“I’m a Sixer for Life.” –Doug Collins
In a few hours, the Philadelphia 76ers will battle their forever rival Boston Celtics. The Eastern Conference semifinal series is tied two games apiece yet that the Sixers can win the series is considered by many to be nonsense. But somebody like Willy Wonka or Don Quixote once said a little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men.
Entering their first-round series against the No. 1 seed Chicago Bulls not many predicted a Sixers’ upset. Despite Derrick Rose’s torn ACL suffered in Game 1, few still gave the 76ers a chance to beat the Bulls. After Bulls’ center Joakim Noah was sidelined with an injury during Game 3 never to return, still, not many expected them to pull out the series. In the clinching Game 6, the Bulls were thought to have pushed the series to a Game 7 until Andre Iguodala’s rebound and mad rush up the floor drawing the foul and sinking both free throws in the waning seconds.
Everybody was tossing around the Bulls injuries likes asterisks of freezing drops of water. But buckets of cold water couldn’t knock the smile off Sixers’ head coach Doug Collins’ face. Genuine happiness can’t be faked or easily destroyed. With his young grandson at the podium and through the aged lines of Collins’ face who joined the Sixers as the number one overall draft selection in 1973, the smile said you can’t rob my joy. Take those asterisks the same place you take excuses, which are the tools of ignorance and build bridges to nowhere.
Collins knows the fragility and vagaries of success. He arrived in Philadelphia fresh faced out of Illinois State immediately after the Sixers suffered the most losses in NBA history posting a record of 9-73 in the 1972-73 season (worst percentage until this past season’s Charlotte Bobcats record of 7-59). But the cruel weight of the world including sports had perhaps already begun to shape him prior to joining the faltering franchise.
At the 1972 Olympics held in Munich, tragedy struck when 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestine group called Black September but the games went on including the basketball gold medal game. In that game, Collins, after almost being knocked out falling into the basketball stanchion, scored the go ahead points for USA by swishing two free throws with three seconds. However, there was the controversial ending that allowed the Russians to get three attempts to inbounds the ball and eventually score the winning basket. Forty years later, Collins nor any of the Americans have accepted the silver medal.
Moving on, Collins along with players like George McGinnis and Julius Erving led the Sixers in four short years after posting the worst record in league history to the 1977 NBA Finals. Up 2-0, things fell apart like the 1958 novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe and a similarly named Roots album. Sixers’ center Darryl Dawkins and Portland Trail Blazers’ enforcer Maurice Lucas went to blows and a wild Dawkins hook landed on his teammate Collins’ grill. Momentum shifted and never came back to the Philly as it lost four straight.
Injuries began to plague Collins and he finished his career sidelined out of uniform in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics. Again, the Sixers raced to a series lead. This time up 3-1, but the Sixers fell in Game 7 in the old Boston Garden. That was Collins last game as a player.
Collins transitioned to coaching and his first head coaching job was with the Bulls with third-year rising star Michael Jordan. However, he was fired after three years at the helm, the last in which the Bulls reached the Eastern Conference Finals. His assistant, Phil Jackson, stepped in and would lead the Bulls to six titles in eight seasons.
Success and failure both came his way as coach of the Detroit Pistons with Grant Hill. Then with the Washington Wizards coaching Jordan in his final stint as a player, it was like lovers trying to rekindle some old magic that didn’t work the first time. Many, maybe even, Collins assumed his coaching career was over and his basketball days would finish in the booth as an analyst.
But brought back home, Collins hears opportunity knocking and not only has he opened the door but has taken that visitor hostage.