The Making of a Winner : Tank Collins Almost Gave Up, but His Family Showed Him the Way

Times Staff Writer

Derwin (Tank) Collins was beaten often when he was young, first by his mother and then his brothers.

But this is far from the story of a battered child.

The beatings took place only on the basketball court. And they helped young Collins overcome the death of his father, break out of his shell and develop athletic skills from an unpromising beginning.

Collins, now a 6-5 forward for Pomona High School, wasn't much of an athlete in grade school. In fact, he gave up entirely on sports.

"I was big and stocky, bigger than anybody else in my class. I was uncoordinated in everything I did. I gave up on sports. I said, 'Forget it. I'm never playing again.' "

Collins was in the seventh grade when his father died. To help him cope with the loss, his mother ordered him to the gym to find something to occupy his time over the summer before he went back to school.

She also took a personal role in his progress. "My mother put a basketball hoop up on our garage and would play with me every day," Collins said. "It was real competition. And she would always beat me."

But as the eighth-grade basketball season got closer, the young Collins had turned the tables and was able to beat his mother "whenever I wanted to."

Then his older brothers, Harold and Jo Jo, tok over the training--and the beatings.

"They got me out on the court and started practicing with me, and they would beat me every day."

But in time that changed too, and now, on the court for Pomona and in some of the toughest summer basketball competition in the state, it's Derwin Collins who does most of the beating.

Collins didn't get his nickname for nothing. One coach said, "He's like a 500-pound gorilla. He can do anything he wants."

Actually he weighs 215. As a junior last season, Collins averaged 19 points a game, led his team to an 11-3 league record and was named to The Times' All-San Gabriel Valley first team.

And if Issy Washington is correct, Collins is only getting better.

"Out of next year's class, he'll probably be the most physical player in California," said Washington, founder and director of Slam 'N Jam, a summer basketball program. "Since last season, I think he's improved 100%. He'll be one of the highest-recruited players in California."

In spring and summer leagues, Collins has improved his scoring average to nearly 30 points a game. He scored 58 in a summer game against Verbum Dei. He was the leading scorer in Slam 'N Jam and in the league's national tournament and was the top scorer in the Carson tournament.

He has developed a shot from beyond 15 feet, something he had difficulty with as a junior.

One other problem last season was his propensity for offensive fouls. His nickname probably didn't help. But coaches agree he has channeled some of his aggressiveness into finesse.

"He's unstoppable when he gets going," Washington said. "He's got so much quickness, and now he's handling the ball well, too. Plus, he's increased his range."

His high school coach, Willie Allen, believes that Collins will be hard to stop.

Said Allen: "He's like a man in boys' clothing. If he can stay on the floor, stay out of foul trouble, he can destroy a team all by himself."

Said Washington: "Based on whom I have seen, and I have seen all the kids play, he is definitely in the top 10, maybe top five (in California). All the college coaches who have seen him are impressed. He's going to go to college anywhere he wants."

At Pomona last season, he averaged 12 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 4 blocked shots a game.

"That's not to mention his steals," Allen said. "I can't even remember how many he had but he had a lot.

"He's just so deceiving. He can play well at either end of the court. He's incredible. I don't brag about my kids--I don't need to. But you're asking me about him, so I'll tell you. The kid can play. No doubt about it. He will be one of the premiere players in the state this season, no doubt."

What makes him so good?

Washington: "His mental outlook and court awareness. He knows when to go to the bucket. He knows when to shoot from the outside. He knows when to pass. He's 6-5, but he plays like he's 6-9. He's a great leaper and he's very fast. And now he can handle the ball.

"He's blessed with all the things you can't teach a kid: quickness, jumping, things like that."

OK, so you can't teach a kid to be fast. But somebody has to bring it out of the kid. Collins credits brother Harold with discovering and developing his skills.

"He used to come home from work and get a ball," Collins said. "He would take me to a park around the corner and we would be there until late at night, practicing and practicing."

To make him stronger, Harold made Tank lift weights. To improve his spring, Harold made him jump rope. And to improve his court quickness, the brothers played tennis.

"He beat me," Collins said. "But all of it helped. He helped me a lot."

In January, when Collins turns 18, he will most likely be choosing among college scholarship offers. Washington believes Collins can play forward or guard for a major university. Allen doesn't think it matters. "Just make sure he's on the floor when the game starts," Allen said.

Asked where he'd like to play college ball, Collins said that decision is "still up in the air."

He is still deciding whether to play football this season. He was a tight end last year.

Those decisions may prove difficult for Collins, although he displays unusual calm and confidence for a teen-ager. But where to play major college basketball doesn't seem hardly as perplexing as the decision Collins had to make in eighth grade: whether to play at all.

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