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The team stumbled in its opener at Vintage (Napa County), but the Oilers got people talking in the opening round of the Jeremy Jack Tournament by pushing Lincoln (San Francisco) — considered by many to be the best public school team in the city — all the way to the final buzzer. Brown had a chance to tie the game with less than ten seconds to play, but as he set his feet at the top of the three-point arc, the ball was knocked loose. Collins exploded, unleashing a four-letter tirade, adamant that his point guard was fouled. In the locker room, he flipped the trash can and cussed about how badly the team had been hosed: "I know what's going on: Nobody wants to believe that Richmond can win." He scanned the room, eyes wide, looking possessed. Then he growled: "We believe."
Later that night, Collins realized he had screwed up, but it really sunk in the next day as he watched his two big men roll their eyes and complain after every whistle during the Oilers' game with San Marin. The team had a five-point lead at halftime, but Collins was dissatisfied. He wrote the word "adversity" on the whiteboard.
"What's that mean?"
"Yes, obstacles. For instance, we all have friends who've been murdered, right? That's a fucking obstacle."
Sweat dripped from Collins' forehead as he paced the locker room.
"You think those refs didn't hear me last night? I caused the obstacle — it's my fault."
He stopped in front of a player who was experiencing some family turmoil: "You miss where you live, right? You miss your family, right son? That's an obstacle — we've got you."
Then, he spun around and crouched until he was eye-to-eye with Raoul Chauchan, a 5-foot-5-five, 115-pound senior: "Hey, you don't like it that you're small, huh? That's an obstacle, right?"
"You don't give a fuck — you try hard! You can't even get your dad into this country, but I don't hear you whining because of it."
Tears leaked from the boys' eyes.
"I love you, man. You're a part of my team, you're one of my guys."
Then, he turned and pointed a finger at Brown, who was standing across the room: "You had any obstacles in your life? FUCK YEAH! You think I ain't got obstacles in my life?"
Collins stopped. He hovered over the team's two big kids and said, "Don't foul, don't make faces — take it like a man."
The Oilers opened the second half on fire, but they panicked in crunch time and let the game slip away. They lost to Pinole Valley the next day and then dropped three more games at the Walnut Creek Holiday Classic a week later. Then, they were blown out of their own gym by Bethel (Vallejo) in front of the largest crowd Richmond had seen in five years. At 0-8, the NCS playoffs suddenly looked like a moon shot.
Still, the Oilers' record didn't reflect how much better they were playing. Most of the games were close, even though almost every opponent they faced had made the playoffs the previous year. Rather than loading up his schedule with easy wins against lesser opponents, Collins wanted to test his players, even if he risked hurting them in the standings. "You have to challenge yourself, so that you can get better," he explained. "That's the whole point."
If coaching was just about winning and making the playoffs, Collins says he wouldn't last: "It takes too much out of me, man. It's not healthy."
But as the Oilers' playoff aspirations faded, the challenge was keeping them motivated: Would they continue to push forward or would they give up?
The question was answered in the team's ninth game, a knock-down, drag-out fight with the Hayward Farmers in mid-December. The Hayward crowd was boisterous and the band was loud, but the Oilers remained poised. They pulled ahead a couple times and when the Farmers battled back, the Richmond squad didn't crumble. With less than a minute to play, the Oilers trailed by a single point. They needed a big defensive play.
The Oilers pressed and pressed until junior guard Cordell Waters knocked the ball loose with less than ten seconds on the shot clock. Both he and Brown scrambled after it, but the Farmers' point guard scooped it up and flung it to a wipe-open teammate standing at the three-point line. Swish. The game was over.
The Hayward faithful belted out the familiar victory song, "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye," and a Richmond JV player responded with a raised middle finger. Collins screamed at his thirty non-varsity players sitting in the bleachers: "Everybody sit down and shut up!" Back in the locker room, he punched the whiteboard with a right, then a left. The team was speechless.
As the Oilers filed out of the gym, they were greeted by a long line of laughing, dancing Hayward fans, who pointed and shouted insults: "You suck!" "Losers!" "We just beat your ass!"
"Don't say a word," Collins commanded. "Look straight ahead and get on the bus."
The Oilers boarded one by one and rode home in near silence.
In the old days, the Oilers would have run for at least ninety minutes after losing such a close game, but instead Collins put practice on cruise control. His players' tanks were empty. They ran a few basic drills while Collins hung out at mid-court discussing the previous night's drama with his coaches: "This is my first 0-9 team, and you know what?" asked Collins. "I don't think I've ever been this proud."