THE TOUGHEST moment for young Chris Collins was seeing his father get fired by the Chicago Bulls.

It's what life can be like when you're a coach's son.

"I was in the ninth grade; I was 14," Chris recalled yesterday, after he saw his father, Doug, introduced as the 76ers' new coach. "The Bulls had just gone to the Eastern Conference finals. Michael Jordan hit that shot over [Cleveland's] Craig Ehlo.

"They had had a great run, and everything was on the way up. All of a sudden, they decided to make a change. Being that age, people are cruel, kids are cruel. To be honest, it really hardened me and toughened me as I've gone forward with my career."

Chris is an associate head coach at Duke, arriving there in the summer of 2000 after playing for the Blue Devils and in Finland, and serving coaching apprenticeships with the Detroit Shock in the WNBA and with Seton Hall.

"With Duke, there's no team there's more animosity for," Chris said. "More is expected; there is more pressure. But I relish it. It's how I grew up. I feel like I've been through those situations before."

All Doug wanted was for his son "to be his own man." That's also what life can be like when you're a coach's son.

"I saw as a young boy that he loved basketball, like his daddy," Doug said. "He liked to be around it, loved to play. I've never been more proud than seeing how he has grown. When you love something like he does, you understand what goes with that. I always told Chris and [daughter] Kelly, 'I can't change your last name, I just want you to be your own people. Whatever you do, just do it to the best of your ability.'

"People have asked whether I would bring Chris with me on my staff. It would be an incredible journey, but his niche is in college. He has carved out his own spot. When I'm with him, when I'm down at Duke, on his turf, I'm Chris Collins' daddy. He's not Doug Collins' son. I'm his daddy."

Chris was the little kid riding shotgun in Darryl Dawkins' car, impetuously winding through the streets of Philadelphia in the mid-1970s while Doug was being named to the All-Star team four times as a Sixers guard. That memory still leaves Doug somewhat breathless.

"For me, my most formative years were really when he was coaching in Chicago," Chris recalled. "I was in middle school and high school, getting a chance every day to go to the practice facility and sit there and watch my father teach Michael and Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant when they were young guys.

"Really, that's how I learned to play, because I was always very sensitive, like a lot of sons are when their fathers are trying to tell them what to do. I always learned from him by watching him coach others, being in the gym, seeing what it was all about, seeing how hard you had to work, learning how to practice."

If that was a form of pressure, Chris quickly learned to make it work for him.

"I wanted to use it as motivation to create my own name," he said. "I was always proud of who my dad was, as a player and as a coach. People expected me to be a good player because of his acumen and what he had done. For me, that was motivation to keep working to get better.

"Our common bond that we shared was basketball, and it's made us the best of friends. One of the reasons I enjoy being on the college level is it's my own niche. He's the NBA, doing his thing; I like being a college coach, creating my own identity while still using what I've learned from him to be good at what I do."

This, then, is the next lesson, Chris seeing his father - maybe the best basketball analyst out there, a four-time Emmy nominee - walk away from a comfortable, prestigious position to return to coaching after a 7-year absence.

"Obviously, I had reservations initially," Chris said, "because I know how hard he will work to make this situation right. In my conversations with him, I wanted to sense that excitement, to see that he was ready to jump in again and rebuild.

"He's had to do that on three separate occasions [Chicago, Detroit and Washington]. I understand the time commitment, knowing you're going to go through some 'downs,' how hard you're going to have to work to get good. But from Moment 1, when he started talking to [Sixers president/general manager Ed Stefanski], he was nothing but excited. That made me feel better."

Six shots

An NBA source with knowledge of the situation clarified Doug Collins' contractual status: He has a 3-year contract, plus a year at the team's option. The first 3 years could be worth as much as $12 million, not the $10.5 million the Daily News reported yesterday, and could be worth as much as $15 million over the full 4 years. *