THE 76ERS, trying to be as thorough as possible in their search for a new coach, have reached out - albeit unsuccessfully - to former NBA coach and current ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy.

That comes on the heels of having met with former Sixers All-Star guard and current TNT analyst Doug Collins in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Saturday and today's scheduled meeting with former Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson in Houston.

A source familiar with the Sixers' situation said that president/general manager Ed Stefanski is also scheduling a meeting with Mark Jackson, Van Gundy's ESPN analysis partner.

Jackson, 45, has never coached, but played in 1,296 regular-season games and 131 playoff games with seven different teams. Jackson, the 18th overall pick by the Knicks in 1987, retired after the 2003-04 season.

The source said that Stefanski spoke with Van Gundy, the former coach of the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets, and was told that Van Gundy is not currently interested in returning to the profession.

The source said that Stefanski and Van Gundy have had a long-standing relationship, and that Van Gundy said if he were interested in coaching again, he would be intrigued by the Sixers' talent base.

The source also said that the Sixers have not asked the Mavericks for permission to speak with assistant Dwane Casey, the runner-up to Eddie Jordan in last year's search. ESPN reported yesterday that New Orleans has received permission from Dallas to speak with Casey.

Having interviewed Casey twice last year, the Sixers are comfortable that they have enough information on him for the time being.

Jordan was fired after a 27-55 record and just one leg of a guaranteed 3-year contract.

Van Gundy, 48, has a career regular-season coaching record of 430-318, plus 44-44 in the postseason. He took the Knicks to the playoffs six times, including the 1998-99 Finals. He coached the Rockets from 2003 to 2007, when he was fired after a first-round loss to the Utah Jazz.

Van Gundy has made it a policy not to publicly discuss reports involving him and coaching, preferring that any information come from a team specifically involved.

Stefanski declined comment on anything other than his meeting with Collins.

Collins, 58, who has coached the Chicago Bulls, the Detroit Pistons and the Washington Wizards, remains equally intrigued by the Sixers, but would not go into any detail about his meeting with Stefanski, senior vice president/assistant general manager Tony DiLeo and consultant Gene Shue, a former Sixers coach and general manager.

"The Sixers have to go about their business, and I have to go about mine, finishing the season with TNT," Collins told the Daily News. "The Sixers hold a special place in my heart. I was part of a rebuilding program there and eventually went to the Finals with them. The idea of again being part of a rebuilding program there is intriguing."

Collins was the Sixers' first-round draft choice in 1973 and spent all eight of his seasons in the league with them, finally forced to retire because of injuries.

Last year when the 76ers were searching for potential coaching candidates, Collins wanted very much to talk to the team, but it never came about before the club settled on Jordan.

Now, with the job again open, Collins got his wish.

"We had a very productive meeting with Doug to discus the position and his philosophies," said Stefanski. "He is someone who has a proven track record as a head coach and has a great knowledge of the game. We appreciate him taking the time to meet with us."

Collins, now an NBA analyst on TNT, has coached eight seasons in the NBA with a career record of 332-287, and coached Michael Jordan in Chicago before being replaced by Phil Jackson.

Still looming like a bug to a light on a dark night is Charlotte Bobcats coach Larry Brown. According to sources, the team is pondering when, or if, they will contact him about returning to Philadelphia, where he coached for six seasons from 1997 to 2003.

Other candidates include Boston Celtics associate coach Tom Thibodeau, San Antonio Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, former Toronto Raptor coach Sam Mitchell and NBA television analyst Mike Fratello.

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