Disappointing Olympic moment turns golden for Doug Collins
The 1972–1973 Illinois State University men’s basketball media guide included a section titled, “All America digs Doug … and we’ve got him.”
Indeed, by the beginning of that season, all of America knew Doug Collins ’73 was a terrific basketball player. Folks from Miami to Spokane also knew he played at Illinois State. Six months earlier, most Americans could not have picked him out of a lineup. Nor had they heard of his school. What transpired to change that—change everything, really—is something even Collins says he never could have envisioned. Forty years later, his heroic moment at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, easily stands as the most significant in ISU basketball history.
Losing on a world court was a game changer for Doug Collins and Illinois State.
After being knocked unconscious briefly by a hard foul, Collins sank two free throws with three seconds left in the gold medal game against Russia, giving the United States a 50-49 lead.
The points would have been the difference, but a chaotic and controversial ending resulted in a 51-50 Russian win. Having twice celebrated apparent victory, only to see time put back on the clock, Collins and his crestfallen teammates never accepted their silver medals.
Yet, the 6-foot-6 guard and his school had burst into mainstream America.
“I feel good about that,” Collins said of the impact nationally for ISU. “Illinois State was the place it all started for me. To be able to stand tall and make the Olympic team… that was very important to me personally, but also for what it did for Illinois State.”
Collins’ Olympic experience came as ISU was trying to get a foothold in NCAA Division I. Athletic Director Milt Weisbecker had hired Will Robinson as the nation’s first black Division I head coach in 1970. The Redbirds had been a provisional major-college entry in Collins’ sophomore season of 1970–1971 and officially became Division I in 1971–1972.
While Collins earned All-America honors both of those seasons, averaging 28.6 and 32.6 points per game, gaining a spot on the Olympic team and, in turn, becoming an Olympic hero was “my coming out party,” he said.
It also “put ISU on the map in a lot of ways,” said Roger Cushman, the Redbirds’ sports information director at the time.
“From Doug’s time through the next few years we had something like seven players drafted by NBA teams. We have never had that since and, of course, never had it before Doug,” Cushman said. “The Olympics was the validation of all the so-called PR we tried to get out on him.
“He was obviously such a talent that you wanted to tell the whole world. But who’s going to believe that you have that talented of a player at a place like Illinois State, which was one year removed from Division II? That moment in the Olympics when he was knocked unconscious and got up and made two really pressurized free throws … my goodness, the whole world knew just how good he was.”
Collins is show above on the Olympic court; with his ISU coach, Will Robinson; and with the Olympic team and coaches.
Collins’ free throws came after he made a steal near midcourt and drove in for an attempted layup. His legs were taken out from under him and he crashed to the floor. He slid and his head went under the padding of the basket support, leaving him unconscious.
Trainers and U.S. Head Coach Hank Iba came out to check on him.
“There was concern as to whether I would be able to shoot the free throws,” Collins said. “I remember Coach Iba in that gravelly voice of his saying, ‘If Doug can walk, he’s shooting them.’ My thought at that point was there’s no way I can let my coach down and let my country down.”
Collins gathered himself and calmly swished both attempts.
“Honestly, I didn’t feel any pressure,” he said. “For whatever reason, I thought I was in my backyard in Benton, Illinois, shooting them like I’d done all my life. I counted on my routine like I’d always done.”
Little would be “routine” for Collins or ISU after that. He returned from Munich in September for his senior year as a physical education major and was honored at Hancock Stadium. It was among many tributes over the next few months. Nearly every school ISU played on the road that season “wanted to do something to honor Doug,” Cushman said.
“You didn’t have to do anything to interest people in him,” Cushman added. “The name recognition was quite high.”
It soared higher on January 15, 1973, when Collins appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine. There was a photo of Collins in his Redbird letter jacket and the words, “Backcourt Magician.”
Cushman is certain that without the Olympics, the cover would not have happened. Collins agrees.
Sports Illustrated writer Curry Kirkpatrick was working on a story on the nation’s top college guards. When he came to Normal, Collins scored a school-record 57 points against the University of New Orleans.
“I think that had a big effect on it,” Collins said. “Curry probably called back to his office and said, ‘Let’s put this guy on the cover.’
“I think once I went to the Olympic trials and proved I could play, I wasn’t just a guy playing at a small school throwing up big numbers. A lot of times people look and say, ‘Yeah, but who’s he playing against?’ But I think the fact I proved myself against the best solidified that I deserved to be in the conversation when there was talk of the best guards in the country.”
A few months later, the Philadelphia 76ers made Collins the No. 1 pick of the 1973 NBA Draft. Joining a team with a 9-73 record the previous year, he was part of a rebuilding process that saw the 76ers reach the NBA Finals in 1977. After taking a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series against Portland, Philadelphia lost the next four games and the series.
Collins earned his third and fourth NBA All-Star Game berths in 1978 and 1979. He was in the height of his career on a team poised to win a championship. “Then I get hurt and my career is over,” he said.
Foot and leg problems hampered Collins over the next two years. He played in 12 games his final season of 1980-1981 and retired at age 30.
“You have to pick yourself up and say, ‘What do I do from here?’” Collins said.
His salvation was basketball, as a coach and television analyst. He has served as head coach of the Chicago Bulls (1986-1989), Detroit Pistons (1995-1998), Washington Wizards (2001-2003) and, currently, the 76ers. Between coaching stints, he has been an award-winning TV analyst.
“I’ve been incredibly blessed,” Collins said. “Through the heartache of losing the gold medal and injuries shortening my career, I’d do it all over again.
Collins’ career has included playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, above, and coaching, right, four NBA teams. He is also an award-winning analyst.
“I’d like for those last three seconds at the Olympics to be different, and in 1977 to not let Portland win four straight. But anything I’ve been asked to do in basketball, I’ve given my maximum effort. My daughter, Kelly, gave me something for my desk that says, ‘When a man does his best, what else is there?’ That says it all for me.”
It has been an improbable run considering that four years before he stood at the foul line in Munich, Collins was a reserve on his Benton High School team. He did not become a starter until his senior year.
He arrived at ISU at 6-foot-2 and Cushman said, “We hoped we had another Jerry McGreal because Jerry was a fine, small-college guard.” Collins grew to 6-6 by his sophomore year and soon took himself, and his school, to unimaginable heights.
“I tell people I’ve outlived my dream,” Collins said. “There’s no way in 1968 I could have dreamed the path I’ve been on in my life through basketball.”
He cherishes his time at ISU, during which he met his future wife, Kathy (Stieger) ’73. Collins donates to his alma mater, and an endowed scholarship bears his name. He takes pride in having been ISU’s first Academic All-American.
His relationship with Robinson is yet another treasured Illinois State memory. The two are honored with a statue outside Redbird Arena. Inside, Collins’ No. 20 hangs from the rafters. The Redbirds play on Doug Collins Court.
“I hope when people walk by that statue they realize I played ball and tried to do things the right way and what Coach Robinson meant in my life,” Collins said.
It all led to an unforgettable Olympic experience with a painful ending. Collins’ son, Chris, an assistant coach at Duke University and member of the 2008 gold-medal winning Olympic team, sought to ease the pain in 2009, the night his father was inducted as a broadcaster into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“We had a family function afterward,” Doug said. “Chris stood up, reached in his pocket and said, ‘It’s 37 years too late, but you should have this.’ He put his gold medal around my neck. He gave it to me to keep. It was the most powerful moment I’ve had with my son.”