HE WAS 6-FOOT, 135, a wiry kid who revered his high school coach in Benton, Ill. His plan was to emulate his coach, Rich Herrin, the dedicated way that he saw Herrin work and live. He would go to college and major in psychology and education, then carve out a career as a coach and a guidance counselor. That was the plan.
"The miracle," Doug Collins was saying recently, "is that if you had told me then I would ever play one game in college, one game in the NBA, I'd have taken it."
The plan changed.
This isn't truly in the category of miracles, but seemingly just like that, Collins was nearly 6-7, accepting the first-ever full scholarship to Illinois State, playing for the legendary Will Robinson, the first African-American coach in the NCAA's Division I.
He rose from there to become the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA's 1973 draft, selected by a Philadelphia franchise that had finished with an all-time worst record of 9-73.
"I heard he was a nonstop runner, a nonstop mover, who played hard and had a little flair," said Evan Turner, the 76ers' latest first-round pick.
Collins, now 59, was that and more. He relentlessly played eight seasons, all with the Sixers, and made four All-Star teams. His mind was always a play or two ahead, but eventually his body couldn't keep up. The Sixers' seventh coach since Larry Brown has two artificial hips and an artificial knee, but no regrets.
"As it turned out, the doctors told me my hips hadn't grown properly, and that put pressure on my knees and ankles," he said. "With today's medicine, they'd have seen that sooner. My career would have been longer."
Each coach since Brown - Randy Ayers, Chris Ford, Jim O'Brien, Maurice Cheeks, Tony DiLeo, Eddie Jordan - has been "the right guy at the right time." Ford and DiLeo, serving in interim situations, deserve absolution. The others, at least by basketball definition, all showed a fatal flaw. So how does Collins, who campaigned from a distance for the job 2 years ago but couldn't get an interview, then campaigned more openly this time, know he is finally the right guy?
"Just confidence, faith," he said. "There's an expression, 'Faith doesn't make things easier; it just gives you the possibility that things can happen.' I pride myself on being able to bring out the best in people. In the past, guys have responded and done that. I just want everybody to do what they can do best. It's up to me to put them in a scheme of things so that the pieces of the puzzle work.
"I've never started on top with anything I've done, but I tell my children this and I'll tell my grandchildren this: 'Wherever you go, make a positive difference. When you leave, have that place better for you having been there.' "
It worked when Collins first became a coach in the league. His Chicago Bulls increased their victory total by 10 from the previous season in his first year. The Detroit Pistons and the Washington Wizards each improved by 18. It appears that the Sixers, who won 41 games in 2008-09, then stumbled to 27 in their only season under Jordan, are a significantly more difficult challenge. Whatever skills and habits worked for them two seasons ago evaporated last season, which is why the roster includes six new players. There is no proven 20-point scorer. There is no dominant big man. There is minimal long-range shooting. There are gaping holes everywhere, and they are not all going to be filled in quickly, no matter how clever Collins' schemes are.
His planning was momentarily delayed when he missed the final two preseason games, a result of lingering effects from a Memorial Day fall in a coffee shop in Phoenix in which he suffered three broken ribs and a concussion. He is being treated for vertigo, but said he has been told there should be no long-term effects and that his problems are not related to stress or fatigue.
Collins, as he has aged, seems more patient as he instructs his players, as he tries to impart his knowledge, his philosophy. This is a job he dearly wanted, an opportunity he fervently believes is his last as a coach, to return to the city where his pro career started. He likes to remind people that he had come to a team that been 9-73 and that 4 years later was in the Finals.
Doug Collins came to Philadelphia for the first time as a high school senior, a side visit as he was being recruited by Lehigh University.
"I have a cousin who had married Craig Anderson, a former major league baseball player who was coaching at Lehigh," Collins recalled, laughing. "I came here, saw the Sixers and the Celtics in a playoff game."
The city and the game made an indelible impression.
"I had been to Chicago and St. Louis, but one thing about Philly, I felt like it was a small city," he said. "I wasn't overwhelmed. I felt it was . . . quaint. But I loved the people. I love passionate people who love their city, who love their teams, who have an edge about themselves."
He was back after his college career ended, after playing in the controversial, terribly painful Olympics in 1972, after a gold medal the Americans believed was theirs was snatched away by the Soviet Union in a series of almost unimaginable calls. It was also before the draft, and Collins found himself playing in something called the M.S. Hope Chest Classic, an all-star game matching a Big 5 group against a national team.
"I had come in from the East-West game in Dayton with Ed Ratleff [Long Beach State]," Collins said, reaching back into what many believe is a virtually photographic memory. "The Big 5 team was loaded, with Craig Littlepage [Penn], Mike Bantom [Saint Joseph's] and Jim Crawford [La Salle]. I remember the game going overtime. I remember it was the trip when I first went to Boyd's, when I bought my first-ever suit of clothes. I go there now, I tell them about that."
He wasn't an instant All-Star. He was, in fact, hurt much of his rookie season, appearing in just 25 games. He was, ever so briefly, Bill Campbell's sidekick on the radio broadcasts.
"Irv Kosloff, who was the owner, came to me and asked if Doug could maybe work with me, something to keep him busy," Campbell recalled.
That lasted for only a few games. Then-coach Gene Shue had other ideas.
"Gene taught me a great lesson," Collins said. "He wanted me on the bench watching the guys I'd play against the next year. He said, 'They all have a strength, and they'll go to that strength when the game is on the line. I want you to know every player's strength and weakness, so you'll be ready to go.' And that's what I did.
"The funny thing is, Bill called me 'Dougie.' I had never been called that in my life, not even when I was 3. Now, any time I hear someone yell 'Dougie,' I know that person is from Philly."
He spent 4 years of his young life, ages 5 through 8, living above the Franklin County jailhouse in Benton, Ill. His father, Paul, was the county sheriff.
"Right now, they've turned it into a museum," Collins was saying. "I think one of the last hangings in Franklin County was there. They have the scaffolding and the rope there in the back.
"I took my grandkids there a couple of years ago after my brother [Jeff] was killed in a fire. I said, 'This was where Papa used to live when he was a little boy. My grandson, Ryan, was 5 at the time. He said 'Papa, where were the bad guys?' I told the kids that there was a steel door between us. I said it was OK."
Collins laughingly compared it to the fictional town of Mayberry, N.C., home of the Andy Griffith TV show that ran from 1960 to '68. But instead of Sheriff Andy, Aunt Bee, Deputy Barney and young Opie . . .
"My grandmother was the cook, my father was the sheriff, my uncle was the deputy," he said.
One other difference.
"You couldn't run for a second term as sheriff," he said.
There was always a tendency for young Doug Collins to try to do everything himself. Not anymore. That change comes in part from a message from John Bach, an assistant with the 1972 Olympic team who became a mentor to Collins as an assistant with the Bulls, Pistons and Wizards.
"I told Doug, 'Let people help you,' " said Bach, 86, who was a training-camp visitor. "He knows too much, tries to do too much. I told him to let his assistants help him. It's better."
So far, through summer league in Orlando, training camp and the preseason, Collins has allowed himself to delegate responsibilities to associate head coach Michael Curry and assistants Brian James, Aaron McKie and Quin Snyder.
"I went to Detroit on a 10-day contract when Doug was there," Curry said. "He told me what he wanted from me, and I did it. In those 2 weeks, I found myself on the court at the end of games because I could get stops and make free throws; he was big on those things. I was a little older, more vocal, had played in Europe. He rewarded me, made me a captain.
"Now, he's a lot more mellow, but in a good way. He doesn't let all the little things bother him as much. He wants so much for his players to be great; he pushes them, but he's learned that not everyone he coaches is going to have the same drive he did. Still, he pushes to get the most out of them."
Never mind that Collins is coaching for the first time in 7 years. He was the recipient of the 2009 Curt Gowdy Award for excellence in broadcast journalism from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the pinnacle of his career as a TV analyst.
"If you listened to him on TV, he was always coaching," Curry said. "A lot of guys, including me, would call him for advice during the season, and the call would turn into an hourlong coaching session. He's always playing the game, seeing things developing. He's sort of educating you as you're watching. Not lecturing-educating."
James coached Collins' son, Chris, at Glenbrook North High in the Chicago suburbs. Chris played at Duke, where he is now the associate head coach.
How was Doug, the father, sitting in the Glenbrook North stands?
"He told me, 'Play Chris anywhere you want, work his butt off, win as many games as you can. If you do those three things, you'll win games and, if Chris is good enough, the recruiters will find him,' " James said. "Doug would sit in the stands and not interfere. All the other parents saw that he wasn't complaining or questioning anything, and if he wasn't, how could they?"
So, is Doug Collins finally the right guy at the right time for the Sixers?
"He's the perfect coach to have here in a situation like this," said former All-Star guard Reggie Miller during a visit to training camp with a crew from NBA TV. "There's a lot of young talent here that really hasn't been taught how to play the way of the NBA.
"Doug's an old-school kind of guy with a fresh approach to the game. Will he be successful? Who knows? But I guarantee you this: The 15 guys who remain on this roster will be better for it."
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