In the empty years, when Doug Collins was out of coaching, All-Star weekend was when he and his daughter, Kelly, would share some quality time. Of course, because they both love basketball, this still meant going to the game. But they sat together in the stands. They laughed and pointed out special plays. And when the game ended, they went not to the tunnel, but to the parking lot.

This weekend, Collins has a different agenda. He is head coach of the Eastern Conference All-Star squad, something he calls “the greatest honor of my professional career.” He will not be in the stands. He will be on the bench. He will tug on his sports coat and pull at his collarless shirt, and millions of fans around the world will see him directing players like Michael Jordan and Penny Hardaway in and out of the game, and somewhere inside the tireless circuitry that makes up Doug Collins’ brain, a voice will whisper,
“Can you believe this?”

Believe it. Here is the force behind the Pistons’ ship that has caught such strong wind the first half of the season. Grant Hill may be the sails, Otis Thorpe the oars and Joe Dumars the hull behind the amazing 34-12 record, but it is Collins who serves as the compass, charting the best first half in Pistons’ history.

“Be honest,” I said a few days ago at the Pistons’ practice facility. “How much of this great start is the players, and how much is you?”

“None of it is me,” he said.

First lie.

Gaining players’ respect

Not that you could tell. Collins has this way of talking, eyes ablaze, shoulders hunched forward, the corners of his lips turning up when he speaks, so that almost everything seems to be said with a smile. This has an odd effect sometimes, as if you’re face-to-face with a Bible salesman. But in Collins’ case, he puts so much passion behind his sentences the lips almost have to curl somewhere.

“I wish you could have seen, on our West Coast trip, when it was close between me and Pat Riley for the All-Star spot,” he said, his voice almost choking up. “Joe Dumars didn’t play against Sacramento because his back was tight. The next night we played Golden State, and he could have taken off. Instead, he played 47 minutes, and when I took him out, he looked at me and said, ‘I’m doing my best to try and get you there. . . . ‘

“From Joe Dumars? Who’s won everything? And he’s doing this for me — with a bad back? If you could have seen him at halftime, wrapped in a heat pack, lying on his stomach. . . . ”

I looked at Collins. I thought he might cry.

“That’s why teams win,” he whispered.

Second lie. Teams don’t win because of that. They win because they are moved to act like that. Trust me, even a saint like Joe Dumars wouldn’t kill himself for a guy he didn’t believe in. And that may be Collins’ greatest accomplishment. In a league where players believe in their agents and their shoe companies, Collins has them ready to go to war for their coach.

That’s an All-Star accomplishment.

“Will there be any sense of vindication on Sunday?” I ask.

“None,” he says.

Third lie.

Unfinished business

Doug Collins did not leave the game the way he wanted in 1989. It was a strange parting with Chicago, and it cannot help but burn inside Collins when he sees what the Bulls went on to do after he left. He will say he doesn’t care, that it all worked out for the best, but that is like saying that your wound has closed and dried. It still leaves a scar.

And so Collins rumbles with the hunger of unfinished business. After a year and a half with this franchise, he still wades through wins and drowns in defeats. “We won five in a row before losing to Phoenix this week,” he admits,
“and honestly, as soon as we lost, I wondered if we would ever win another game.”

If this sounds paranoid, welcome to NBA coaching. And yet, Collins’ wonderful skill this year is that he’s able to bottle his angst, keep it in the coaches room, while dousing his players in motivation, admiration and exultation. He took special pride in announcing Dumars’ addition to the All-Star team Thursday night in front of the whole squad before the game.

“I am so happy for Joe,” he later gushed. “Was that just the greatest thing?”

Well, not quite. To me, the greatest thing was later, when Dumars was asked about the night’s victory, a 96-87 drubbing of the Houston Rockets. You know what Dumars called the win? “A Piston-like game.”

It has been a long time since that phrase was used around here without nostalgia attached. Collins is as much the reason as anybody.

So there he goes, off to Cleveland for a spotlight he deserves. There’s a frame now on Collins’ desk, with a letter inside that recently arrived from his daughter. The letter reads, in part, “Dear Dad . . . Congratulations on being named the coach of the All-Star team. . . . I want you to know how proud I am. . . . Please don’t feel bad about the weekend. . . . “

He won’t. He’s sending a plane for her. And, come Sunday, she’ll be there with him, as always. Only this time, Dad will be on the bench, daughter will be behind it, and fans in Detroit will actually be counting the minutes until he comes back and cranks it up again.

“How did you sum up the first half for your players?” I asked Collins as he headed for the door Thursday.

“I just told them they should be very proud,” he said.

Fourth lie. The truth is, so should he.

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