by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

So many voices inside Doug Collins’ head, like an army of transistor radios all playing at once. There is the voice of his mother, urging him to succeed, and the voice of his father, stricken with lung cancer, saying, “Doug . . . I don’t want to die.”

There are voices of his two grown children, whom he adores, and voices of players, coaches, friends, philosophers — all these voices, snapping sparks in his brain, making him run, then stopping him in his tracks.

If you wondered why Doug Collins is so frantic on the outside, you should see what’s going on inside.

“Sometimes, after games,” Collins says, sitting in his office one morning this week, “I go home and I stare at the TV for hours — and I don’t hear a thing they say.”

Of course not. He’s got his own soundtrack going.

But haunted men often make the best motivators. And what Collins can do with a basketball team is obvious. Just look at these Detroit Pistons, who enter the playoffs Friday night for the first time in four seasons. Where once they were losers, they now are winners. Where once they were listless, they now have backbone and heart. Collins is the difference.

He took a pillow of a team, and made it a rock. Under house arrest

Yet the voices still carry, and they ask whether he can be better, can he be the best? This is Collins’ first year back in the NBA war since his surprise 1989 firing by the Chicago Bulls. The league has changed in six years, he admits, it takes much more out of you now. “I love the game,” he says, “but I don’t always love coaching.”

He also calls winning “a relief.”

If this is not what you expected, well, what did you expect? Think about it. What does Detroit really know of Collins, 44, except for TV sound bites, and his sweaty soliloquies on the Palace sidelines — “COME ON TERRY, WILL YOU PLEASE REBOUND? . . . MARK! MARK! ROTATE! . . .”

Other than that, you don’t hear Doug Collins, you don’t see him, not at restaurants, not at speeches or social affairs. The man once accused of running too fast as coach of the Bulls is now virtually a house potato as coach of the Pistons.

“I don’t go out,” he says. “I love people. And I wish I could enjoy them more. But they won’t let me.”

Why not?

“Because everyone out there thinks he’s a coach.”

So Collins, whose wife lives out of town, stays at home, stares into the campfire of the TV set. He is smart enough to know the danger of isolation, yet cocky enough to think he can beat it. He is torn between the need to be a whole person, and the success that comes with being an obsessed one. As he talks, he pushes a hand through his hair, puts his feet on the desk, takes them off, pushes his hair back again. He face looks tired, and in his eyes you see the pleading look of a boy who just slid into second base and is checking to see whether he is safe.

Is this a happy man? Close but no cigar

Well, he is when things go right. When the seeds he plants take root and sprout. When Allan Houston goes from shooter to complete player, when Terry Mills goes from bad attitude to good attitude, when Grant Hill blossoms, when Joe Dumars says thank you, Doug, for getting me back to the playoffs.

Then he feels good. Collins must be devoted to something to give it his time, love and energy, but once he does, he engulfs it. He employed the tough-love approach with these Pistons — chewing them out, then giving them a hug — and now he adores them. “Do you know how lucky I am to be with you guys?” he sometimes says.

But there is always more to do in the binocular world of Doug Collins. He has a gushing mind, and a concrete will. Sometimes he rides the exercise bike for hours. He never gets bored because “the competition keeps me interested.” Competition? Against an exercise bike?

Well, understand. This is a son of a county sheriff, a kid who wore a crew cut, held two jobs in eighth grade, studied until the pages were memorized and practiced basketball until his hands were callused. “Driven” is too weak a word for Collins. Driven to what?

To everything, it seems. To be the best father, the best coach, the best analyst. There is a moment that seems to encapsulate the whole thing. Back in the 1972 Olympics, the final seconds of the infamous gold medal game against Russia. Collins, one of America’s stars, drove for the winning basket and was slammed into the basket support. He got up wobbly, his knees rubber. An assistant coach yelled for a sub to shoot the free throws. But the head coach, the legendary Hank Iba, waved him off. “If Doug can walk, he’s going to shoot those free throws.”

Collins was so inspired that, despite his dizziness, he sank both. This is his life’s pattern: A drive so strong it will crash him into a wall, a heart so strong it will finish the job anyhow.

Until now, his desire has gone uncrowned. No Olympic gold, no NBA rings. Friday night, he starts trying again. He is the most complex coach the Pistons have ever had. He could be rocket fuel to a championship, or a guy who suddenly announces that his heart is burning up and he’s leaving.

This much is clear. He has the Pistons playing better than anyone thought they could. All these voices in his head, some say stop, some say go, some say remember the outside world, some say there is only this world, the hoop, the ball. The little boy inside Doug Collins checks the ump to see whether he is safe, but sometimes, there is no call, he just keeps running and running and hoping for the best.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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