PISTONS SHIFT GEARSCOLLINS’ METHODS WORKED, THEN THEY GOT TIRED

When Doug Collins called his Pistons players together, they all knew it was the last time. They knew he was fired. They knew this was good-bye. Were they sad? Sympathetic? Well, some of them sarcastically took bets as to whether he would cry.

That tells you all you need to know about relations between the fixer and the fixees. After nearly three years of his act, players were simply fed up and worn out with Collins’ gushing emotion, his heart on his sleeve, his ranting, his yelling, the way the corners of his lips curled into a smile that seemed too forced, too contrived. There was no “there” there, many of them felt. They didn’t buy him anymore. So they didn’t buy his message.

And as a result, they stopped doing what he wanted them to do — whether subliminally, or overtly — and that was, of course, win.

And that was the end.

There goes coach Doug Collins, a guy who tried so hard, he hardened his troops. Talk privately to most of the Pistons, and they will tell you he had to go, they weren’t listening to him, his practices had become a series of players rolling their eyes and griping later in the locker room. No one was happy. Players dragged. They moped. Whether he was right and they were wrong or whether they were right and he was wrong doesn’t really matter in the final addition. There’s one coach. There are 12 players. Who’s easier to get rid of?

“It’s like Chuck Daly said,” Pistons President Tom Wilson sighed Monday, after dismissing Collins with a 121-88 record in his 2 1/2 seasons, “after awhile the players just stop listening. It may be that coaching is becoming a three- or four-year deal. Maybe that’s all you get before your message wears out — no matter what your message is.”

Hmm. No wonder coaches want so much money these days.

Too much intensity

Now, I happen to think that Collins brought a lot of fine attributes to the job: preparation, passion, perseverance. Unfortunately, it was another “P” word — pestering — that was his undoing. He simply didn’t know when to stop. He didn’t know when not to say something to rally the team, when not to make it personal.

I remember a player telling me last season how Doug profusely thanked the team after the victory that guaranteed him an All-Star Game coaching spot. He got choked up in the locker room, said what meant the most to him “was that you guys did it for me.”

Problem was, the players didn’t do it for him; they did it for themselves. They’re professionals. Collins’ assuming he was in their hearts was the kind of thing that actually pushed him out.

“Look, I don’t think we have a lot of troublemakers on this team,” said Grant Hill, when I spoke to him Monday, “and I don’t think we mind criticism. But there were things with Doug that, unless you were there, unless you see it every day, it’s hard to explain. It went beyond criticism. We put up with a lot.”

Hill felt the tension of Collins more than anyone, because as losing and dissension pushed Collins further down the gangplank, he pleaded more and more with Hill to speak up and save him. He reminded Hill that Michael Jordan waved the flag for Phil Jackson in Chicago.

“If you want me as your coach,” Collins would tell Hill, “you need to speak up.”

That’s a tough spot for Hill. Remember, Jordan rallied for Jackson because he wanted to, not because Jackson asked. Hill, ever cautious and polite, did not want to call for Collins’ ouster. But by defending him publicly, by challenging management, he would be doing something that not only he didn’t feel in his heart, but something that might make his teammates resent him. And, down the road, that might affect his leadership on the floor.

“Besides,” Hill said, “I’m not Michael Jordan. I don’t just get anything I want. I wanted Otis Thorpe here. I wanted Allan Houston. I wanted Terry Mills. They’re all gone.

“Maybe Doug thinks I didn’t do enough for him. Maybe it’s gonna look like there’s blood on my hands. But the bottom line is, things had to change, and everyone knew it.”

There goes Doug.

It’s Hill’s team

Now, it is worth noting the good that Collins did in the time he was here. He took a once-proud franchise that had stumbled into a hole and lifted it up again, gave it some polish, some excitement, some hunger. He won 100 games in two seasons — no mean feat — and he clearly improved players such as Houston and Lindsey Hunter. Guys like Michael Curry owe him their NBA careers. And guys like Brian Williams owe him a good chunk of their inflated paychecks.

But Collins seemed to be the kind of man who made it difficult to be grateful. Players claimed he wanted desperately to be liked, even when he said it wasn’t important. He would embarrass players in front of others, all the while preaching “Piston spirit.” He would coach “team, team, team” but he would pull individuals aside, in front of the others, creating a “what’s he talking about?” or “what’s he chewing him out about?” atmosphere.

Now, you may read such things and say, “Wait a minute. These guys get paid six or eight million dollars a year, and they can’t take a little criticism? They don’t like being yelled at? They worry about their feelings being hurt? Grow up.”

Well. That is probably sound advice. Then again, we’re talking about men dribbling basketballs and getting paid like kings for doing it. Why should they grow up? They have it made. So it may be that a guy like Collins just doesn’t work in the NBA anymore. Or it may be, as Wilson said, he only works for a brief period. “I’d hire him again in a minute if our team was in the same situation it was when we first got Doug,” Wilson said.

But it isn’t. It’s now a decent team that is underperforming. It needs new blood. Just as Don Chaney was let go for being too passive, and Collins was hired for a kick in the pants, so now does Collins, the pants-kicker, leave in favor for someone with a gentler boot.

Truth be told, you could have seen this coming in the off-season, when Collins played a game of chicken with management, threatening to retire due to exhaustion when in fact, he really wanted his contract money upped. This didn’t sit well with owner Bill Davidson, who considered canning him right then and there.

Instead, a compromise was reached in which Collins’ last three years were rolled monetarily into this one. The message was in the math: Take the money now, you won’t be here for long.

And so it comes to pass. The Pistons will be a little happier, a little lighter, their foreheads will be a little less creased and their eardrums a little less vexed. Will they win more? Who knows? The Pistons will let Alvin Gentry coach out the season, wait until the summer, see who’s available, and most definitely consult with Hill, their superstar.

“Do you expect to be consulted?” I asked Hill.

“Yes, I do. I won’t have the final say, but I’ll be consulted.”

He’s not being pushy. He’s showing leadership, maturity and a keen sense of reality.

After all, as Collins will no doubt tell you, in today’s NBA coaching world, your fate rests not in the size of your whistle, but who comes running when you blow it.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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