So there were Kobe, LeBron, Wade, Howard — the NBA’s one-name-only stars, all listening intently as Collins recalled the heartbreak of his own Olympics, in Munich in 1972. In that year’s gold-medal contest, the Soviets won by a point, negating what would have been Collins’s game-winning free throws. Nearly three decades later, the loss still haunts him. His message to the team that day in Vegas was simple: Live for this moment. As the buzzer sounded a month later to end the Americans’ gold-medal-winning game, LeBron James hurdled the broadcast table to give Collins a hug.
Collins is capable of inspiring. He can conjure the kind of magic that makes jaded millionaires, of which the NBA has many, feel like kids again. Which helps explain why, last spring, Stefanski, with assistant general manager (and former head coach, briefly) Tony DiLeo and scout Gene Shue, flew out West and eventually landed in the Phoenix living room of the TNT basketball analyst and former Sixers legend, to ask what he’d do if given the chance to return as the team’s coach. “If you listen to him on TV, you know he’s really good at the X’s and O’s,” Stefanski tells me. “Plus he’s as passionate as hell. I mean, this man’s intense. Doug blew us away.”
For his part, Collins understands that the reconstruction of the 76ers isn’t simply a makeover — and that there’s a big difference between an Olympic locker-room pep talk and rebuilding an entire franchise.
“These guys have had a lot of coaches in the past few years,” he says. “They need to see that things are going to be different. Hopefully, they’ll see that in the energy from the staff, and from me. One of the things we’re teaching is to be resilient. It’s not always going to be easy, but if it was, then it wouldn’t be worth it. I told the guys the other day, when you come into a losing situation, there’s a comfort level there. Losing is very easy. Winning is very hard.”
There’s something very Dick Vermeil circa 1976 about Collins’s spiel, and it’s easy to get swept up in his enthusiasm, as the Sixers brass clearly has. But even Vermeil didn’t win the fans over until his third year, when he backed up all those inspirational speeches with results. “Collins talks a great game, but he hasn’t had a meaningful moment as an NBA coach in 20 years,” says Simmons, referring to the 1988-’89 Chicago Bulls — the last team Collins led to a winning playoff series. And there’s no Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen on his roster now.
The Sixers crowned their savior just this past December, when Iverson returned to a sold-out home crowd eager to recapture that electric 2001 feeling. Late in the fourth quarter of his second game with the team, Iverson tied the score against Detroit, and it looked like the Sixers’ 10-game losing streak was finally about to end. That is, until Dalembert missed an easy tip-in under the basket and the Pistons again took the lead. With the clock winding down, Iverson deferred to Iguodala for the final shot. With seconds left, the ball arced toward the basket — only to clang off the rim.