The initial shock gave way to a somber mood yesterday as several Atlanta Hawks players broke down in tears when they were informed that center Jason Collier had died early in the morning. The news was obviously difficult to receive but it was even harder to deliver, Hawks Coach Mike Woodson said.
"No question. It's really a tragedy," Woodson said when contacted by phone yesterday afternoon. "It's a shame. He's a 28-year-old kid and his life is taken away from him."
The cause of death was not immediately known, but Collier complained of chest pains and difficulty breathing around 2:30 a.m. yesterday, said Richard Howell, Collier's agent. Howell said Collier's wife, Katie, performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation before calling 911. Paramedics rushed Collier to Northside Hospital in Cumming, Ga., where he was pronounced dead.
"He was just a very nice, outstanding, thoughtful person. He had no sense of entitlement. Totally down to earth. Enjoyed life inside and outside of basketball," Howell said of Collier. "It's devastatingly sad to have something like this happen out of the blue. He had a great present and a wonderful future. It's so sad to see it snatched away."
Woodson, General Manager Billy Knight and Atlanta Spirit LLC President and Chief Executive Bernie Mullin broke the news to the team when the players arrived at a morning workout. "It's something I'll live with for the rest of my life. One of your players died. I mean, it's just . . . it's not easy," Woodson said. "It's tough for the players, too. Whenever you go to war with guys on the floor, it's tough. Those guys are like brothers to each other."
The Hawks canceled an open scrimmage yesterday at an area high school where Collier, the longest tenured player on the Hawks roster, was supposed to give the welcome. The Hawks will practice today, then head to Charlotte for a preseason game against the Bobcats tomorrow.
The results of the autopsy are expected to be released today. Howell said that Collier "was as healthy as you could be." Woodson said he didn't notice anything abnormal with Collier after practice Friday. Collier "was a first-class pro," said Woodson, in his second season with the Hawks. "He did everything I asked of him as a player. I thought he was in the best shape of his life, coming into training camp."
The 7-foot, 260-pound Collier averaged 5.6 points and 2.9 rebounds in a five-year career with the Hawks and Houston Rockets. In 2000, Collier was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round (15th overall) from Georgia Tech, where he received a degree in management. Collier was traded to Houston but never found his way into the Rockets' rotation, battling through two injury-plagued seasons before being pushed aside by the arrival of Yao Ming in his third season.
After the Minnesota Timberwolves cut him in training camp in 2003, Collier bypassed lucrative offers to play in Europe so that he could be closer to his wife, who was pregnant with their daughter, Elezan. Collier later played with the Fayetteville Patriots of the National Basketball Developmental League before joining the Hawks on a 10-day contract in March 2004. Collier stayed for the remainder of the season, averaging 11.3 points and scoring a career-high 22 points against Washington.
Collier signed a two-year, $3.15 million contract that summer. He started 44 games last season and was expected to back up Zaza Pachulia this season. The Hawks don't have much depth in the front court, but it was the least of their concerns yesterday. "Jason and his family are first and foremost in our prayers during this difficult time," Knight said in a statement released by the team.
Collier's funeral service will be held Wednesday in suburban Atlanta. A native of Springfield, Ohio, Collier is survived by his wife and young daughter, who will turn 2 next January. "We're going to try to huddle around them and be there for them, knowing that we've still got a job to do as well," Woodson said. "We'll get through, but we'll never forget. This guy was a part of all of us."