Sixers' Collins: Perfect blend of teacher and coach

Coach Doug Collins (center) huddles with his players after practice as the team prepares to meet the Miami Heat in the playoffs.
Coach Doug Collins (center) huddles with his players after practice as the team prepares to meet the Miami Heat in the playoffs.
Posted: April 15, 2011

Doug Collins calls it "rocket fuel."

It's the equivalent of bolting a propeller to the back of a Ferrari, but every morning Collins drinks a four-shot latte with three packets of Sweet'n Low. The baristas at his City Avenue Starbucks - women who, by the way, believe "Coach Collins" is the best thing to happen to the 76ers in decades - identify this as a "quad grande, three-Sweet'n-Low latte" and grimace when thinking about the taste and intensity of the drink. (The standard grande latte includes just two shots of espresso.)

Does Collins need 300mg of caffeine?

"No, no, he don't need that - not for energy," says associate head coach Michael Curry.

"No wonder he's wired, right?" says assistant coach Brian James. "He doesn't need it, but he likes it."

Collins' morning Starbucks is more ritual than necessity. The habit is shared by the entire coaching staff, whether the day's work takes them to the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine for practice, to the Wells Fargo Center for game day, or - as the Sixers will find themselves beginning on Saturday - to Miami's AmericanAirlines Arena for the franchise's most meaningful games in years.

On Saturday afternoon, the Sixers and Heat will tip off Game 1 of their first-round playoff series. That morning, Collins will drink his "quad grande, three-Sweet'n-Low latte," while discussing with his staff ways in which the team's offense can pry open gaps in Miami's defense.

As Saturday's game time nears, Collins will take a walk, scanning the ground for a heads-up penny, which will symbolize to Collins a sort of fleeting karmic advantage in that night's pursuit of victory.

In many ways, Collins is predictable: He preaches accountability and hard work, he text messages his players both after they've played well and after they've played poorly, and he orders the same drink every morning. In other ways, Collins is unpredictable: He turned over the entire defensive strategy to Curry, he moved Jodie Meeks from the inactive list to the starting lineup within weeks, and he places superstitious value on variables like the presence of the parking lot attendant when he and James arrive at the arena.

Collins' fusion of stability, love, and emotion might not have worked with many NBA teams. It might not work - in its current blend, anyway - with next season's Sixers team.

But Collins is like a well-paid mechanic; he's always tinkering.

And this season, he nailed the assembly.

Flyers karma

Picture this: Collins and his wife, Kathy, have just tucked into bed their grandsons Cooper and Collin. Husband and wife of 37 years are babysitting for daughter Kelly and son-in-law Paul, who live in Philadelphia.

It's May 14, 2010.

Collins is not yet the Sixers head coach. He has already met with general manager Ed Stefanski, but team owner Ed Snider, who also owns the Flyers, has asked for an exhaustive coaching search. Stefanski and Snider are scheduled to meet the following day: May 15, 2010.

With the boys in bed, Collins turns on Game 7 of the NHL's Eastern Conference semifinals between Snider's Flyers and the Boston Bruins. The Bruins are leading, 3-0.

Collins turns to Kathy and says, "Mr. Snider is not going to be in a good mood if they lose this game."

The Flyers come back to win the game, 4-3.

"Get ready," Collins says to his wife. "We're coming back."

Like a face-up penny, the Flyers' come-from-behind victory signaled to Collins that he was meant to return to Philly - and that he would.

Collins played for the Sixers from 1973 to 1981. Both his children, Kelly and Chris, were born in Philly. Some of his oldest friends still live here, and, as Chris says, this is "where it all started for my parents."

Collins' return to coaching puzzled some. He had made plenty of money coaching the Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, and Washington Wizards. He had a cushy broadcasting gig with TNT, where he was known as the best in the biz. And the Sixers were coming off a disastrous, 27-55 season that was - if you can believe it - even worse than that record suggests.

Plus, Collins is 59 years old and known for burning the candle at both ends.

