Commentary

Collins knows Rose's misery

Once a phenom ravaged by injury himself, 76ers coach 'sick' by loss of Bulls star

Updated: May 2, 2012, 6:32 PM ET
By Michael Wilbon | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- The first person on the court the moment Derrick Rose crashed to the floor was Doug Collins, waving frantically for the Chicago Bulls' doctors and trainers to come quick to Rose's rescue.

Before anybody else knew exactly what was wrong with Rose, Collins knew. Yes, Collins was the coach of the Bulls' playoff opponent but in those particular moments at the end of Saturday's Game 1, with Rose lying in agony on the court, Collins could feel and understand Rose's pain more than anybody in the building, Rose's teammates and coaches included.

[+] EnlargeCollins
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireDoug Collins led his 76ers to a convincing victory over the Derrick Rose-less Bulls in Game 2 on Tuesday in Chicago.

Once upon a time Doug Collins was Derrick Rose, a schoolboy star from the state of Illinois who'd become the first overall pick in the NBA draft, a point guard who as a very young man would lead his team deep into the playoffs. And now, in a moment he wouldn't wish on anybody, Collins and Rose would share something else: a ripped-up left knee.

"I knew what it was immediately when he crashed to the floor," Collins said before Game 2 of Bulls-Sixers. "I just felt sick … He's just a fine young man."

It was 32 years ago when Collins suffered the worst of several knee injuries.

"It was 1980, I think it was late in March," Collins said, his voice growing quiet as he thought back. "I was trying to make a steal -- it was against Washington -- I reached in and planted. … if I had on shorts I'd show you the scar. I knew what that was like, knew what he was going through. I'd been there."

A ripped-up left knee, on a hard plant, with no contact, exactly like what happened to Rose. Collins' team had lost Game 1, and as much as Collins hates losing, the Rose injury might have been tearing him up even more. Rose had writhed on the floor right in front of him.

"The kid is everything you want in your league. … It just made me sick," Collins said.

He probably wasn't going to sleep much anyway, not after losing Game 1 in Chicago, where he is still beloved from his days of coaching the Michael Jordan Bulls. But Collins surely wasn't going to sleep after this. Most if not all of Chicago went into mourning, quite literally, upon seeing the injury or hearing the news Rose was done for the season. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau felt the need to say, "There's no funeral here." Nevertheless, Collins was struggling Saturday night.

"Doug was visibly upset," his veteran star, Elton Brand, said after Game 2. "He was distraught."

Collins, who nearly returned to the Bulls to coach Rose as a rookie, called Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, for whom he had worked, he called GM John Paxson, whom he had coached, and he called Thibs.

"I love the Chicago Bulls organization," Collins said after Game 2. "Pax is like a son to me. Jerry is a man who has shared his wisdom with me for 25 years. And I love Thibs. I just wanted to tell them, 'I hope Derrick can come back and return to greatness and lead them to a championship. … And it would be even more precious when that happens.'"

Thirty years of improvements in medicine and rehabilitation therapy and medical technology will at the very least give Rose the chance to recover in a way Collins never had. Bad enough Collins had to miss the entire 1980 playoffs, which ended with his 76ers losing the NBA Finals to the Lakers and a rookie named Magic Johnson, but Collins played only 12 more games the next season, then called it a career. "That thing," he said of the shredded knee, "took my career."

People now don't remember how great a player Collins was in his truncated career, particularly from 1975-78, those last two seasons with Julius Erving and George McGinnis on a star-studded 76ers team that led the NBA in entertainment but didn't win a championship until two years after Collins had retired (the Moses Malone, Erving, Fo-Fo-Fo team), when a good left knee would have had Collins in the late prime of his career.

Brand and Andre Iguodala, rare old guys (relatively) on this Philly team, have seen the clips of Collins.

"Doug was so great before his knee injury," Iguodala said. "He was what some people would call a feisty white kid who could really scrap, really play. Doug had a knack for scoring. I've seen the film of him. Saw him with the Sixers, saw him on the U.S.A. team that got cheated out of the gold medal [in 1972]. Doug really felt it when Derrick went down. Some people say that emotional side of him is a weakness, but I think it's part of what makes him who he is. He cares about the game."

It's amazing to think that a man who has had as much basketball disappointment as Collins still loves the game so unconditionally, loves teaching and coaching it, loves dissecting and explaining it. For my money, Collins is the very best broadcast analyst the game has ever had, the NBA's version of John Madden, without the sound effects. Nobody makes complex elements easier to understand or tells you what should and shouldn't happen in a game as astutely as Collins.

