Sixers coach Collins knows adversity
The Sixers were a wretched 9-73 in 1973, which earned them the very first pick in the NBA draft. On merit. They wound up with Doug Collins. But first they tried to swap him to Chicago.
The deal unraveled because of X-rays. Not Doug's. Somebody else's.
That was 40 years ago. Collins tells the melancholy story as only he can, names, places, numbers, all recalled with painful accuracy.
He lived it, he learned from it, it shaped his core beliefs.
"The day of the draft they traded me to Chicago for Clifford Ray and Bobby Weiss," Collins said. "Chicago wanted me to be the heir apparent to Jerry Sloan.
"I was born and raised in Chicago. I went to school at Illinois State, 2 hours away. I was going to join Norm Van Lier and Chet Walker and those guys. And then . . . Clifford Ray failed his physical and I stayed with the 76ers. It's the best thing that ever happened to me.
"But first, I broke my foot in a summer game in Boston. They put my foot in a cast for 6 weeks. Missed all of training camp. And then, Dr. [Joe] Torg took the cast off, told me it wasn't completely healed, but that I could play if I wanted to.
"I'm a player. So I played. I didn't want to sit and watch. I didn't practice. Then they put me in a game against Houston for a few minutes. I became the answer to a trivia question: 'Name the No. 1 choice who didn't score a point in his first game in the pros.' I think Yao Ming is the only other person.
"Other than the Olympics, nobody in Philly had ever seen me play. Nobody had seen me play in college. Our games weren't on television. Nobody knew who I was."
Dedicated fans (you could fit them in a booth at the Fourth Street Deli) remembered him from the Olympics, woozily making those two free throws that gave the U.S. the gold medal in the Munich Olympics until they kept putting time back on the clock and more time back on the clock until the Russians had more points, but that's another anguished story.
This one is not about the thrill of victory. It is about the agony of da feet, and how Collins' troubles thickened his skin and turned him deaf to the criticism of strangers.
"I was 50 percent, 50 percent," he said, picking up the sad story. "I played in only 25 games, rebroke the foot, had to have surgery. I was viewed as another 76er bust. Another in a long line of busts."
Collins refused to join that bloody list of brutal Sixers picks. "I got my foot out of the cast in April," he said. "Went back to Illinois State, played racquetball 2 hours every morning. Then basketball at night. Came back in great shape, determined to show 'em I could play."
Played in 81 games that year, averaged 18 points a game. Won 'em over until the split hit the fans again in 1979.
"I'd been an All-Star 4 years in a row and then my father passed away in 1979," Collins said, sadly. "Within a week, I broke bones in both my feet. They X-rayed 'em, X-rayed 'em, couldn't find anything. Said it was tendinitis.
"I kept trying to play. Could hardly get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. They began to say I was struggling mentally because of the death of my father and that I had a low threshold of pain.
"That's not my personality. Have you ever known a guy who gives more every single night than I do? Who wants to play more than I do? They sent me to New York to the hospital for special surgeries.
"They found stress fractures in both my feet and did the surgery. What I learned from this is that you have to listen to the player. When he says he's hurt, he's hurt."
Which brings us to today, Collins wearing his heart on his sleeve, sitting on a big, violet exercise ball to ease the chronic pain in his back, choosing his words so carefully, like a guy plucking a porcupine, when asked about Andrew Bynum.
"You hear the doctors," Collins said swiftly. "He has bone bruises on both knees. He has swelling in both knees. I know he wants to play.
"We traded for him, contract year, he wants to be here, he knows the pressure, he heard the talk, 'Best big man since Moses Malone.' We gave up a lot to get him. I know he wants to play."
And until that time, Bynum must face life in the city of Brotherly Love as the punch-line of weak jokes, as the target of talk-radio callers, as another in that long line of busts.
"You can't help it," Collins said. "The world is too noisy today. Unless you live in a cave. Everybody's a critic. It's easy to be a critic, unless you walk a mile in another man's shoes."