Bill Lyon: Behind Sixers' intensity, a coach to match

Behind the 76ers' intensity, a coach to match: Doug Collins, 60, yet boiling with determination, reacts after a non-call.
Behind the 76ers' intensity, a coach to match: Doug Collins, 60, yet boiling with determination, reacts after a non-call. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 15, 2012

Thirty-eight Philadelphia winters ago I asked a 76ers rookie from where he drew what seemed like an inexhaustible supply of energy. This kid was rawhide, wolf-pack lean, and he would run so hard, cut so sharply, that he would rip the soles off the bottoms of his sneakers. And he never, ever, slowed down.

So what was his secret?

"Bee pollen," said Doug Collins.

Pardon?

"Here, try some."

I didn't sleep for what seemed like three days.

(Full disclosure: Relax, it was not a banned or illegal substance. No laws were bent or broken. But have you ever seen a bee asleep?)

If ever there was a person who didn't, and doesn't, need a bee booster it is Paul Douglas Collins, who, at 60 and a doting grandfather, is still greyhound trim; boiling with determination; and is going to pull, push, or will the Sixers into that long-ago Glory Land or jolly well know the reason why.

This franchise has always struggled for acceptance in its own city, and its history over the last 40-plus years has been one of wild pendulum swings, careening from era to era, more bad than good.

In the 1970s, they plumbed the depths of futility with that 9-and-73 monstrosity, but then Doc walked on air, and Moses rhymed a title. Ah, but almost as soon as they reached the summit they fell off, and not even Charles Barkley's Herculean efforts could reverse that gravity.

This was the USS Futility, floundering in high seas, but then there arrived a fearless little assassin known by the initials AI. He was the Fourth of July in sneakers. Alas, they would not change the rules so as to permit him to have one ball all to himself.

The celebrated coaching nomad, Larry Brown, squeezed out all that the role players had to give, and came close, oh-so-close, by playing-all-together-now the right way.

Brown would love this season's team, and its coach, because it surely does play the right way. Or at least what used to be considered the right way, meaning one-for-all but most assuredly not all-for-one, and hustle your gluteus maxim's off getting back on defense.

"We are," proclaims Elton Brand, the team's elder statesmen, "a team."

And, it is implied, playing like one, which translates into play like your hair's on fire on both ends of the court because there is no coffee break on defense.

These Sixers go deep into their bench and it's a democracy - everyone gets a chance at a slice of the pie. The ball is shared, and it is not uncommon to see five players in double figures.

Assists are prized. But turnovers give the coach apoplexy. Rebounds? Oh yeah. Even deflected passes are tracked. Set a pick? Uh-huh. Switch off on defense? Way to hustle.

There's nothing mystical going on here. It's grinding, dig-a-ditch, scabs-on-your-

knees-and-elbows effort. Be as busy as a, well, you know.

Common-cause stuff.

The coach is an incurable hugger and a dispenser of tough love, tempered to fit a team that is incredibly young. The budding point guard, Jrue Holiday, is but 21. Evan Turner, in only his second year, has obviously profited from how he spent his summer vacation, which was having his shooting touch fine-tuned.

Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams can run forever and form the core of the first wave off the bench, nicknamed The Night Shift.

All this youth and exuberance, plus young legs to help combat the suicidal scheduling, look promising enough. They teeter right on the cusp - not quite good enough to win it all and yet not bad enough to qualify for a high draft pick.

And yes, being able to play wolf-pack ball, especially in this season of the compacted schedule, should elevate them. But there is still a pressing need, one gaping hole, and it shows up in the final seconds of every close game - the stud who can take the last shot. (The neon name on the wish list that has been circulated most recently is that of Dwight Howard, who is worth, oh say, 25 and 15 every night. And just about then is when your alarm clock goes off. Perhaps Joshua Harris and the Gang of 16 who now own the team could empty one of their vaults. Ah well, dreaming costs nothing.)

If it ever comes down to just coaching, then the Sixers are a lock, because Doug Collins has played, coached, and analyzed over an NBA lifetime, and excelled at every stop. Beyond that, he has a photographic memory and total recall, and he inhales crossword puzzles. Once on a flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, he routed a certain writer, ahem, who had fancied himself as adept, before Kansas was cleared.

And finally, apropos of nothing, and apropos of everything, he has his grandchildren's names tattooed over his heart.

And that trumps all.

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