Doug Collins’s Fall From Glory

This time last year, Philadelphia magazine called him the “Sixers Savior.” Oops.

A year ago, almost to the day, I profiled Doug Collins for Philadelphia magazine. The story was titled “Doug Collins, Sixer Savior.” The subhead asked: “How did he turn around the most wretched sports franchise in town?”

Love. Honestly. Love was the answer.

It was all Doug Collins needed. He told me so one afternoon in his office at the Wells Fargo Center. He was a man in love—with his wife, who gave him the green light to return to coaching in the NBA as long as he promised to remember there was life beyond hoops; with his grandchildren, who he brought to games and practices and whose presence reminded him that there were things more important than wins and losses; and most especially with his players, whom he spoke about with a tenderness and affection rarely expressed in the sporting world.

“I find joy in hearing these players find their own voices,” he said gently and paternally, “in watching them grow as players and men.”

More than once, out of nowhere, he said, “I love these guys.”

What a sweet and rare Philadelphia sports moment.

What I suspect Doug Collins loved most was his age. He was 60. He knew things. He had stopped watching basketball games on TV at night because it wound him up too much, made him crazed, got his mind to whirling, and once that started there was no stopping it. He had learned to work a crossword puzzle instead, and every time he did that he’d drift right off.

He’d also learned—and this was a big one—that he didn’t have to micromanage. That’s why God created assistant coaches.

It was a beautiful thing to behold. Doug Collins, crazed, manic, obsessed Doug Collins, finding peace at age 60. Okay, maybe not total peace, but fits of inner harmony at least. And that was enough for the Sixers to be a good team, a hard-working team, a team that played over its head, a happy team with a happy coach. Watching them play was like viewing an Instagram: it made you feel all good inside, like the old days before things turned all hard and cold.

Now, a year later, Instagram’s been peddled for a billion in cold hard cash, and the Sixers suck. Word has it the players don’t like their coach much; that they’ve stopped listening; that they think he yells too much; that he drives them too hard. Could his job be in jeopardy?

How could this have happened in one year?

Short answer: unless you have two superstars at least, you aren’t going to win in the NBA—oh maybe for a season you might: chemistry, good luck and hard work can carry you. Last year, the Sixers had all three. But without superstars, the worm will invariably turn, and this team has no superstars, and they have turned.

Maybe the Sixers will catch a fire here at the end. Maybe they’ll sneak into the playoffs and do themselves and their coach proud.

If they don’t, when they don’t, I suspect Doug Collins won’t blame himself. At his age he surely knows by now that not all loves are meant to last forever.

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