It just seems unfair, the clouds that have intermittently rained on his career. It was Collins, remember, who hit the free throws that should have provided the winning margin against the Soviet Union in the gold-medal game before the U.S. suffered, no matter how unfairly, its first international basketball loss, in the '72 Olympics.

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George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesA knee injury cut Doug Collins' NBA playing career short at age 29.

Then there was the knee injury that ended his career before the Sixers won in '83. Collins was instrumental in constructing the Bulls teams that would win championships in 1991, '92 and '93 but was fired, only to look on as his assistant, Phil Jackson, took over the team and won to start the greatest career in coaching history. His stops in Detroit and Washington -- between trips to the broadcast table -- ended without Collins getting a whiff of the NBA Finals.

You could spend hours and hours with Collins -- trust me, I have -- and never sense any bitterness. If anything, this tour of coaching duty, in Philly, has been calmer than the ones in Detroit and Washington, where some players complained of Collins burning them out. Collins, other than the day-to-day annoyances of professional coaching, seems positively thrilled and to be having the time of his life.

After the 76ers evened the series with the Bulls in Game 2 on Tuesday, Brand talked of Collins having his defensive assistants take the team through the fine points of what the Sixers had to do differently after Game 1.

Iguodala said after he and his teammates blew out the Bulls in Game 2: "Doug's been trying to be more even. He's talked about eliminating the highs and lows. We had such a great start, but then that rough stretch. … We had to get off the emotional roller coaster. We had to find an evenness. And after that Game 1 loss in Chicago we could have been emotionally out of it, but we weren't."

With Rose out, Collins may be the most important person participating in this series, not to mention the most valuable asset the 76ers have. It's a nice team Philly has, but there's no superstar, no go-to player, which in the NBA is usually a major shortcoming.

Though he would shout down the suggestion, Collins is the star. It was he who put Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner into the starting lineup for Game 2 and got 19 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists from the emerging Turner. Collins put young banger Lavoy Allen with the second team because he needed production off the bench, and Allen responded with 11 points and nine rebounds.

Collins convinced his players they had to outrebound the No. 1 rebounding team in the league, which they did 38-32, which in turn triggered an avalanche of fast-break points (25 to the Bulls' 8) and points in the paint (52 to the Bulls' 32). And Jrue Holiday played like, well, Derrick Rose, hitting 11 of 15 shots and dealing six assists. Collins told his explosive point guard he didn't need passing as much as he needed shooting.

"I told him I want him to attack and not just to act as a point guard. … As a player I was a shooter. … Pistol Pete Maravich was a hero of mine," Collins said. "He said if you are a 50 percent shooter and you miss 10 in a row, it means that sometime you are going to make 10 in a row."

It was another example of Collins illustrating his point with an anecdote, and Holiday got it.

It was a particularly satisfying victory, coming against the top-seeded Bulls, what with most people saying the 76ers had little chance to win this series even with Rose sitting in a luxury suite during the game.

Winning in Chicago is always a bonus, too. Collins left the Bulls as head coach 22 years ago, yet is more popular than most coaches/managers who've called Chicago home. He loved that while jogging down Michigan Avenue a couple of years ago before calling a Bulls game at the United Center, drivers saluted him by honking their horns upon seeing him even though he was wearing a hoodie to cover his head on a rainy morning.

Seventy-two hours after one of his most disappointing days in Chicago, Collins had rallied himself and his team. Nobody felt sorry for the 76ers when he had to leave the lineup before the 1980 playoffs, and as deeply as he felt for Rose, Collins couldn't feel a bit sorry for the Bulls, who had beaten his team without Rose during the regular season. Collins made all the right reads and adjustments between Saturday and Tuesday, then got his players to trust him and play exactly as he asked.

Over the coming months as Rose rehabilitates his knee and tries to regain the form that allowed him to be the league's most valuable player, it wouldn't hurt him one bit to find the time to take Doug Collins to dinner one night and just listen to a man who has seen over the past 40 years just about everything, good and not so good, basketball has to offer, its highs and its disappointments.

It's difficult to imagine, in this context, anybody Rose could have more in common with. And it's next to impossible that anybody could shed as much light on their shared pain or communicate it as eloquently to Rose as Collins could.

What Rose at his young age may not yet know is that sometimes what misery needs is just the right company.

Michael Wilbon | email

Pardon the Interruption co-host
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC, in addition to ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealMikeWilbon

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