Perhaps it's appropriate that Doug Collins grew up on the same street as actor John Malkovich in Benton, Ill., since it's clear the 76ers new coach is back "in the line of fire."
Collins, at 58, is returning to a team that isn't markedly better than it was 37 years ago, when, after a record 73-loss season, the 76ers made the Illinois State guard the NBA draft's No. 1 overall pick.
But, if nothing else, Collins' past reveals the kind of tenacity and spirit he'll need to succeed - or even survive - here. Friends from Illinois, Philadelphia, and Arizona spoke of a man imbued with an uncommon competitive fire and a powerful work ethic.
"He's got a burning desire," said Rich Herrin, his high school coach.
Those attributes have sustained Collins through a roller-coaster life that, according to Benton High teammate Denny Smith, would make a compelling movie script:
The county sheriff's son who willed himself into becoming a basketball talent; the college star who played for Division I's first African American coach; the member of the '72 Olympic team who, for a few brief moments, appeared to have won a gold medal for his team and country; the NBA's No. 1 pick; Michael Jordan's coach with the Bulls; a Hall of Fame basketball analyst.
If that movie were made, though, it would be punctuated often by the sad and tragic moments that seemed to arrive as bracing counterpoints to most of the highlights:
Riding the bench until he was a senior; the pain of being at center stage in that '72 Olympic team's crushing and controversial loss to the Soviets; a series of injuries that truncated his NBA career; controversy with the game's greatest player when he was coach; and the death of a younger brother in a fire.
"For someone who grew up in a small Midwestern town, a kind of Mayberry-type place, he's really had an interesting life," said Smith.
Seven years ago, Collins had both hips replaced. A year later it was a knee. As a result, he's practically abandoned golf and tennis - the latter a sport in which he routinely thumped the man who gave him his first coaching job, ex-Penn coach Bob Weinhauer.
Now he's a passionate crossword fan, a Bible-quoting Christian, a regular attendee at Duke games, where his son, Chris, is a Mike Krzyzewski assistant.
And probably the best thing about this latest career change for Collins is that he'll be close to his daughter, Kelly, and her family. Kelly, who played basketball at Lehigh, and her husband, Paul Romanczuk, a former Penn basketball standout who now coaches Archbishop Carroll's boys' team, live in West Chester.
"When he wasn't announcing games, that's how he and Kathy were spending their time, visiting Chris and Kelly and the grandkids [Katie, Ryan, Colin, and Cooper]," said Don Franke, who met Collins at Illinois State and has remained his closest friend.
Collins' father, Paul - that's Doug Collins' actual first name as well - was the Franklin County sheriff. As a young boy, the future coach slept in a bedroom that was adjacent to the county jail, an experience, one friend said, that helped him develop a rigid sense of right and wrong.
Later, the Collinses moved their two sons and a daughter to a home on South Main Street, just a block or two from the house of a friend, the future actor John Malkovich, 11/2 years younger.
In 2007, Collins' brother, Jeff, three years younger, perished in a fire at the Benton house Collins had purchased for him.
In the late '60s, as a Benton High athlete, Collins was versatile and dedicated but rail-thin, slow afoot, and not particularly strong.
"He was a quarterback, but he didn't have a lot of arm strength," said Hugh Frailey, another Benton basketball teammate. "But he made up for it with brains. Doug's one of the smartest people I've ever met. He has a photographic memory."
Five years before the Sixers made Collins the top pick in a first-round that, except perhaps for George McGinnis, yielded no superstars, he was a 5-11 high school junior who couldn't start for Benton.
"But he worked 10 times harder than anybody else," said Smith. "Believe me, we had a coach [Rich Herrin] who demanded a lot. Of course, it didn't hurt that Doug grew about seven inches between his junior and senior year."
The summer before his senior year he and Smith earned $150 a week working odd jobs - timber-clearing, truck-driving - at the site where the Rend Lake Recreation Center, a popular vacation and camping spot in southern Illinois, was being built.
"And he worked just as hard there as he did on the court," said Smith.
Collins, a point guard, developed fast enough as a senior to earn a Division I scholarship to Illinois State in Normal, where his coach was Will Robinson.
"Coach Robinson was a great man," said Franke. "Doug and he had a great relationship, which was unusual then because 'Coach' was black and Doug had come from an all-white town in southern Illinois."
Last year, the school, whose basketball court is now named for Collins, dedicated a sculpture that depicts the player with his hand on the kneeling coach's shoulder.
At the infamous '72 Olympics in Munich, with three seconds left in the gold-medal game, Collins hit what current Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich calls "the two most pressure-packed free throws in basketball history."
The foul shots appeared to give the U.S., which had never lost an Olympic men's basketball game, a 50-49 Cold War win over the Soviets. But controversy and curious calls ensued, and after the clock was reset on at least two occasions, the Soviets won when Sergei Belov hit a layup at the buzzer. Collins, who wept afterward, and his teammates refused to accept their silver medals.
"I know that really hurt him," said Franke.
Collins also exhibited an early business acumen. He used some of his 76ers signing money to buy an 80-acre farm with Franke's mother, a real estate agent, in Bloomington, Ill. They sold it 15 years later for a sizable profit.
As a player on a team that also included Julius Erving and McGinnis, he helped the 76ers reach the 1976-77 NBA Finals, where they were beaten by Portland. Collins became an all-star, averaging 18 points and 3.3 assists over his eight-year career. But a series of leg and foot injuries shortened several seasons and led to his 1981 retirement.
A year later, after encountering the Penn coach at a local athletic banquet, he became Weinhauer's volunteer assistant at Penn.
"You could see right away that this kid was going to be a terrific coach," said Weinhauer, now retired in Savannah, Ga. ""He's got such an analytical mind. Watch him when he broadcasts a game. He's two steps ahead of the players and 10 steps ahead of the viewers."
Collins' injuries also led to the joint-replacement surgeries he underwent at the University of Chicago hospital.
"He had a great overhand serve," said Weinhauer.
Collins rehabilitated himself with his typical fervor at the Body Stabilization Training Center in Phoenix, a place where recuperating athletes are taught to derive their strength from the torso.
That center's director, cyclist Terry Roach, said Collins was extremely motivated.
"We taught him how to reinvent his posture and showed him how he'd been deriving his strength from all the wrong places," said Roach. "He told me that he wished he'd known about this when he was playing. It might have prolonged his career."
Collins went with Weinhauer to Arizona State to become an assistant there. But by the end of the 1980s, he had what seemed to be the sport's plum job - coaching Jordan with the Bulls.
That relationship ended, however, without a title and with the superstar complaining that Collins had wanted to limit his playing time. Along the way, the coach, who was succeeded by Phil Jackson after the 1988-89 season, had some contentious confrontations with Chicago sportswriters.
Head jobs in Detroit and Washington followed, interspersed with his work as an NBA analyst for both NBC and TNT.
He approached broadcasting with the same zeal he attacked basketball in high school. Last year, Collins was honored by the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame with the Curt Gowdy Media Award.
"He was the best color man in basketball," said Herrin. "He always had a great mind for the game. Whenever I'd go on a scouting trip in high school, he'd beg to go with me. I think he learned a lot from everyone who ever coached him. He's going to do great there in Philly."