Page 5 of 7
But his comeback season didn't follow the Hollywood script. The Oilers did manage to win eight games — double the total of the previous two years combined — but the team was plagued by infighting. Collins said most of the boys were suffering post-traumatic stress and the culture of distrust was too embedded to change overnight. "You need about three years with a kid to really make a difference," he said. So he planted seeds with his freshmen.
One bright spot was the emergence of sophomore Isaiah Brown, who dropped 27 points in a near upset of Berkeley High, a team that had beat the Oilers by more than 75 points the year before. Collins lost his cool only once all season, but ironically, it was during the team's only league win, after he overheard several of his players talking trash behind Brown's back. "You're all talking shit from the bench the whole fucking time and I'm fucking sick of it!" he screamed, spit flying across the huddle. "He's a part of this team just like everyone else!"
Later, after the bus unloaded at Richmond High, Collins opened up to his JV coach, Rick Coleman, in the school's dark, vacant parking lot: "Coaching sucks," he said. "I've got no wife, no kids, no grandkids. I'm all alone." They talked strategy for a couple of minutes before Collins added: "I hate to yell at them. I feel like a jerk."
"You gotta remember, most of these guys don't have fathers," Coleman replied. "They need someone to get in their faces sometimes, pull the man out of them."
As the Oilers sputtered, Collins slid into depression. Instead of pacing up and down the sideline with a ring of sweat around his collar, he sat at the end of the bench, expressionless, resting his chin on an open palm. "I was a wreck," he said.
Things reached a breaking point on the night that a fifteen-year-old player on an opposing team collapsed from a heart attack on the court. It put Collins' entire career into perspective. The next day he told his players that he was going to take a few weeks off.
The guys were out of uniform, lined up on the baseline in hoodies, baseball caps, and sagging jeans. "I used to be a hard-charging son of a bitch, man," Collins told them. "I used to hate other coaches. I'd talk shit to other teams' players. I'd get into refs' faces. I was out of control." He paused, his eyes glued to the gym's hardwood floor. "But my teams always won."
The gym was quiet as Collins continued: "I used to push kids — I'd push kids to the point where they'd pass out or throw up."
He paused again. The lines on his forehead grew more pronounced: "Now, I'm not giving up — I've never given up on anything in my life — but I am curbing things back. After last night's experience, how can I be sure that that's never going to happen to any of you?"
The rebirth of the Oilers started in open gym. Collins was spry after some time off in March 2010. He played with the JV kids (now his juniors and seniors) at 6:30 almost every morning, snatching rebounds, setting screens, getting after it any way he could.
As spring rolled forward, more and more people dropped in to play, even a handful of former Oilers who wanted to help Collins rebuild the program. The kids were awestruck when a pair of NCAA college basketball players, Wendell McKines and Eli Holman (the stars of the 2005-06 team), popped in and lit up the gym with an arsenal of high-flying dunks. "They tell you what's expected of you if you play college [basketball]," said junior center Devante Anderson. "They let me know I can do it no matter what."
The Oilers improved throughout the 2010-11 season, but things didn't really gel until last summer. In June, Collins took out a $2,000 loan to pay for summer tournaments, night leagues, and gas for his assistant coaches. He also would load up the bed of his truck with sandwiches, chicken, and Gatorade so that the players could replenish between games. "He does stuff that average coaches wouldn't do," team member Isaiah Brown said.
The team bonded as they bounced around the East Bay, playing in cities like Pleasant Hill, Martinez, and Moraga. "It's like a brotherhood," Brown said. "If you've got something bad going on, you have a place where you can go and get away."
By fall 2011, Collins had Richmond High believing that Oilers' basketball was back. For the first time since the Ken Carter years, the program now has three levels of hoops — freshman, junior varsity, and varsity, with a total of 45 players. The varsity team has returned Isaiah Brown, who may be the Alameda Contra Costa County Athletic League's most explosive scorer this year, along with a nucleus of juniors that Collins has mentored since his first days back.