The Bulls Tuesday signed a former four-time All-Star with a great shooting touch and unparalleled basketball knowledge.
Yes, he’s 66 years old. But the foundation, which is out of sight, does support the strength that makes up any final edifice. The Bulls hope to construct a towering new model of excellence. They believe they have added a rock who will support the structure.
“As I got older, I wanted to end my career like this,” said onetime Bulls coach Doug Collins, who is returning to the organization as a senior advisor. “Being in a position where I can be a mentor, an older guy who has seen it all, the highs and the lows. What I’ve always said about the game is that it’s given me the greatest of highs and it’s also broken my heart. But yet at age 66, I stand here and I’ve never loved it more.
“I’m old,” Collins quipped during a media briefing in the Bulls’ Advocate Center. “But I’m not old school. I have a young brain. You get pigeon holed because they say that guy is old school because he’s old. If being on time and working hard and all those things are old school then, yes, I’m old school. But I will match my wits with anybody in terms of young people and what’s going on now and what’s happening. I am woke.”
Being older than Doug, I wasn’t fully sure what that meant.
But I do know that having Doug Collins around means that you better be awake all the time.
Because few who ever have been in basketball combine more energy with passion, enthusiasm and intellectual challenge.
Collins can’t score any baskets for the new, rebuilding Bulls. Nor can he stop anyone from doing so. But as an advisor to the coaching staff, management and front office he will bring both his wisdom for the game, his eye for talent, his genius for strategy and his big city spirit from his own humble beginnings in rural, southern Illinois.
Excellence in sports is about the talent in the game.
But Collins can also help in supporting the people who are seeking the talent and putting it in position to succeed.
He’s done it, seen it, managed it and analyzed it. Who better to consult?
“The more we kind of dug into the prospects of this and what it means, the more we kept asking ourselves, ‘Why wouldn’t we do this?’” offered Bulls vice president John Paxson, to whom Collins will report. “Here’s a guy that has great respect around the league, one of the brightest minds in all of basketball. He’s got 40-plus years of experience, not just from a coaching perspective, but he’s seen it all, been in different organizations and different types of situations. So we kind of delved into it and we just kept saying, ‘Why wouldn’t we do something like this to enhance our organization?’
“Doug will not be coaching, Doug will not be a decision-maker,” Paxson emphasized. “None of our roles have changed. Fred’s (Hoiberg) our coach. Fred’s had a phenomenal summer with our young players in this building. We’re excited about what is going on there. Gar Forman and I continue to be at the forefront of this organization. We view (Collins) as kind of an internal advisor, where he’s not going to be a spokesperson for the organization. He is well versed in so many aspects of this game of professional basketball: Front office, coaching, the decisions that have to be made with trades. His wealth of knowledge and his wisdom are going to be a huge asset for us. How we view it is: What a great resource for our entire organization to have and be able to pick his brain. This is obviously a great day for the Bulls organization.”
No change; merely, an addition. It is generally better to have more.
Collins is not in line to be the next coach or interim, an assistant general manager or executive of any sort. Perhaps sell a few tickets? OK, maybe, but Collins also made it clear as he closes in on his seventh decade he has too many other priorities with five grandchildren, his son coaching Northwestern, his son-in-law a coach in Pennsylvania. Enough with chasing all over the NBA winter.
But just in case anyone was still wondering, well, there’s a reason they give the full social security at 66.
“One of the things we talked about when Jerry and Michael (Reinsdorfs) and I were together at dinner one night was the first thing that must be known is that under no circumstances am I going to coach here,” said Collins. “That should not even be a question. I know there’s still going to be people who go, ‘Yeah, sure. How many times did this guy retire and come back?’ That kind of stuff. So I get that. But I’m not going to coach. I’m not going to give up my life. The hours and the time commitment that Fred Hoiberg puts in a day and the energy that he spends and being on the road and being away from his family, I’m not going to miss any Northwestern games, and I’ve got a son-in-law who coaches outside Philadelphia at a high school. I’m going to be there. I’m not going to miss that. It worked perfectly in my schedule when I talked to Pax that I could be a part of something special, the Chicago Bulls, and I love the Chicago Bulls.”
“This is a behind-the-scenes role,” insisted Collins, “much different than when you’re Fred Hoiberg and you’re standing down on the court and in the firing line every single day: You’re who everybody sees. This is a behind the scenes job for me. I’m not going to be spokesperson; I’m not going to be doing interviews.”
