WINNING SILENCES ALL -INCLUDING COLLINS’ CRITICS

Doug Collins cares. He cares beyond food sometimes. He cares beyond sleep. He cares so much that there were tears in his eyes when the Pistons finally beat the Bulls on Sunday afternoon, and it hardly mattered that Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoc weren’t in Chicago’s lineup. Winning triggers Collins’ heart pump, makes him proud enough to burst.

Because of that, the Pistons have won more than expected since his arrival last season. Way more. Collins fixed what was broken here — but now he is accused of breaking what he has fixed. He is the solution and the problem, or so his critics claim.

In the last few days, reports have surfaced about players being unhappy, complaining, revolting at the coach’s style.

At the height of this brief tempest, you’d have thought the Pistons’ uniforms had stripes, and the numbers were only there for prison officials to tell them apart.

Well. A few truths, now that you’ve heard all the rumors.

First of all, nobody went to Bill Davidson, the Pistons’ owner, to complain about Collins. That was a lie. Sorry, Peter Vecsey, but your sources betrayed you. Few players even have Davidson’s ear, and those who do have not spoken a word to him about the coach.

Second, there is not a player-wide revolt. That juicy tidbit came from Grant Long, who is unhappy about minutes (wow, there’s something new in the NBA) and told a Florida reporter how bad it was here, because, let’s face it, it’s easier to gripe to an out-of-town reporter and it’s easier for him to write it. Fewer repercussions for both.

Yes, there are unhappy people in the Pistons’ locker room. The most unhappy are Long and Otis Thorpe — Long because of minutes, Thorpe because he is simply too intense for Collins’ intensity. They don’t mix. Oil and water. As one player told me, “Otis is a mirror image of Doug, they both have to have it their way.” And so they barely talk. They never touch. They need each other but don’t like each other. Their marriage will be severed in the off-season.

Bye-bye, Thorpe. Bye-bye, Long.

So much for the malcontents.

Now. What about the rest of this team? Is there enough coal in the furnace for even a lukewarm playoff run?

Grief or happiness?

That depends on whom you ask. Sitting in his office after Sunday’s win, his white shirt stained with perspiration, his eyes weary from lack of sleep, Collins looked like a man who didn’t know whether to cry from grief or happiness. He whispered with passion about Grant Hill and Joe Dumars, his co- captains. How they had publicly expressed support for him, how he loved them for that and always would. He reveled in the long-awaited win over the Bulls, his former team — “the proudest moment of my coaching career,” he had gushed
— and he pointed with justifiable pride at how Hill has grown under his tutelage, and how Theo Ratliff and Lindsey Hunter have grown as well, how even the departed Allan Houston admitted recently that leaving Detroit was a mistake because Collins was making him a better player, and in New York they just tell him to shoot.

What Collins was trying to do here was undersell himself, but he sells himself at the same time. That is the paradox of this man. He can’t help it. He knows it’s good to be humble, he plans to be humble, but he just wants to add this one last point. . . .

So you see the dilemma when he responds to criticism of him as a tyrannical coach, as he did after Sunday’s game. Someone asked about his reputation as a perfectionist.

“I have been a damn pussycat this year,” he said, his voice stung with hurt. “Our practices have been easier. I’ve raised my voice maybe three or four times all season. People want to portray me as Attila the Hun. But that’s bull—-.”

He speaks with such emotion that he must believe what he is saying. Yet in talking to the players privately, it is simply not true. They claim he raises his voice all the time, over the smallest little thing, that the atmosphere after a loss is suffocating and relentless and that, in a nutshell, the man needs to let out about 100 pounds of air pressure or he is going to explode.

None of this, by the way, is inherently bad. Hey. Wouldn’t you rather have a guy who cared about winning than a guy who said, “See ya tomorrow”?

Just the same, 82 games is a long haul, and nerves get frayed. When I asked Collins to be more honest about his coaching style, he at first repeated his earlier claim. Then he said that other coaches, such as Miami’s Pat Riley,
“are more intense than I am.”

Which is not the same as saying he’s not.

Eventually, Collins allowed that “maybe I care too much. But I’d rather have them put on my tombstone ‘He cared too much’ than ‘He was in it for the money.’

“If they don’t want someone here who cares like me, then they can get someone else who cares less.”

Ay, as Shakespeare would say. There’s the rub.

Pistons needed a fire

Fans — and players — forget that the coach before Collins was Don Chaney, who sometimes needed to be checked for a pulse. The Pistons were six feet under with Chaney. They needed a fire.

They got one with Collins. Now, critics say, he is too much flame, not enough oxygen. They want him to inspire the players, to coach them, teach them and improve them — but not to bug them. That’s a pretty narrow hallway they want him to walk down.

But this is how it works in the NBA. Once upon a time — I’m talking only 20 years ago — a coach with Collins’ intensity and smarts would have been a treasure. Players would have rallied around him, gone through walls, and in all likelihood, won him several championships.

But today is not 20 years ago. Many players today believe coaching means
“praise,” and what we used to call coaching means “criticism.” And since the players are more powerful than the coaches in the big picture, they don’t tolerate a whole lot. You need only look at Orlando to see what happens when the players get together for a vote.

There has been no vote on the Pistons. No players-only meeting. Dumars has refused to call one because he knows what the press will make of that. But what will stem this mini- cancer from spreading?

Simple. Winning.

These latest problems didn’t surface until the Pistons started losing — which, since this team overachieved and the schedule is much tougher now, shouldn’t have been a surprise.

But with losing comes gripes, pressure, stupid remarks. This latest soap opera is all of that.

And perhaps the victory over the Bulls is the temporary end of it.

It was, by the way, a sweet win, with Hill soaring and Terry Mills burning the nets and Dumars throwing in the long-range treys.

The Pistons didn’t squeak by the Bulls, they walloped them. And when it ended, Collins hugged Hill and he hugged Hunter and he hugged Dumars and he didn’t touch Thorpe and he didn’t even look at Long.

That’s where the Pistons stand now. Most on one side, a few on the other, but everyone aware that the coach is a handful, a tough act, and you have to suck it up or move on.

Normally, it’s pretty moving when a coach cries after a win. Too bad we had to ask if they were tears of joy or sorrow.

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