PHILADELPHIA — When Michael Jordan buried that iconic, hanging jumper over Craig Ehlo more than 23 years ago in Cleveland, a 37-year-old Doug Collins hoisted his fists, hunted down Jordan with a frantic sprint, hair flopping wildly about his head, and jubilantly hopped around to celebrate with his Chicago Bulls players.
Collins would gray almost completely, lose some of his hair and three coaching jobs before he would have the opportunity to feel to excitement of winning another first-round playoff series. And, his next victory came in similarly dramatic fashion, as Philadelphia 76ers all-star forward Andre Iguodala buried two free throws with 2.2 seconds remaining to complete an upset of the Bulls on Thursday.
Again, Collins gleefully raised his hands. But instead of joining Iguodala on the scorers’ table or chasing down the rest of his giddy players to dance under confetti, Collins applauded, pointed toward the crowd — and headed toward the tunnel, his mind already drifting to the next opponent.
“I’m not in this for me,” Collins explained after the 76ers won a first-round series for the first time since 2003, when another player with the initials A.I. dominated the Philadelphia sports landscape — and Collins was fired after a failed two-year stint coaching Jordan again with the Washington Wizards.
The 76ers are back in the second round — where they lost Game 1 to the Boston Celtics, 92-91, on Saturday night — after Collins led the only franchise for which he played to a win over the first franchise he coached. And, the magnitude of the win wasn’t lost on Collins, who proudly proclaimed afterward: “I’m a Sixer. For life.”
Since leaving his cushy existence as a TNT studio analyst before the 2010-11 season to coach the organization that drafted him first overall in 1973, Collins has repeatedly spoken about how much he has changed since his previous coaching job, in Washington; that he has become more “grandfatherly” and focused on a greater purpose of passing on knowledge to an impressionable young team. But while he has delegated more responsibility to his assistants in Philadelphia, losing doesn’t hurt any less, and Collins remains as competitive and intense nearly two months shy of his 61st birthday.
“I got to be honest with you, I’m a little anal — as my family will tell you,” Collins said after the 76ers’ series clinching victory on Thursday, as he sat next to his grandson, Cooper. “I’m just at a different spot in my life. As a younger person, you look more for the satisfaction of the things that come to you and I think as you get older and you become a pop-pop, you look at things a little differently. So, I’m not as selfish as I used to be.”
Collins’s reputation for being too tightly wound and overbearing has followed him through his time in Chicago and Detroit, where he had initial success before flaming out; and Washington, where he never really had the chance to wear on his team, with young players such as former No. 1 overall pick Kwame Brown bristling from the outset.
He lifted Philadelphia from the lottery to the playoffs in his first season coaching the 76ers, overcoming an ugly 3-13 start to finish with the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia then opened this lockout-shortened season looking like a team that was ready to join the conference’s elite.
With an abundance of speed and athleticism, and a committed to hounding defense, the 76ers started 20-9 before the team began to collapse near the all-star break. As the slide continued, Collins received the bulk of the blame, with many speculating that his players were ignoring his message and providing resistance to his heavy hand.
“Fire Doug Collins,” Collins said. “I heard it. Doesn’t take long to turn.”
But Collins actually needed his players for the situation to turn back around. “We hit a rough patch,” forward Elton Brand said. “There were some things the media were saying, you know, coach is too tough on us and whatever. He backed all the way up. We didn’t even hear from him for a while. We were like, ‘Coach we need your energy. We need to hear from you. You’re the leader out there.’ ”
The 76ers held off Milwaukee for the final playoff spot, then became the fifth No. 8 seed to upset a top seed — taking advantage of a Bulls team that finished the series without last season’s most valuable player in Derrick Rose and their spiritual leader in Joakim Noah. Collins could only describe the run as “crazy,” while his players heaped praise upon him for having them prepared and continuing to press.
“Yeah he has to yell at us and teach us, but at the same time, we still know he has confidence in us, even though we’re a young team and we make mistakes,” point guard Jrue Holiday said.
When asked how Collins turned around the situation in Philadelphia, Iguodala smiled and flipped the question. “I can talk about how we changed him. I think he’s gotten a little older. The knock on him has always been that he’s too emotional, that he can be too hard on guys to where they tune him out, in the past. I’ve always heard that. I think that our young guys have really helped him mellow out.”
And watching the development of his team has been a rewarding experience for Collins, no matter how the second-round series against Boston unfolds. “One thing I’ve tried to do is plant seeds and nurture through the tough times,” he said. “You just hope that those moments will carry you and take you to the other side. . . . To watch the joy they had in that locker room after the game was something I’ll never forget.”