Success not always measured in titles
76ers coach Doug Collins finds contentment in a career of teaching young players
CHICAGO -- This could have been Doug Collins' third season as the Chicago Bulls head coach; would have been if John Paxson had the final call and probably should have been if Jerry Reinsdorf hadn't been afraid to pull the trigger.
Reinsdorf's reasoning wasn't impossible to understand. He said he felt too close personally to Collins, whom he fired in 1989, to go through the whole thing again. And Collins did have that track record of burning himself out.
But when you catch a glimpse of a much more reserved Collins now, nearly 60 years old and looking younger than ever, performing one of the best coaching jobs of his career with a Philadelphia 76ers team currently in possession of the sixth seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs, it's hard not to wonder: "What if?"
It's also hard to quibble with the job Tom Thibodeau is doing as he jockeys with Collins as two of the leading candidates for NBA Coach of the Year. But what of the two previous seasons under Vinny Del Negro, who got the Bulls to two very respectable first-round playoff appearances but certainly doesn't possess the coaching acumen of Collins?
There were certainly enough fans in Chicago that would have loved to see Collins back on the Bulls' bench.
"Yeah, me too," Collins said with a smile, half-joking that Reinsdorf didn't offer him enough money. "[But] I think everything works out. I'm a man of strong faith and I believe that you're led to be in certain places. I thought I was being led back to Chicago two years ago, and when Jerry and I spoke, he was just a little uncomfortable with it. He thought he grew to care about me so much as a person that he didn't want to ever have to worry about me being his coach. I understood that."
Collins said he's happy back in Philly, where his daughter Kelly lives close by with two of Collins' four grandchildren and where his wife Kathy is content after moving from Scottsdale, Ariz.
It was a sweet return to Chicago as well Monday night, as Collins' Sixers never trailed in snapping the Bulls' 14-game home winning streak with a decisive 97-85 victory.
The Sixers, who lost at the United Center by 45 back in December after shaking off a 3-13 start to the season, ran all over an uncharacteristically ragged Bulls team for the better part of three quarters, then held on, refusing to allow one of the hottest teams in the league to rally back as it had in its two previous games.
It was, for one night anyway, a snapshot of one team hungrier than the other as Thibodeau blamed the loss in part on his team not practicing well. But neither the Bulls' loss nor the Sixers' win said anything more or less about the two coaches. Sometimes, things really do happen for a reason and Collins has obviously put some thought into how things have ended up.
"It worked out that I came to Philadelphia," he said. "And I don't even know if I'm back there for basketball, I really don't. I think there's something far greater for me in Philadelphia than coaching a basketball game."
Asked for an example, Collins offered one that was as stunning as it was unexpected.
"I just think I had some things happen to me as a young person, that my life was spared and I always felt I was called on to be a teacher," he said.
Collins told the story of three people, including a boy who had attended his basketball camp, killed in a plane crash after dropping off Collins and his son Chris at his camp.
"I always wondered why my son and I didn't get killed," he said. "I always felt I was spared to be a teacher and to affect young people. And that's why I think in my coaching jobs, I always get young people."
Collins admitted he can't impart everything to his young players.
He was cheated out of winning an Olympic gold medal in 1972; fell short of a title as a pro after his Sixers won the first two games of the '77 NBA Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, only to lose in six. And as a coach, he was replaced by his assistant, Phil Jackson, in '89 and on the brink of the Bulls' championship run.
But Collins is a teacher first and foremost. He taught Michael Jordan in his formative years; Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant with their all-important baby steps.
"A lot of guys want to get a trophy and I've never had that experience," he admits. "But I've had a lot of great experiences coaching young players and helping them getting better and hopefully having long careers and being successful, so I feel good about that. I've never coached the last game or anything, but I really have no regrets."
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Returning to his roots from a comfortable and highly respected place behind a television microphone, Collins ticks off his checklist:
"Teach every day," he said. "Be consistent. Hang your hat on your defense every night. Get guys to understand they have to be in great shape, play your [best] competitors, make guys accountable and responsible. Don't waver.
"One thing I've always said about NBA players, you can't fool them. They can look in your eyes and know if you believe in what you're teaching or not. And so, like with Tom [Thibodeau], they knew coming in he was going to be teaching defense. And they knew from moment one [with me], if they wanted to be on the floor, they were going to have to guard. And our guys knew I was going to play my competitors."
He played them Monday and they responded, in the second of back-to-back games, in impressive fashion. The Sixers are almost assured of a playoff berth, which no one but Collins could have thought possible at the start of the season.
"This was a big win for us," he said. "It was a great win for me. ... This is a very special place for me."
Sometimes things just work out.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.