Bill Lyon

is a retired Inquirer sports columnist

Thirty-seven years later and the image endures still: You're on the baseline at the Spectrum and this rawboned, stiletto-slim 76ers rookie, all elbows and blades and sharp edges, is playing too hard for his own good, running right out of his shoes.


He is running so hard, his pivots are so vicious, his cuts are so violent, his stops and starts so explosive, that he rips the soles off his sneakers.

He runs past you and you hear this fa-lump . . . fa-lump . . . fa-lump, and he looks like an 18-wheeler blowing tires and throwing off chunks of rubber out on the interstate.

His name is Doug Collins, and as the professional basketball team of Philadelphia is about to discover, he coaches like he played, which means the current Sixers better be prepared to strap it on, lace it up, and run right out of their shoes.

Collins' baptism into the NBA, like so many of those crude but effective rites, was administered in the form of an elbow to the chops. In the NBA, elbows are used like bayonets. Stitches are frequent and inevitable. It's how to measure the new guy.

"He's standing there bleeding," recalled Pat Williams, for 12 years the 76ers general manager, "and they told him, 'We'll sew you up, Dougie. But first you have to make those free throws.' "

Welcome to the NBA, kid.

As soon as he had the chance, and the ball, he drove right back down Bloody Nose Lane.

Credentials earned. The skinny kid is tough enough.

Now, 37 years later, he is back, still rawhide-lean, a grandfather motoring along on two replaced hips and a knee, and still exceeding the speed limit, still seeing eight minutes ahead, and saying: "Toughness is one of the most underrated skills in the sport. Right now we're very much a finesse team."

Not for long, though.

On a bright, promise-kissed day in late May, at high noon, when all things seemed possible, Doug Collins became the 23d head coach of the 76ers.

Trust me on this, they did him no favors.

The cupboard here is just about bare. The franchise was shamefully permitted to develop dry rot and to fall into disarray and despair and mismanaged neglect.

Doug Collins is a realist and a pragmatist, and harbors no delusions about just how daunting this is going to be. Title contenders? Not bloody likely.

"We're just talking about the Sixers being relevant again," he said.

Which they haven't been for pretty much the last decade. In a four-sport city, they are an almost-invisible fourth, and even in their gravy days they have struggled.

Now, if the new head coach's passion alone were enough, they would be transformed into instant contenders. Alas, it turns out that talent is required as well, and that doesn't seem fair, does it?

At 58, the new head coach is old enough to be the father of everyone on the roster, and it has been suggested that the resulting generation gap might be a bridge too far.

Except this 58-year-old has the passion of an 18-year-old, and understands when to use the velvet glove, when to use the iron fist. Truth and love is how he described it . . . and he talked of rekindling the joy they find in the game. There's precious little joy to be found when you're almost 30 games below .500 and everyone is talking at you in what sounds like a howler monkey chorus and you want to clap your hands over your ears and run away.

"There are pieces here," Doug Collins insists. "It's up to me to make them fit. You can't take shortcuts because quick fixes don't last."

He will have them playing to their strengths, and not forcing them into an ill-suited style, unlike his predecessor.

He's been away from coaching for seven years, and realized about halfway through that stretch that he hadn't gotten coaching out of his system. The seduction of the competition was too intoxicating to ignore.

His is a good hire. He boils with energy. His basketball mind is facile. As a TV analyst - and he is at the top of that list - he has remained in the loop and has a reading on every team in the league.

The team he takes over is young. But it also has young legs, and he will use them. These Sixers will perform at warp speed. And it is inevitable that along the way, from time to time, they will end up in the ditch. Youth is rash and impetuous, but also, when harnessed, breathtaking.

The day the 76ers welcomed their new coach back home, they permitted themselves a modest congratulatory chest-bump. It has been a good month - first they moved up in the draft lottery, all the way to No. 2, and then the guy who used to run out of his shoes said Yes.

When you're down and out, you take your victories anywhere you can find them.