So here's what he did: He promised his wife he'd have fun, he vowed to watch fewer NBA games at home, and he delegated much of the work to his staff.

In many ways, James explains, Collins is like a head football coach or a CEO.

Curry runs the defense. James remembers everyone's Starbucks order as well as the opposing team's plays. Assistant coaches Quin Snyder and Aaron McKie work individually with specific players. And Kathy, in addition to keeping Collins sane and balanced, runs to Potbelly's for the game-day meal of tuna sandwich and diet Coke.

While coaching the Pistons in the mid-'90s, Collins would return home from practice in the evening and watch the East Coast NBA games and then the West Coast NBA games, finally sleeping in the early-morning hours. While coaching the Wizards, Collins downshifted his routine to include only watching an NBA game if the team's forthcoming opponent were playing. Here in Philly, Collins says he doesn't watch basketball at home.

"And his mind is fresher," says James, explaining how this habitual change has cleared space for Collins to find solutions for Sixers riddles like decreasing point guard Jrue Holiday's late-game turnovers.

Chris Collins says his mom has been "really proud" of his dad.

"She's told me privately on many occasions how much better he's been with this situation, how his attitude has been better than it's ever been," says Chris.

Collins felt he had sufficiently matured, and he wanted a team ready for the same.

"I had a feeling they were in a point in time where they wanted things to be different," Collins says of the franchise. "And I thought the players wanted things to be different; they had a lot of young players I thought I could help."

Teaching

Collins has his favorite Bible verse, Proverbs 3:5-6, tattooed over the right side of his chest so it's not particularly surprising to learn that he believes one of his God-given gifts is teaching.

Collins considered broadcasting a form of teaching, although it didn't satisfy his competitive zeal. Too much like gymnastics, Collins explains: judgment based on arbitrary personal preferences rather than raw numbers on a scoreboard.

Collins didn't so much stumble into his calling as have it thrust upon him.

In 1981, Collins and Chris, then only 7 years old, were waiting for an acquaintance's airplane to land on a small runway in Sweetwater, Tenn. It was a foggy Friday morning and Collins had just completed a basketball camp with his high school coach. Collins had flown down in the very same airplane on Monday morning, braving the tiny plane instead of taking an eight-hour bus ride. The airplane's pilot was the pastor of a church at which Collins was scheduled to speak and conduct a basketball clinic that same weekend.

Something seemed wrong. And something was wrong.

The plane, carrying three passengers, crashed into a forest of pine trees.

"For a long time, I go like: 'Why weren't Chris and I on that plane? Why weren't we?' " Collins says. "And that's why I always said I've felt like I was saved to be a teacher. God saved me to be a teacher, to help young people."

Sixers forward Thaddeus Young is one of those young people. One in a long line of young people, some of them now older people, whom Collins has imbued with lifelong habits such as punctuality and respect as well as fleeting talents like a pull-up jumper and an up-and-under move.

"I bet I have a text message from Coach Collins on there right now," Young says, pointing toward his iPhone.

Collins has plans for Young. He wants Young to develop a corner three-point shot, the shortest angle on the floor, as well as a reliable 15-foot jumper. Coupled with his unstoppable quickness, these weapons would render Young unguardable.

"He's going to make me an all-star," says Young, whose future with the team is uncertain at season's end. "We definitely believe in Coach Collins, and I'm going to keep believing him. Even if I'm not on the team next year, I love Coach as a person, and he's been great for me and my career."

Young is an especially malleable example: humble, talented, and receptive. But when Collins eyed the Sixers from afar, he saw a roster filled with impressionable young minds: Holiday, Meeks, Williams, Marreese Speights, Spencer Hawes, and now rookie Evan Turner.

When Curry was an assistant coach with the Pistons three seasons ago, two of his scouting responsibilities were the Sixers and the Atlanta Hawks.

"When coach was talking about taking the job and me coming with him, the one thing I thought was that a couple of years ago this team and Atlanta were battling each other," explains Curry. "They didn't continue to accelerate as well as Atlanta, but I thought the basis of guys was still here."

