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The 76ers are facing the Heat on a Friday in late March, and Philadelphia coach Doug Collins will remember this game forever. It won't even matter who wins or what happens. Collins remembers almost every game he has ever played or coached.
There are benefits to being a human DVR. The 59-year-old Collins has not asked his video coordinator, Monte Shubik, for a copy of a 76ers game all season. At a recent staff meeting one assistant coach mentioned a loss to the Hawks in which Philly guard Lou Williams missed a dunk, triggering an Atlanta rally. "There was 5:14 on the clock," Collins said matter-of-factly, then recited every play that occurred the rest of the game.
"I don't know why I'm still skeptical," Shubik says, but he was. And so, in the middle of the meeting, Shubik started watching that Hawks-Sixers game on his laptop.
Sure enough, there was 5:14 left when Philadelphia's defensive possession started. The rest happened exactly the way Collins said. The game had been played almost four months earlier.
If you own an NBA team and you want to be instantly relevant, you can either start dating a Kardashian or hire Collins as your coach. In his previous three stops Collins increased the team's wins in his first year by 10 (the Bulls, in 1987), 18 (the Pistons, in '96) and 18 (the Wizards, in 2002). These 76ers might be his finest work yet. They were 27--55 last season. At week's end, with basically the same roster, they were 40--37 and sixth in the Eastern Conference.
Five of their top eight players are 23 or younger, and a sixth, Williams, is 24. They don't have a scorer among the NBA's top 50 or a rebounder in the top 15. What they have is some promising talent, a great attitude and a coach who sees the game in slow motion. Collins has gone deep into his bench, built a tough defense around stopper Andre Iguodala and implored his players not to commit turnovers. Since losing 13 of their first 16 games, they are 35--23.
On this night in Miami, Collins is matched against Erik Spoelstra, 40, who must make do with a normal high-functioning brain. Spoelstra has prepared by watching the Heat's last game on his laptop, some footage from his team's last meeting with the Sixers and five games' worth of scouting video.
Collins does not use a computer. Before every game he watches two hours of the opposing team's defense, but that is pretty much it. "He is probably wasting his mind in this game," Spoelstra says with a laugh. "He could probably be saving a lot of lives in the world of science."
Collins doesn't remember every single play, and sometimes he gets small details wrong. But generally, his recall is uncanny. Collins's friends say he has a photographic memory. Actually, a videographic memory is more accurate, though that just tells you how he remembers all these games.
What really matters, with Doug Collins, is why.