Collins ready to turn 76ers into contenders

September 9, 2010 2:00:01 PM PDT
Each day Doug Collins walks 7 miles with his wife or completes his daily workouts, he is a living example of a triumphant rebuilding project.

His arthritic hips were replaced in May 2002 and his left knee was replaced in 2004, byproducts of an injury-riddled NBA career. His feet were wrecked in a charity exhibition game before he ever played a minute for the Philadelphia 76ers, leaving today's 20-something players to recognize Collins more from his career as a TNT broadcaster than anything he accomplished as an Olympic medalist and Sixers All-Star.

Collins lived in pain, even agony, at times, before surgeries he called lifesavers, but the 59-year-old now says with a convincing spark in his voice, "I've never felt better."

His body fixed, Collins has more repairs ahead.

Nearly four decades after the former No. 1 overall pick transformed the Sixers from the worst team in league history to the NBA finals in four seasons, Collins must reconstruct the Sixers from the bottom again. In a sports-mad city, the Sixers have lagged behind the Phillies, Flyers, Eagles, and even Villanova, in popularity and deep championship runs.

"They've been insignificant," Collins said. "I'd rather have the fans be angry than apathetic where they don't even cheer for the 76ers."

Collins was beckoned from the broadcast booth in May to make his former team matter again. That means, wins. Lots of them - especially in April, May and June.

He's the seventh coach charged with making the Sixers contenders since Larry Brown left in 2003. Randy Ayers, Chris Ford, Jim O'Brien, Maurice Cheeks and Tony DiLeo all tried and failed in mostly stunningly brief stints. Eddie Jordan was a bust in one season and was fired in a decision that cost Ed Stefanski his job as team president, though he's still the general manager.

Sixers chairman Ed Snider said he expected an "immediate impact" the day Collins signed a four-year contract.

He makes the full-time move to Philadelphia on Friday to start preparing for the opening of training camp on Sept. 28. Collins, who hasn't coached since 2003 with Washington, aims to change the mindset of his still-young roster. He wants Evan Turner, Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young and veterans like Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand to believe they can win, even though Philadelphia hasn't finished above .500 since 2004-05.

"I don't want them to get into the situation where it's, well, you're with the Sixers so you're supposed to lose," Collins said.

Trying to shed their mediocre ways, the Sixers named Rod Thorn as team president after Stefanski hired Collins. Thorn is a huge fan of Collins.

"I think Doug is as knowledgeable a basketball man as I know," Thorn said. "He brings that passion and commitment that I think this organization needs."

Collins could start camp with a refresher course in team history. As dire as it was last season for the 27-win Sixers, it seemed like playing in contention compared to the 1972-73 season. Those Sixers went 9-73 - still the worst record in NBA history, but one that allowed them to make Collins the top pick out of Illinois State. Their win total improved to 25, 34 and 46 in the next three years, then 50 wins in 1976-77 and a six-game loss to Portland in the finals.

Collins played only 58 games that season and Julius Erving, George McGinnis, and World B. Free had established themselves as the stars of the franchise. Collins made four All-Star teams in Philadelphia, though injuries ended his career way before he fulfilled his potential.

He broke his foot in a summer league game before his rookie season, costing him 57 games. He suffered from stress fractures in his feet, which affected his style and led to knee injuries.

"I know I gave everything to Philadelphia, including both my hips and my left knee," said Collins, who retired at 29 after averaging 17.9 points in 415 career games.

He has refused to complain about the brevity of his career, the same way he handled the heartache of the American team's controversial loss to Russia at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Collins made two free throws with 3 seconds left that seemingly gave USA the gold before a disputed call left them with silver - a medal he and his teammates never accepted.

"Never, never have I ever been bitter," Collins said. "The thought of being bitter, when I got eight years in the NBA, that would be very selfish on my part. ... I've never lost sight of the fact that in 1968 I didn't start for my high school team and in 1972 and I'm playing in a gold medal game."

He went into coaching and guided Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls from 1986-89, and the Detroit Pistons from 1995-98. He coached Jordan again with the Washington Wizards from 2001-03. Collins was fired shortly after Jordan was denied a return to the front office.

Collins had coaching offers through the years, but told his family he would only return to Chicago or Philadelphia. His daughter and her family live in the Philadelphia suburbs, allowing him ample time to visit his grandchildren.

His summer has been stuffed with meeting his new players and learning their scouting reports. Collins is "text message buddies" with Marreese Speights, told Lou Williams he could be Philly's version of Jamal Crawford, and asked Iguodala to return from the world championships ready to lead the team and become an All-Star.

"We want these guys to have the thought process that things are going to change," Collins said.

It starts with Collins - and he can't wait to take them from losers to winners again.


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