He hasn’t been feeling well lately. There were various internal battles, most recently with a sinus infection. Before that Doug Collins had some pain in one of his teeth.
“How’s your mouth doing?” someone asked Collins.
“I feel good,” Collins replied. Pause. Then: “The other guy is in trouble.”
The best kind of jokes feature some truth, and that one did, too. He is a proud father and a grandfather, which Collins talks about regularly. But there is some fight in him. He had it as a player and he has it now as a coach.
Sometimes, the way he talks, it doesn’t sound like Collins thinks the Sixers have that same toughness. Not mentally or physically. He hasn’t come right out and said so. But he doesn’t have to.
As codes go, you don’t need an Enigma machine or even a Cracker Jack decoder to decipher Collins’ thoughts. Consider some of the answers Collins has given to otherwise innocuous questions recently:
When asked why the Sixers, who are last in free throws made per game, struggle so much to get to the line, Collins said: “We’re not a team that likes contact. Simple.”
It certainly doesn’t seem so. On Monday, the Sixers got pushed around at times against the Grizzlies -- particularly during the second quarter, during which they played “soft defense,” according to Collins -- and lost to Memphis, 103-100, at the Wells Fargo Center. Last year’s team didn’t have a ton of talent, but it scrapped. It played defense, too. This year’s team doesn't do much of either.
The Sixers had a 13-point lead after the first quarter. That evaporated pretty quickly. Memphis, which averages around 93 points per game, had one of its better offensive nights. Even so, the Sixers had the game in hand -- until they handed it over and the Grizzlies took the lead with 13.3 seconds left on a Rudy Gay shot in the lane.
Contact. Gay went for it at a critical moment. The Sixers avoided it. Memphis won. The Sixers didn’t. It was such a Sixers way to lose.
Collins said he told his team that he wasn’t “disappointed in them,” he was “disappointed for them.” It was the usual diplomacy. It is generally how he handles his players. He doesn't want to hurt their feelings.
After mentioning their aversion to contact, one reporter recently wondered whether Collins gets on them about it.
“I can’t,” Collins responded. “I can’t get into them. I just can’t. I can’t. It’s just not that kind of group.”
He fired off the word “can’t” the way the Sixers' custom-made T-shirt cannon pumps out free gear. Can’t do it. Not that kind of group. There aren’t many lines there, so it shouldn’t take you long to read between them.
There’s more. Collins has said a few times this season that, when things aren’t going well for the Sixers, he tries to “keep them calm.”
“I kept trying to keep them calm,” Collins said after one loss this month. “I didn’t have the heat lamp on them or electrocute them or anything. I was trying to keep them calm.”
That’s not the end of it, either. The Sixers are 18-26. When they reached the midway point of the season, I asked Collins if he was worried and if he had expressed that sentiment to his players.
“This team would not react to extra pressure,” Collins said. “They would not react well to that at all. All of a sudden I say, ‘Guys, we’re running out of games, we’ve got to get this.’ It would not be pretty.”
Some of the players don’t agree. Thaddeus Young said he understands when Collins gets upset even if he doesn’t concur with the assessment about the players being a bit fragile.
“That’s normal for a coach,” Young said. “When you’re going through the stretches we’re going through, it’s normal for a coach to get a little frustrated, to begin to get a little antsy. He wants to win games.”
But what about the implication that the Sixers are too delicate to handle a good swift kick now and then?
“We all respond well as far as taking criticism,” Young insisted. “We’re all trying our best to be coached. A lot of guys came from different places where they maybe were able to do whatever they wanted to or say whatever they wanted to say. But, here, coach definitely has the voice.”
Collins has the voice. That’s true. But sometimes -- too often, actually -- he has to keep it down. Despite what Young said, these Sixers have sensitive ears.