Doug Collins, Sixer Savior

How did he turn around the most wretched sports franchise in town? All it took was one four-letter word

“I love these guys.”

Certain words aren’t heard much in the male sporting world, and “love” is one. It’s a word that makes most everyone who plays a sport for a living—including those who bounce a ball—look down at the floor.

Players are taught to draw hard lines in the NBA, and when it comes to love, hard lines are everywhere. Think about it: The next active player to “come out” in the NBA will be the first active player to come out in the NBA. It’s just best to keep all things loving, platonic or otherwise, back at the crib.

Which is why it’s so startling to hear the 76ers head coach—a guy who started his pro career in 1973 here in loveless Philly (“the town where I became a man”) and since then has been kicking around the NBA as a four-time All Star player, a respected broadcast analyst and a four-time coach—use the word “love” to describe how he regards his players.

It’s early March at an open practice at Haverford College. Out on the court, the lanky, smiling man with the short-cropped gray hair, wearing gray 76ers sweats, the older guy the players call Coach Collins—a sign of respect not to be taken for granted in the NBA—welcomes the crowd with opening remarks, which include a reference to how much he “loves” his guys.

When the drills get under way, there are lots of dunks and slams, but somehow you can’t keep your eyes off Coach Collins, the one guy on the court who never stops moving or talking.

It was like that four decades ago, when he was a kid in a 76ers uniform himself. He was always in motion then, too—stop, cut, stop, start—sneakers squeaking loudly, the guy who would work relentlessly to get free—“I’m open! I’m open!”—cutting so sharply and so often through the lane that he’d blow out his sneakers, literally. First back on defense, too—back so fast he’d often pick off an errant pass, steals being a Collins signature.

But the razor-quick cuts and whirling-dervish style of play that blew out his sneakers also blew out his ankles and legs, cutting his playing life short and forcing him to quit at just 29. More could be said about his Spectrum-era career—like his trip to the finals against Bill Walton and the Trailblazers back in ’76. But all that was so long ago, before his charges here on the court were even born, and in the NBA, it’s all about what you can do for me today.

As luck would have it, Collins is all about forward motion. “It’s the way I’m built,” he says. “When I’m driving my car, I see nothing to the left or right. If somebody gives me directions and tells me to take a right at a McDonald’s or a gas station, I’ll blow right past it. All I see is what’s directly in front of me.”