Grant Hill was a heralded NBA rookie when he joined the Detroit Pistons in 1994. The kid from Duke had some solid teammates in Joe Dumars, Allan Houston and Terry Mills. He averaged a nice 19.9 points per game. The Pistons won 28 (count 'em) games.
Enter Doug Collins and the turnaround culture. A year later, the Pistons won 46. A year after that, they won 54.
After 7 years away from coaching, relaxing in the relative solitude of the TV booth, Collins is back to try to turn around the 76ers. He is the seventh since Larry Brown to try.
"The Sixers are getting a coach who puts every ounce of his energy into making the team better," said Hill, who has fought through an agonizing series of foot and ankle surgeries to resurrect his career with the Phoenix Suns, currently fighting for their lives against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals. "With Doug, they'll be prepared, they'll be in great shape. He's an unbelievable motivator. He'll get them to play. It wouldn't surprise me if they're a playoff team next year.
"My experience is, when you haven't made the playoffs there are issues, problems. Doug works to change the culture. I was with Dumars, Houston, Lindsey Hunter, Theo Ratliff, Michael Curry, Aaron McKie in Detroit. We grew up together. We all learned a lot; we all had long careers. Some of us are in coaching, some are still playing, some are working in the front office. The point is, Doug teaches you to be a professional.
"I had had some success at Duke, then won 28 games as a rookie. I found out that you can learn how to lose. Doug breaks you of that, demanding a lot from the players and from himself. He has an ability to communicate and to teach."
But Collins, a four-time All-Star in his eight-season career with the Sixers, hasn't coached since 2003, in a bizarre situation with Washington, in which part-owner Michael Jordan was on the active roster. Has he been away too long? Or is that why Hill and many of the others call him "Dougie Fresh?"
"He's a coach," Hill said. "He's a coach even now, on TV. To this day, I still call him 'coach.' It's something that's in him. Being a TV analyst is the closest thing to it. He enjoys the teaching part, developing players, making the situation better. He loves to see growth. He takes joy in seeing Lindsey in the front office of the Chicago Bulls, in seeing Theo still playing, in seeing Aaron starting to coach [as a Sixers assistant].
"We all learned early what it takes. Doug rolls up his sleeves and teaches you how to respond, how to act in the trenches. He builds those relationships. I love Doug Collins."
Every coach has a shelf life. Collins is no different. In 1997-98, a year after winning 54 games, he was fired with a record of 21-24.
"Dumars got hurt, we lost Curry and Mills, who were part of the turnaround," Hill said. "We overachieved, winning 54, and expectations changed. That's the way this business is. People expect even bigger increases. One of the regrets I have is that I couldn't do more to turn it around in Detroit. I wish I could have played longer for him."
(Amazingly, Collins was replaced by then-assistant Alvin Gentry, now coaching the Suns.)
Collins, 58, is open, personable, almost gregarious away from the court, even on TV. When he coaches, he turns deadly serious, almost as if he were wearing a mask, his passion and fire seeping out of his pores. History says he prefers to call every play from the bench. He also has a remarkable ability to see two or three plays ahead. His memory for what has gone before is almost photographic.
"He's a problem solver," Hill said. "He figures out what needs to be done in order for the team to succeed. His teams play hard; they play good defense. He's as passionate about it today as he ever was. He still has that fire. You'll see it from training camp all the way through the entire season."
One report says Collins already has plans to meet with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and forward Elton Brand, a Duke alum, to search for ways to make Brand more effective. Collins is very familiar with Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils program since Collins' son, Chris, played there and is now an associate head coach.
"Sometimes," Hill said, "all it takes for a player to figure things out is to have someone in his corner."
History also says Collins, virtually obsessed with perfection, with doing things the correct way, tends to wear down in the final 20 games or so.
"He's like anyone else," Hill said. "We're all worn down by then. But he's older now, and he's in a great spot. It's as if his career has come full circle. He started in Philly [as the No. 1 overall draft choice in 1973], and now he's back. He's a great people person; he'll invest the time in building those relationships. He knows more than anybody what's in store. He's refreshed. He's ready."
The Sixers won 41 games two seasons ago, and took the eventual Eastern champion Orlando Magic to six games in the first round of the playoffs. There is a belief that the Sixers, going into next season, are closer to that than to last season's mind-numbing 27-55.
"Sometimes when you have success when you're young, you lose sight of what comes next and what you have to do," Hill said. "And sometimes when you don't have success, you're more ready to listen.
"A lot that I learned from Doug, I apply now. I've lost some athleticism, but I've learned to think the game. I feel as if I know the game. I look back at Hunter, Theo, Curry, we all had long careers, and that's not by coincidence. Doug wants to see everyone get the most out of their careers.
"Philly now reminds me of Detroit, a group of young guys who need the right leader. He's not easy, but in the long run you appreciate it and enjoy it."
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