Mourning Hawks begin life without 'our brother'

ATLANTA -- Mike Woodson has faced many challenges in his lengthy career as a player and coach, but nothing has prepared him for this.

In the wake of center Jason Collier's death, it's up to the Hawks coach to steer the team through its grief yet still get his players to produce on the basketball court.

"I've never experienced anything like it in 23 years in basketball," said Woodson on Sunday. "Nobody expected this, but as a coach, I've got to help these guys get though it."

That job doesn't end after Collier's funeral on Wednesday -- in fact, it's only beginning. The death will hang over Woodson's team the entire season. The memory will be there at every practice and home game as they walk by Collier's empty locker. And if they try to forget, they'll be asked to remember at every road stop, as a new group of reporters shows up to ask the same questions about their fallen teammate.

For Atlanta, the jolt comes just as the franchise was hoping to emerge from several years of malaise. The Hawks were a wreck last season, winning only 13 games in front of a largely empty arena while waiting for the healing power of free agent dollars and high draft picks to take hold. But this year's training camp brought a fountain of optimism. With the offseason additions of Joe Johnson, Zaza Pachulia and Marvin Williams, and the ouster of impeding part-owner Steve Belkin, Atlanta began camp with as much hope as it had in years.

The sense of optimism that pervaded the opening weeks of camp is long gone now. Woodson has to replace that gloom, or at least find an outlet for it, and his first step was to run the team through a two-and-a-half hour practice on Sunday -- about an hour longer than his norm. He described the mood as "upbeat, considering the situation."

But while getting back on the court after yesterday's practice was canceled helped get the team back into a routine, the players were still shell-shocked by the news.

"I was getting ready to go to practice and got a phone call from [assistant] coach [David] Fizdale. I didn't know how to react. It's something I never had to go through," said swingman Josh Childress.

The Hawks' backup center, Collier was an anomaly in the Hawks' locker room. He was a five-year vet on a roster containing nine players with two years experience or less. And his bass-fishing, country-living ways (he lived on a lake about an hour's drive from Philips Arena) stood in marked contrast to those of his younger, more citified teammates.

Nonetheless, his easygoing nature won him many friends, especially forward Al Harrington. The 6-9 forward shared a corner of the locker room with Collier and said he was dedicating his season to him.

"He was a very funny guy, always positive. Nothing ever got to him," said Harrington. "[The public] wouldn't think it was the case, but we spent so much time together it really was like he was our brother."

And as a longtime Atlanta resident on a team full of recent transplants -- no other Hawk had been on the team more than a year -- he was also a prime source for information and advice about life in the Peach State. In fact, that's my last memory of Collier -- giving directions to a training camp signee trying to get somewhere after Atlanta's preseason game against Orlando on Tuesday.

Now it's up to Woodson to give the directions, in the figurative sense. Sadly, one of the players who would have been most helpful in that pursuit is now gone.

"He was an ultimate pro," said Woodson of Collier. "He did everything I asked from a coaching standpoint."

Woodson has to replace Collier on the court as well. He started 44 games last season, averaging 13 minutes per game, and figured to play a similar amount this year as Zaza Pachulia's primary backup at center. The southpaw was Atlanta's best shooting big man and was especially effective on pick-and-pop plays. Filling that void will be either Uruguayan rookie Esteban Batista or second-year pro John Edwards, but neither offers the combination of size and skill that Collier did.

Overall, no coach will face a tougher challenge this season than Woodson. Not only does he have to resuscitate a 13-win team with a moribund fan base, one that now is desperately short of big men, but he must do so while playing grief counselor on the side and navigating the team through constant reminders of its loss.

"That's my job," Woodson said bravely on Sunday, but one has to think this never showed up in the description of his duties.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider.