- The Washington Times - Friday, December 21, 2001

How have the Washington Wizards, a young team representing a perennially weak franchise, managed to salvage their season with seven straight victories after surviving an eight-game skid and injuries to players like Brendan Haywood and Hubert Davis? First-year coach Doug Collins discussed the turnaround yesterday with beat writer John N. Mitchell of The Washington Times.
Q: What does it say about these guys that they've been able to get back into this by winning games on the road, games that past, more experienced Washington teams probably would have found a way to lose?
A: Pride. A lot of pride. And that they care. They want to do what's right. There has not been a day since I've been here when I've walked into the locker room and felt like those guys didn't want to win. They have been willing to do what was necessary to win. There was never the feeling that they didn't trust me and the staff. If they did it wouldn't be working, and we wouldn't be getting better.
One thing about pro athletes is that you can't fool them. If you don't know what you're doing, or if they feel like your motives are in the wrong place, you won't make it. I hope that if you went to each of these guys, and if they're honest, I would hope they would say, "Coach has been fair and consistent and he's just tried to help us get better every day." I think if you do that every day, there's a camaraderie that develops, the players get a bounce in their step, guys are playing cards together on the plane and going out to eat dinner together. As a coach, I look at my staff and say that guys are starting to enjoy each other.
Q: The team's comeback has been a surprise to most observers. What are the reasons behind it?
A: I have to give a lot of credit to Michael [Jordan]. I think everybody thought Michael was going to be this very, very impatient guy. During that period of time when we went through that losing streak, he and I would speak a lot. We had won a couple of games, beating Atlanta and Philly, and for some reason we went into a funk and lost five in a row at home, which is devastating for a young team. But after every game, he gave me his reassurance that he felt that we were moving in the right direction, and that it was going to take some time.
This was from a guy whose teams won six championships, two gold medals and an NCAA championship. Just being able to sit and talk with him kept me focused. We knew that usually there was one bad quarter that was killing us, and we knew if we could erase it, we'd be all right.
Q: Was there ever a time during the losing streak that you felt that maybe you'd bitten off more than you could chew?
A: Never. Never. I have always been a guy who, if you track my career, I was a very late developer as a player. I didn't start on my high school team until I was a senior. I went to Illinois State, which became a Division I program while I was there. I went to the Philadelphia 76ers when they were 9-73, broke my foot the first year and three years later I was playing against Portland for a world championship. I went to Chicago (as a coach); they'd won 30 games. I went to Detroit; they'd won 28 games. So I've never been a person who started at the top. My personality has always been to go into one of those places and figure out the role that I can play in helping.
I think that you become a product of your experiences, and each time you do it you grow from it. I knew that I had Michael's support, and that's the only reason why I came back in the first place. I knew that there would be no questions about what's going on because we would be living it with each other every day. That makes all the difference in the world..
Q:Granted it's still early, but has there been a defining moment in this season that you can point to where things began to turn around?
A: Three games. The Boston game at home. We were 2-6 at home and had an eight-game losing streak. We almost kicked away a 15-point lead, but we came back with some big plays to win it. Then we had the "we stink" (Jordan's quote) game in Cleveland, but we came back the next night and ended Philly's seven-game winning streak. And the Miami game at home where we got a defensive stop the last possession to win that game. Those three games sort of gave us the feeling that we can win games if we just do it the right way.
Q: Was there ever a time when you thought you might have to go into the season without Michael Jordan?
A: There was. When his knee was bothering him and he was trying to come back, he called me and I could hear it in his voice that he was concerned that he might not be able to come back and play. He actually said it. That was the only time I've ever heard his voice like that.
Q: Is there any one player on the roster who is making a major difference but is not receiving the recognition for that in the press?
A: Jahidi White is one of my favorite people. I met his parents in Memphis, and you can tell where he gets his positive and mature attitude from. He give it his all in practice, and he never says that he can't do something. I know that whatever it is that I ask of him, he'll bend over backwards to make sure he give it his best effort.
Q: When did you know without any uncertainty that Jordan was going to return and play for the Wizards?
