Doug Collins, Sixer Savior

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

On the court now, moving among his players, he makes lots of physical contact: a pat on the back, a hand slap, a fist bump, a rub on the head. By the end of practice, he hopes to have made physical contact with every player on the team at least three times.

“They’re the nicest group of basketball players I’ve ever been around,” he’ll say later, when asked about the affection he generously bestows on them. “I love them, and I’m not afraid to tell them or anyone else that.”

WHEN WORD CAME last May that Doug Collins would be the next head coach to try to turn around the city’s lone despairing franchise, there was guarded optimism.

“If there’s anyone who knows the pulse speed of this city as an athlete, I do,” he said at the press conference announcing his hire. “I’ve been here, and I know that if you play hard and play with joy and play as a team, these people will support you.”

Nearly correct, Coach, save one thing: You have to win, too. The Sixers had no major weapon, no superstar in a league where you need two to contend. Collins might demand effort on both ends of the court, and that alone would be welcome change, but would it be enough to generate excitement?

There were other concerns. Collins hadn’t coached in the NBA for six years—a lifetime in a league where the game and the money and the ethos of the players change as often and dramatically as headlines about our school system. As a younger head coach with Chicago, Detroit and Washington, he was demanding and explosive. He would win games but burn out both his players and himself in the process. Would that fly with today’s athletes?

The 76ers players—most of them—thought not. This Collins guy, about whom they knew little, was just too old to relate.

When the 76ers started this season 3-13, including a stunning number of fourth-quarter collapses, no one could relate.

IT’S THE MIDDLE of March, and somehow, some way, while no one is looking in their direction, the Philadelphia 76ers are suddenly 33-31, with the playoffs in plain view. Collins has just been named the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month, and his name is being bandied about for Coach of the Year honors.

This is no championship team—far from it—and nobody’s saying it is. But it’s been a remarkable turnaround, and spirits are way high in Sixersland. Collins is getting the lion’s share of the media attention, which seems only right, since he refused to quit on his players when the rest of the city did.

“And this is a coach that teaches his players, remember,” says Sonny Hill, the city’s longtime playground-basketball impresario and a man who’s seen a lot of coaches come and go. “Do you know how rare that is in the NBA, for players to listen to a coach that teaches?”

I saw that teaching firsthand during the practice at Haverford College, when Collins spent 30 minutes working with players on an in-bounds play, rotating various guys in and out, a tedious exercise to watch and one that did little to excite the fans in attendance, which mattered not at all to Collins or the players, who gave him undivided attention.

But excitement over the team’s play is coming at the nadir of the regular season, the dog days, and no one knows better than Collins that pacing—not getting too high or too low—is everything when navigating the NBA season, an odyssey that stretches eight months, and longer if your team makes the playoffs. Care must be taken.

At times like this, he turns to his H.A.L.T. system for checking on how his players are holding up. “It’s an acronym for what I call the four triggers,” he says. “Hunger—and that doesn’t mean hunger for food—anger, loneliness and tiredness.” Think about that: Coach Collins wants to know if, say, 20-year-old guard Jrue Holiday is feeling a bit lonely on a long road trip in, say, Portland. It’s caring and practical at the same time: “If one or more of those are out of whack, it leads to screw-ups. I look to see if all is in check.”