I'd always imagine what it would be like to be at the Spectrum and be that excited."

Within a few years, after the arrival of Julius Erving, George McGinnis, and others turned the 76ers into contenders, he got to experience that feeling. By 1976-77, they were in the NBA Finals, losing to Portland.

But constant injuries truncated his playing career. In '83, the 76ers repaid the fans with the championship they so foolhardily had said they owed them. Collins, retired by then, never got his.

It's an omission on his resumé that pains him. In Beijing, thanks to the graciousness of LeBron James and his son, another was rectified.

Before those games, Krzyzewski had asked Collins to speak to his players about Munich. When asked about that historic Olympic heartbreak on Friday, Collins still winced and gasped audibly.

"I spoke from my heart about what that experience meant to me," Collins said of his talk with the '08 team. "There was a real connection there, for whatever reason. They were listening, and I think they felt what I was feeling."

When the Americans took the gold, James leaped over a barrier and hugged Collins, who was broadcasting the game for NBC. Later that day, they draped one of their medals around his neck and had him pose for photos with them.

"And then at the Hall of Fame last summer, when I went in as a broadcaster, my son presented me with his gold medal. He said, 'Dad, it's 36 years too late, but the gold medal is finally in the house.' That brought some closure."

Now, three decades after his career here ended, Collins is back, looking to be this city's knight in shining armor. He might not win the title he craves, but he vows he'll try so hard no one will question his desire - or his willingness to adapt.

"Marreese Speights was tweeting me one day," Collins said, "and he said, 'Coach, can you text?' And I said, 'Mo, my daughter taught me. I'm 58, but I'm not dead.' "


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or at Ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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