During his first year as coach, Collins led the Bulls to a 40-42 record. The next season Chicago won 50 games and then upset the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs to advance past the first round for the first time in seven years. In 1988-89, Collins's third year, Chicago established itself as a major power, again upending Cleveland in the opening round of the playoffs, beating the New York Knicks in Round 2 and taking a 2-1 lead over Detroit in the semifinals before bowing to the eventual league champions in six games.
It had been a run of basketball that the city of Chicago had never before experienced. Kids all over the country were wearing the black sneakers that the Bulls had unveiled for the playoffs, and Collins was wildly popular with the fans.
A month later, he was fired.
He had seen it coming. Collins's relationship with Krause and Chicago owner Jerry Reinsdorf had been strained since midseason because of disagreements over personnel and over Collins's hard-driving style as coach. Collins had a meeting scheduled with them for July 6, and he told a friend that he thought he would be fired. The meeting lasted five minutes. "Reinsdorf told me I was too intense, too emotional, and the younger players didn't want to play for me," Collins says. "I told him, 'I'd always been taught that the bottom line was winning.'
"The most difficult thing to deal with in life is rejection," Collins continues. "It was a horrible feeling. I poured my heart and soul into that job, and I felt I had made a difference. I felt anger. I'd taken something that was pretty much rock bottom and had helped bring it up. Then to have it turned over to someone else—that was tough."
Collins's immediate concerns were for the feelings of his two children—Chris, his 15-year-old son, and Kelly, his 11-year-old daughter. He was particularly worried about Chris, who had been the ball boy for the Bulls at home games the previous three years. The team had been a big part of their relationship. Chris would sit underneath one of the baskets during each game, and after it was over, Doug would walk across the floor, give his son a kiss and put his arm around him as they made their way to the locker room. Collins asked Reinsdorf and Krause not to announce his firing until he had broken the news to his kids.
"We had our cry together," he says. "Chris was real upset. But he played in a summer league game that night and made two free throws in the last four seconds. Those are experiences that make you grow up."
Collins's summer basketball camp started the next week at Concordia College in River Forest, Ill. "I was really nervous about facing the kids," he recalls. "I didn't know what to expect, but when I came in, 250 kids stood up and cheered. That was the greatest therapy I could have had."
The healing process had begun, but it would be a long time before it was complete. Only two Chicago players called Collins to commiserate. Once training camp began that fall, Collins, tired of hearing about how relaxed and happy the Bulls were under new coach Phil Jackson, stopped reading the Chicago papers. He wouldn't watch the Bulls on television. He found himself rooting against his former team, and, feeling guilty for doing so, he talked to his church pastor. Anger, his pastor said, was a normal emotion.
The silver lining, such as it was, was that Collins could now watch his son play basketball for Glenbrook North High. TBS Sports, which Collins joined as an analyst in mid-July, arranged his schedule so that he saw 20 of Glenbrook North's 26 games. In one game, against rival Glenbrook South, Chris was fouled with three minutes left. As Chris, just a sophomore, stepped to the line, some South fans began a chant: "Phil Jackson! Phil Jackson!"