A: In late August. I said, "You know I haven't asked you this, but are you going to play?" He goes, "Unless something major happens in the next 10 days, I'm going to play." He said that he was going to make the announcement on such and such a date, and then the World Trade Center situation happened. I called him and asked him what his plans were. He said, "There's no way in the world that I'm going to make any announcement around this time. People will say that I'm trying to get my name in the paper. But I don't want it to look like in any way that I'm not devastated by what's going on here, that I'm not compassionate, and that I don't feel any grief for those families that have lost their loved ones." He wanted it to be as low key as possible. I already had two separate plans, one for if he played and the other for if he didn't. Once I knew he was going to play, we started doing our planning, figuring out how I could best utilize everybody.
Q: What does it say about him that players who were supposed to see their growth retarded by his presence, are flourishing, particularly Richard Hamilton?
A: I knew that would be the case all along. People were saying that and, for whatever reason, it seemed like they wanted to point negatively at his comeback. It's funny, I do a lot of speaking. And I spoke to my daughter's fifth-grade class at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and all they wanted to know about was Michael the basketball player. I told them to forget about Michael the basketball player. I wanted them to know that if there's one thing they can learn from him it's that he's not afraid to fail. And I told them that as young people they should never be afraid to fail. If you don't test yourself, you'll never know what you can become.
Look, Michael Jordan got on a bus and played baseball and hit .220. And his manager in the minors, Terry Francona,said he was the kind of guy who would make four outs, hit .220 and want to bat in the ninth inning with the game on the line. That's what he's teaching these guys. He's putting his whole resume on the line. So I knew that Michael was going to bring out the best in these guys.
Q:You've said this isn't a throwaway season. Does that mean that the team is exploring any trade opportunities that could make the team better?
A: We will not do anything short term that's foolish. Our eye is on the big prize. From that standpoint, if we can do something to help our team, darn right we will. But not at the expense of making it a short-term fix. When you look at the future with Rip (Hamilton), Tyronn Lue, Brendan (Haywood), Kwame (Brown) and Etan (Thomas), young players. Hopefully, Courtney (Alexander) will come around. Bobby Simmons. Money under the cap. It's all there for us. So to do something silly? No way. But if we can get better, absolutely. Absolutely.
Q:The Wizards traded Laron Profit, a player now out of the league, and a protected future first-round pick to acquire Haywood from Orlando. How good can this guy become and was it a steal?
A: No question, I consider it a steal. First of all, you can never have enough good big men. To win in this game, your front line doesn't necessarily have to provide a great deal of offensive support for you. But if you can't defend, you can't win in this league. You have to be able to guard the basket. You have got to be able to rebound. With a player like Brendan, you can extend your defense on the perimeter because you know someone is back there to protect you. Brendan can do that.
I knew that he was a better player than what he showed his senior year at (North) Carolina. There was a lot of stuff going on there his senior year. They had a great year and they collapsed at the end. Carolina guys have always had a reputation of getting in the NBA and becoming better players. We really lucked out, because we almost lost him. Had Reuben Patterson not signed with Portland as a free agent, I think Orlando was going to trade Bo Outlaw and Brendan for either Dale Davis or somebody like that
Q: You beat the Rockets without Steve Francis, Dallas without Dirk Nowitzki, and now it looks as if you'll get the Magic (tonight) without Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady. What do you say to people who say you've gotten a little bit lucky with the schedule?
A:You have to get lucky in this business. There's not a team in the NBA that hasn't gone through stretches where they haven't been able to play guys because of injuries. We started the year out with no Brendan, no Hubert (Davis), Ty Lue trying to get into the swing of things, Michael coming back. People have taken advantage of us, too. So it's a give-and-take that washes itself out in 82 games. I'd have to compare it to playing golf. They ask you what you got on that hole. They don't ask you to draw a picture to describe how you got that score. In this business it's how many did you win and how many did you lose. That's the bottom line.
Q:Is this a playoff team?
A: We've got a chance. We've got a chance if we can stay healthy. The big thing is, we've got to keep getting our younger guys better as the season goes along. Brendan, Kwame, Ty Lue. Rip, Courtney those guys have to keep getting better. Jahidi's got to keep doing what he's doing, the same for Popeye and Christian (Laettner). We've gotta keep Michael healthy. There's a lot of ifs.
There are going to be a lot more peaks and valleys in this season. As much as I'd like to say we're riding high, boy, I know how quickly that can change. Will we be able to ride through rough waters? That will be critical. We've done it once, but there are going to be rough waters. If we can continue to do that and say let's add them up at the end, then darn right I think we can make the playoffs because we can win on the road.

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