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He would crouch in huddles late in games, loudspeakers blaring overhead, game on the line, and ... improvise. Assistant coaches were in awe. It is a form of genius, but as his longtime friend and assistant, Johnny Bach, says, "That strains the team, too. He is asking them to keep pace with the machine-gun mind."
In Collins's head, games never ended; they kept playing on an endless loop. "Once I started coaching, I couldn't sleep. My mind just wouldn't shut off."
His passion for the game, for his players—for everything—was uncontainable. Collins gave and gave. On the road he took his whole staff to dinner—coaches, video guys, everybody—and picked up the tab. After his Pistons lost in the first round of the 1997 playoffs, Collins called video coordinator George David into his office and wrote him a personal check for roughly $5,000, with no explanation. David demurred. Collins insisted: Take the check. Weeks later David realized Collins had given him a full playoff share out of his own pocket.
One Christmas, Collins decided to thank his lawyer John Langel for being such a good friend. He endowed a full scholarship at Temple's law school in Langel's name. When Collins runs a basketball camp, he knows the names or nicknames of all 250 kids by the second day.
"I want them to feel important," he says.
In Chicago and Detroit, giving was his problem. He couldn't stop. After losses, he would gather his team, pull up a chair and give a detailed breakdown on how it went wrong. Collins was not a big yeller, but as his former player (and current Sixers assistant) Michael Curry says, "It's not so much the yelling as the constant reminding. I think that wears on a guy."
Players would tune him out, and Collins was hurt. If he was so desperate to give, why were they so reluctant to take?
"It's not necessarily reflective of me," he says. "But when you're a fixer ... I think I'm a wound healer. If my wife were to not be happy on a particular day, I immediately think, Is it something that I've done? I always wanted players to be engaged. I want guys to be happy. I want people in my life to be happy. That makes me happy. And when people aren't happy, it's like, Well, how can I help them be happy?"
Collins's need to make everybody happy all the time meant that in the end, nobody ever really was. The year before he took over the Bulls, they had won 30 games. By his third season they were in the conference finals. Then they fired him. "I think they felt my style and my intensity, I guess my emotion ... that I [am not] the man they need to coach this team now," he said at the time.
In 1995 Collins took over the Pistons. After he led them to 46 wins, their second-leading scorer, shooting guard Allan Houston, left as a free agent, and they figured to take a step back. Instead, Detroit won 54 under Collins. By the middle of the next season, with the team reeling at 21--24, he was fired again.