Doug Collins has promised to tame his public displays of passion, insight and will this season.
He is still working on it.
To which those in the gasbag capital might say, “Don’t change a thing, coach.”
Collins probably is too smart for his own good. He probably cares too much. This is one of his battles, the one inside him, the one that possibly could overwhelm the youngsters in his midst, starting with 19-year-old Kwame Brown.
It has not been easy for Collins or Brown at times. Collins is a 50-year-old man who understands certain NBA truths, while Brown is a teen who understands nothing about the NBA.
It is not personal. Brown is just a kid, a good kid, yes, but a kid in a man’s world, as the paychecks indicate. His work habits, his conditioning, his receptiveness to coaching and his ability to grasp defensive concepts all have been questioned by Collins, beginning in training camp.
Brown’s initial shakiness was inevitable, and in recent games anyway, he has shown signs of progress. He has two of the best mentors at his disposal in Collins and Michael Jordan. Both are on a first-name basis with frustration, Collins more than Jordan.
Collins was a late-blooming basketball star back in his undergraduate days at Illinois State, the first pick overall in the 1973 NBA Draft who landed with an awful 76ers team. That team went 25-57 in his rookie season, and long though the season was, it was deemed encouraging following the team’s 9-73 mark the previous season.
By 1977, Collins and the 76ers were in the NBA Finals, losers to Bill Walton’s Trail Blazers in six games. This is where Collins has been, to the abyss and back, and back again, in his third go-around as a head coach in the NBA.
It’s not that he was unsuccessful in his two previous stints, in Chicago and Detroit. It’s just that maybe he felt the ups and downs more than his players and could not keep it to himself. Eventually, someone had to go, and it was the coach. That is who Collins is. He is direct, yet evenhanded, and desperately in love with the game.
His love wore off on his two children, the son Chris, an assistant coach at Duke, and the daughter Kelly, the schoolteacher who played at Lehigh.
He can’t relate to those players who don’t share his affection for the game. Isn’t that what he was saying after the Wizards lost at home to the Warriors? Didn’t he express the obvious?
“I just want to see some energy and some joy at what a great life it is to be a professional basketball player, to come out and entertain and have this kind of opportunity to perform,” he said after the Warriors outrebounded the Wizards 45-27.
This is beautiful stuff, of course, as long as you’re not the target, because win or lose, the NBA is a great life, and if you the player are too lost to grasp that, you won’t find sympathy from Collins. The game just means too much to him. He can’t hide that, try as he might.
It sometimes appears as if Collins must wake up each day with the self-imposed order to take a deep breath and go at it easier. It is an 82-game season, after all, interminable if a playoff berth is beyond a team’s reach. As he has said on occasion, he is older now and, hopefully, wiser. You can bury a player’s psyche with too much prodding, and with this bunch, “fragile” and “sensitive,” as he puts it, he is inclined to be more measured, to be Collins Lite.
Yet the television analyst in Collins is never too far removed. He can break the outcome of a game down in a couple of sentences. You wonder about this team. He wonders, too. There, you agree. He sees what you see.
His words hit harder than the pitch in his voice. He rarely gets angry. His critiques are matter of fact, straightforward.
Collins is the unvarnished coach with polish. Why pretend to be touchy-feely in an environment that chews up and spits out coaches and players alike? The gray area is fleeting. In the end, you either win or lose, and worse, you do it in full view of everyone. No one is really obligated to ask, “How was your day at the office, honey?” It’s there on the scoreboard.
The fans speak with their pocketbooks, and members of the media speak with their words, and the NBA speaks with the statistical breakdowns and won-lost records of all 29 teams.
Collins does not feel compelled to protect the culprits after a game. He does not have a trace of spin doctor in him. He is a professional who says: Here’s the deal. He offers praise as well as criticism. The trick is finding the ever-elusive balance between the two around a struggling team.
He reminds the players that he is a coach, and coaches, by nature, are critics, never satisfied unless they are holding aloft the championship trophy at the end of the season.
Collins never has to look at the film before addressing this or that flaw, although he looks at plenty of film. He never backs away from a tough question. You ask. He delivers. Sometimes you don’t even have to ask.
It is a tough business, he has said. No one is immune from the tough parts, not even himself. He already has blamed himself for the team’s fitful start. At one point, while the team was in the midst of an eight-game losing streak, he said he had no answers, which is not an easy admission.
He said he begged his players to compete during the loss at home to the Sonics. Specifically, he said, “Guys, I’m begging you. Please compete. That’s all I ask you, just compete.”
He noted the charity of Pistons coach Rick Carlisle after the team’s no-show in Detroit in the fourth game of the season.
“He could have beat us by about 50,” he said.
Collins has made a number of eyebrow-raising comments after only 14 games, all in the context of a difficult first month, all from his core.
Collins was so tickled after the Wizards defeated the Celtics in overtime to end their eight-game losing streak. They gutted it out after squandering a 15-point lead in the last 6:38 of regulation. That showed him something. Maybe some of Jordan is finally starting to rub off on some of the players. Otherwise, the so-called Jordan effect at the end of games has been slow in developing.
“Michael has the heart of a lion,” Collins said after the Boston game.
No Collins-induced inventory is necessary with Jordan. Everyone else, the coach included, is open to one on a game-to-game basis.
Collins remains up against a long season and a marginal roster. He either is going to make it right or go out in a straitjacket. He’ll explain in detail in either case. That is the reason, apart from Jordan, to stick with the team.