It’s not often that one is in the presence of a first-person witness to a truly historical moment. Your grandfather might have been there for D-Day or the Battle of the Bulge, however, not only are the numbers of members of the “Greatest Generation” dwindling, but also those guys weren’t always keen on taking about what they saw.
Otherwise, your parents (like most of us) saw historical moments from in front of the television where it was safe and there were beverages nearby. Maybe in the modern day folks follow flashpoints of time on a mobile device with a Twitter app where they can dig through the information as it is reported. That just might be the highest point of historical participation these days.
But Doug Collins, the coach of the 76ers, has seen some things. In fact, when Collins was just 21 in 1972, before he had been drafted as the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA by the Sixers and in the ABA by both the Nuggets and Nets, he was in the Olympic Village in Munich when an Arab terrorist group known as Black September, captured Israeli athletes and ultimately massacred them.
Two days after the massacre, Collins and his U.S. teammates played Italy in semifinal round of the Olympic tournament, which set up the gold medal game against the Soviets a few days later.
Imagine being 21-years old with a year of college left and having to play in the gold medal Olympic basketball game for your country not even a week after a terrorist group stormed the compound where you were living and killed the members of the Israeli contingent… now imagine being that guy and playing in the most infamous basketball game of all-time—a game in which it appeared you had scored the game-winning points on two foul shots with three seconds left.
Doug Collins knows about that. He lived it. He was there.
We talked about 1972 very briefly with Collins on Monday afternoon following the Sixers practice at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, but the subject was brought up only after something the coach said about his current ballclub and how it might be the best coaching experience of his career. Considering Collins coached Michael Jordan in his third season in the league and then again for his final two seasons in Washington. But as far as championships go, Collins was the predecessor to the run the Bulls had with Phil Jackson and took over Detroit when the Bad Boys had been broken up.
Collins, as he pointed out, had never won a championship.
“I’m a guy who always loved being around young players because I always enjoyed the teaching aspect and there is nothing I get more fulfillment from than watching young players grow up and get better and go on to have really great careers,” Collins said. “I get as much satisfaction out of that than some guys do lifting up a championship trophy. I think there are different levels of success and I’ve never been a champion. I’ve always felt like I’ve been a winner, but I’ve never stood up as the last guy and held up the trophy. But somewhere along the line I’ve helped some guys to be able to do that and that’s what I try to do.”
He was right. In 1977, Collins and Julius Erving carried the scoring load as the Sixers took a 2-0 lead over Portland in the NBA Finals. Collins scored 30 in Game 1, but then had to get stitches in Game 2 after Darryl Dawkins’ punch meant for Bob Gross caught Collins’ face. From there the Sixers proceeded to lose four in a row.
The Sixers didn’t make it back to the Finals until 1980, but by then Collins’ career was owned by injuries and he didn’t appear in the playoffs and he decided to retire after just 12 games in the 1980-81 season.