If the guys adapted and worked hard, Curry believed 38 wins and the Eastern Conference's eighth seed would be within their reach. And he said, way back in the summer, if the team's pieces find a home, the Sixers could get anywhere between 40 to 45 wins.

The Sixers enter the playoffs with a record of 41-41, good for the seventh seed.

Reciprocity

If Collins expected his new players to be responsive to instruction, he was also prepared to adapt his own strategy if proven ill-fitting.

For example, the team spent much of training camp implementing offensive sets that were successful when Collins coached in Washington. They included double stacks on the block, off of which two perimeter players would make successive cuts. If none of that sounds familiar, it's because it didn't work.

"He found out most of those things didn't work with this team," says James.

There were a slew of questions: Are Young and Williams better as starters? In which positions does Holiday most excel?

When Holiday began making costly turnovers during close games, Collins noticed Andre Iguodala's penchant for seeing out of double teams and making the correct pass. Collins shifted Iguodala slightly, making him a point-forward for a stretch of crucial minutes. As the Sixers started stacking together wins, the players noticed that Collins was willing to change his strategy but never his life philosophy.

"He utilized us to the best of what the team can offer," says power forward Elton Brand. "It wasn't like he came in with an idea and refused everything else."

The Sixers began the season 3-13, but soon started winning.

"That was when our players started saying, 'You know what, this is starting to get fun,' " remembers James.

Collins shields his players from most of his emotional outbursts, although not all of them. After one game, Collins came into the locker room and apologized for a poor substitution pattern he felt cost them the game.

"There was a little twinkle in his eye like maybe he wanted to cry about it," says veteran center Tony Battie. "That's how I knew he was all in, he'd sell out everything for the betterment of the team."

His coaching staff bears more of the burden. (Curry: "We catch the brunt of it, but that's good.")

After a particularly horrific loss at Washington, Collins wanted to swing open the locker room and harass his guys: We can't walk up and make a free throw? God dang, why foul a guy 50 feet from the basket?

"The moment you say it, you own it," says Collins. "As much as you may say, 'I'm sorry for saying that,' it don't go away."

Instead, Collins worked through his frustrations with his coaching staff. He waited until the next morning to watch the offensive clips on video, and when he finally met with his guys, he could speak from a calm, rational place.

"Which is better, always," says Curry.

His staff knows when he's brooding about a certain flaw: He spouts statistics as evidence. At that point, one of the assistants will grab the offending player (or offending players) to work through the on-court defect before it becomes an in-game tragedy.

Starbucks

During the season, Young frequents the same City Avenue Starbucks.

"So you're the ones responsible for getting Coach all hopped up in the morning," the baristas recall Young saying. Two of the women are Sixers fans and gush about the job Collins has done: not just on the court, but in the respectful demeanor they've noticed from his players.

It wasn't always this way, they explain.

At one point during the season, Kathy Collins asked James - who's often responsible for grabbing Collins' Starbucks - to halve the number of espresso shots in her husband's coffee.

James holds up his right hand and raises three fingers: three days - that's how long that lasted before Collins noticed.

"Don't mess with my drink," was his response.


Doug Collins' Coaching Career

Year, Team   G   W   L   PCT.   

1987, Chicago Bulls   82   40   42   .488   

1988, Chicago Bulls   82   50   32   .610   

1989, Chicago Bulls   82   47   35   .573   

1996, Detroit Pistons   82   46   36   .561   

1997, Detroit Pistons   82   54   28   .659   

1998, Detroit Pistons   45   21   24   .467   

2002, Washington Wizards   82   37   45   .451   

2003, Washington Wizards   82   37   45   .451   

2011, Philadelphia 76ERS   82   41   41   .500   

Totals   701   373   328   .532   


Contact staff writer Kate Fagan at kfagan@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/DeepSixer3, and read her blog, Deep Sixer, on Philly.com.

 

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