But Collins will be talking, which is fine with the Bulls.
Because a 30-win Bulls team improved to 50 wins by his second season coaching, Pistons and Wizards teams added 18 wins in his first seasons coaching them; his inaugural 76ers where he started his playing career were 14 wins better the first season he coached. Collins knows this is different; not only with his less active role, but where the Bulls are now compared with previous seasons. There are going to be a lot more losses this season than last; than really every season since 2004. But Collins also knows it’s the right time for the Bulls and he wants to be there—in part in longtime appreciation for the Bulls giving him his first head coaching job—to help see the franchise again built upward.
“The moment they probably started to slide was the day Derrick Rose tore up his knee against us in Game 1 of the playoffs (against Collins eighth seeded 76ers in 2012). That moment when Derrick was never that player again,” Collins noted. “In the NBA, you win with special players, difference makers. You get the right people around them that can play the way the game is played today with spreading the floor and three-point shooting and being able to defend. My perception reading the last couple of years is it’s been a little bit of a piñata (for the organization). They’ve taken a lot of hits.
“I’m going to put my arm around Fred and Gar and Pax and say, ‘Let’s get that excitement and joy back with the Chicago Bulls,’” said Collins. “Just look at how quickly it changed with the (White) Sox. Rick Hahn makes three deals and they have the best young group in the minor league and now all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘Man, the Sox are going to be great.’ That’s how quick perception changes. You do your job and do it right and make some good decisions and then you’ve got to get lucky. When they got Derrick Rose, it was a 1.7 percent(lottery) chance to get him. That’s part of the business. And then you have to stay healthy. I will tell you: The Bulls, this organization, I think is an amazing organization. I think Jerry Reinsdorf and Michael and being around them the one night, I know they want this to be special again. And I hope in some little way, my way of saying thank you to Jerry for hiring me a long time ago and Pax for playing his tail off for me for three years ,is maybe I can give a little back to them at this stage of my life.”
Collins said he is giving up his ESPN broadcasting duties and as now an NBA team employee can no longer have contact with Northwestern players.
But he’s ready for yet another new challenge, a big one certainly, but hardly more than being a six foot, 135 pound backup on his small town Illinois high school team on the way to being an Olympian and first player selected in the NBA draft.
“I didn’t win any championships,” Collins acknowledged, though he twice was in the NBA Finals as a player with the 76ers. “But I walk around this city and the love the people have always shown me has been really amazing. It’s almost like I’d been the one that won them.”
It’s been six Bulls championships since Collins was replaced by Phil Jackson in 1989, seven head coaches and two interims, working on a third rebuilding, five subsequent All-Stars, a league MVP, an executive of the year and one very, very bad knee injury. But these things happen in the NBA. The Lakers are going through several years among the poorest teams in the NBA; the Celtics did for almost two decades, the Knicks for four.
“My history, if you want to look back on it, when I went to the 76ers, they were 9-73. They were the worst team in the history of professional basketball,” said Collins. “Four years later, we were playing for a world championship. See how things quickly change? The NBA is cyclical now. Other than the San Antonio Spurs, over the last 20 years every elite franchise has gone through this moment. Now you’ve got to dig yourself back up. We’ve got to start doing all the things that are necessary to gain assets day by day, to put in all the work so we’re going to give ourselves a chance. When we get better players and more talent, you’re going to win more basketball games. I’m not going to be down on the court. I’m going to be sitting up in the stands somewhere. It’s Fred’s team. I’m not going to get in the way of that at all. He’s the coach of this team and it’s going to be a very interesting team. I think absolutely I can help. It’s hard for me to sit up here and put this into what is the definition of your job. Because I think it’s going to be a lot of different things. But the one thing I want is to be an asset for this organization, to provoke thought. It’s an answer to prayers in a lot of ways. I’m a mentor. That’s when I’m at my best.
“At 66,” said Collins, “I feel I’m continuing to grow. I think back on a guy named Johnny Bach, what he meant in my life. He started out with me as an assistant coach with the Olympics and went everywhere I ever went as a pro coach. His wisdom and what he brought at the age of 66 when I was coaching, I’m hoping I can pay a little of that back. Johnny Bach’s great line (for an assistant/mentor) was to be brief and be seated.”
Those who know Collins doubt that; which is the good thing for the Bulls.