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Collins, Taking Bulls by the Horns, Brings Them Up to Respectability

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Associated Press

Doug Collins was mugged by a Russian player, slugged by a teammate and bugged by reporters, all for the sake of the game.

He absorbed more punishment on the court than a playground basketball. As a coach, he’s had to deal with a different sort of pummeling.

“It’s been frustrating at times--winning still feels way too good, losing way too bad,” Collins said as he assessed his first half-season as an NBA head coach. “But I honestly don’t think there’s too many things I’d go back and do differently, even if I could.”

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Collins already has fulfilled his prediction to raise the lowly Bulls to the .500 plateau--a pronouncement reporters used to chide him about.

“I’m not an impulsive person. I usually don’t do things I’ll end up regretting,” Collins said, smiling.

Collins is the 11th head coach in the franchise’s 21-year history, the seventh in the last six seasons and the third since owner Jerry Reinsdorf bought the club in March 1985.

“Doug knows the grind, the low spots . . . what it’s like to have an injury end your career. He knows how to get respect, and he knows how to give it. That’s what makes guys play for you,” said Jerry Krause, the Bulls vice president who axed Stan Albeck last May, then hired Collins out of the CBS broadcast booth.

“People figure, ‘He’s got Michael Jordan, he just pencils him in and the Bulls win,”’ said Krause. “But that’s nonsense.”

Adds Billy Cunningham, who played alongside Collins and then coached him for the Philadelphia 76ers: “Doug’s success shouldn’t surprise people. He’s bright, and he’s always thinking ahead.”

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As a player, Collins took a pounding from a Soviet opponent in the 1972 Olympics, all in context of the game, and inadvertantly became a punching bag when a fight broke out at an NBA game.

But he seems no worse for wear.

At 35, Collins is rail-thin and looks as fit as he did during an eight-year playing career with the Sixers. He rarely runs the floor in practice, but his ballplayers don’t doubt he could.

“His enthusiasm has carried over into the way we’ve played,” said Bulls guard John Paxson, an overachiever in the Collins mold. “I remember watching him play, and he was aggressive and hard-working. This team has the same attitude, and it’s a reflection of his personality.”

Collins was an unremarkable athlete through his junior year of high school, which he ended as a chunky 5-foot-9 reserve on the basketball team.

But a summer bout with mononucleosis “had some strange effect on my metabolism and shot me up to 6-2,” he recalled. “I also became totally committed to becoming a good basketball player.”

He averaged 26 points per game his final year of high school and chose Illinois State over 100 other suitors. By the time Collins arrived on campus, he had grown to 6-6 and had the skills to match.

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After a 32.6-ppg season as a junior, Collins made the 1972 U.S. Olympic team and headed to Munich for a much-anticipated showdown with the Soviets.

It came early on Sept. 10, 1972. The Soviets had the ball, a 49-48 lead and needed only to protect it for 10 seconds more to snap the Americans’ 62-0 Olympic record--seven consecutive gold medals dating back to 1936.

But Collins intercepted a Soviet pass, tipped the ball upcourt, ran it down and closed in on a layup. Sako Sakandelidze caught him from behind and rammed him into the basket support.

Collins was unconscious for 15 seconds, and woozy when he made both free throws with three seconds left. The Soviets inbounded the ball, and a desperation 40-footer by Sasha Belov missed as the horn sounded.

But a protest from Soviet Coach Vladmir Kondrashkin restored three seconds to the game clock. Before the buzzer sounded a second time, a length-of-the-floor pass and a Belov layup had ended Collins’ Olympic dream.

“I felt like someone had just punched me in the stomach,” he recalled.

“We voted unanimously to refuse the silver medals, and they had the International Olympic Committee harangue us, telling us we were looking like spoilsports, like ugly Americans.

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“We told them to drop dead.”

The 76ers made Collins the No. 1 pick in the next collegiate draft, and three years later, in the 1975-76 season, he earned the first of four consecutive All-Star team selections.

The addition of Julius Erving made the 76ers finalists for the NBA title in the 1976-77 season.

Late in Game 2 of the championship series, the 76ers’ Darryl Dawkins squared off against Portland’s Maurice Lucas.

“Lucas got in one good shot and Dawkins went to return it,” Collins said, “but he hit me instead and I wound up with six stitches over my eye.”

Philadelphia never hit those heights again during Collins’ playing days. By the end of the 1977-78 season, he began experiencing back spasms, what he called “the first of my chronic health problems.”

Over the next two seasons, stress fractures in his feet forced Collins to miss 81 games. Just 12 games into the 1980-81 season, with seven operations behind him and an uncertain future, Collins called it quits.

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He moved into the broadcast booth, then put in two stints as an assistant coach under Bob Weinhauer at both Penn and Arizona State.

Collins’ broadcasting career with CBS was taking off when the Bulls called.

“It’s a challenge,” he said. “Even as a high school kid, I was always studying, trying to understand what works and why. Some guys are great players and never understand why. Not me.

“I had to work for everything, no matter how easy it might have looked. That’s what will make me a good teacher and a good coach--I hope.”

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