Sixers coach Doug Collins, seated in his Wells Fargo Center office before a recent game against Memphis, produced a laminated 3-by-5 card from his travel bag. On it are listed the names of several legendary NBA coaches, alongside the worst seasons each of them endured. It is a veritable who’s who – everyone from Jack Ramsay to Doc Rivers, from Larry Brown to Lenny Wilkens.
“How 'bout Pat Riley?” Collins said, mentioning the name at the very top of the list. “Loses Dwyane Wade and goes 15-67. Loses 15 in a row, wins one, loses 11 in a row. One-and-twenty-six. Pat Riley.”
Collins had scrawled those particulars on the card, in felt-tip pen, right next to Riley’s record in 2007-08, his final season on the bench. It is Collins’ way of reminding himself that even the best coaches have years like the one he is having. (He has since said it is the toughest of his career, given the expectations that preceded it.) It is his attempt at preventing self-flagellation.
Riley saw Wade slowed by a knee injury for much of that ’07-08 season, and Shaquille O’Neal, nearing the end of the line, was traded in midseason. Collins gave his blessing when the Sixers reshaped their roster last summer, notably acquiring center Andrew Bynum from the Lakers in a four-team trade.
But knee problems have kept Bynum out of the lineup to date; the latest hope is that he will return later this month. So as Collins sat there that night, his team was 18-25, and soon to fall to 18-26. Since then they have also lost do-everything forward Thaddeus Young (hamstring) – he could be back in a few weeks – and Jason Richardson (knee) for the season, leaving them at 22-27 heading into Monday’s meeting against the Clippers, the last home game before the All-Star break.
Collins told reporters recently that he believed the Sixers would win 60 percent of their games when they acquired Bynum. Yet he insisted that night in his office he is not one to dwell on what-ifs, tempting as it may be. Which probably explains why he has been carrying that laminated card around – as a reminder of the realities of his profession, that the best-laid plans often go awry, that it’s foolish to beat oneself up too much.
He seems to be doing all he can do, controlling all he can control. He has repeatedly changed lineups. He has buried guys on the bench, then plugged them back into the rotation. He has at times praised his players, and at times chided them. He is normally patient with reporters (and incredibly blunt in off-the-record sessions), but at times he turns prickly, as when one of them asked after a game if the players might be tuning out their coach.
In the quiet of his office that night he seemed happier, more reflective. At age 61 he is coaching his fourth NBA team, and the one for which he played all eight of his injury-marred pro seasons. “They always say live your dream; I’ve outlived mine,” he said.
And never mind the over-arching what-ifs of his career. As an Olympian in 1972, he wobbled to the free throw line after getting knocked woozy and made the foul shots that appeared to give the U.S. the gold medal … only to see the Soviets win in controversial fashion. As a Sixer he was named to four All-Star teams … only to see foot and knee injuries force him to retire at the age of 29. As a first-year coach in Chicago, in 1986, he inherited no less a talent than Michael Jordan … only to see Jordan reach his greatest heights under another man, Phil Jackson.
Collins nonetheless seems comfortable with his life and career. “A lot of people find misery, when there’s a lot of joy,” he said. “I’m not going to do that, and deprive myself. You can say all the things that didn’t happen, and I can say, ‘Well, let’s talk about the things that did.’ My resume ain’t bad in 40 years.”
He has always prided himself on the relationships he has built in coaching, knowing that in his younger years he thrived because of the men for whom he played. Growing up in Benton, Ill., there was his high school coach, Rich Herrin. At Illinois State there was Will Robinson, the first African-American coach in Division I history. Collins viewed them both as surrogate parents, as he did Illinois State athletic director Milt Weisbecker, since his own parents divorced just as he was heading off to college.
“I never really had a close relationship with my father,” he said. “At that point in time, I don’t know that fathers got real close to their sons. I knew how much he loved me.”
But he treasured the bond he had with each of his coaches. He would go on scouting trips with Herrin. He would sit in Robinson’s office, and soak up life lessons. And during an ISU game one night, Collins’ nose was bloodied.
“I’m going to find out if you can play now,” Robinson told Collins as he was receiving treatment on the sideline.
Collins had no idea what he was talking about.
“A man finds out who he is when he sees his own blood,” Robinson said. “Now, show me what you got.”
In 2009, a statue depicting the two men was erected outside Illinois State’s arena. Collins treasures that, and what it represents – two men from very different backgrounds, coming together and making each other better in every way. (Robinson, who died in 2008, was a longtime coach in the Detroit Public League, while Collins hailed from a lily-white hometown of some 6,000 souls.)
“That’s why the term ‘Coach’ to me is like being a doctor or lawyer or something like that,” he said that night in his office.
He was the first-overall pick in 1973, but was limited to 25 games as a rookie because of a broken foot, a harbinger of things to come. His career found traction the following year, and in time he found himself on “the first rock-star team,” as he called it, featuring Julius Erving and George McGinnis. But those Sixers lost in the ’77 Finals – Collins recalled that he had to receive a pain-killing injection in his groin to suit up – and by the time they made it back there, in 1980, he was all but done.
He went into broadcasting before the Bulls hired him, then returned to the microphone before he landed another head-coaching gig, in Detroit. Then the cycle repeated itself – he called games for a while, then was in charge during Jordan’s two-year swan song in Washington (2001-03) – and again; when the Sixers hired him in 2010, he had been out of coaching for seven years.
As in his other stops, there has been progress for two years, followed by stagnation. There is a 7-foot asterisk this time, though, which again explains that laminated card. And explains why, for the most part, he seems undaunted.
“My passion burns on,” he said. “When I leave this job, I will have given my body as a player, and my heart and soul as a coach. There will be nothing left that I can give the Philadelphia 76ers.”