Coach Collins

Richmond High's Ken Carter was immortalized in a movie, but his replacement, Rob Collins, is back and the Oilers believe he's the real deal.

The Richmond Oilers used to be one of the proudest high school basketball teams in the East Bay. As the city bustled with optimism in middle of the last century, the Oilers dominated the hardwood, bringing home eight league titles in seventeen years. But when the city changed in the Seventies and Eighties, a confluence of variables — poverty, violence, drugs, racism, and neglect — crippled the school’s athletic department. For the next quarter-century, the Oilers were the laughingstock of local basketball, finishing in the cellar year after year.

“When you have four or five different obstacles in your way, not everyone is going to be able to jump over them to be part of a team,” explained Darrin Zaragoza, Richmond High’s athletic director.

But the team’s image flipped like a switch the day Ken Carter, a former All-American, returned in 1997 to take over as head coach. Carter was known for being a drill sergeant, and he quickly whipped the players into shape. The Oilers opened Carter’s second season with a perfect 13-0 record before he locked them out — he literally padlocked the gym doors after 15 of 45 players failed to meet a contractual agreement to post a GPA of 2.3 or better.

ESPN, CNN, and a caravan of local news teams quickly swarmed Richmond High. “I’m also an employer,” Carter told the press. “I want these kids to be employable. I care about what happens to these kids ten years from now.”

Rush Limbaugh sang Carter’s praises and the coach made appearances on the Today Show and Good Morning America. Then-Governor Gray Davis attended the gym’s re-opening ceremony, calling the Oilers’ coach “a hero.” Eventually, MTV made a movie, with a stern-faced Samuel L. Jackson as Coach Carter.

But locals say the real story was never as glamorous as the media spectacle made it seem. Parents, teachers, and even some players were holding their tongues. “It was the strangest news conference; none of the kids or parents would say anything — not a word,” said Richard Gonzales, a Richmond native, who covered the story for NPR. “An old friend from high school pulled me aside and said, ‘This story stinks. It’s not at all what it looks like.'”

Afterward, the team was never the same. The Oilers stumbled through the rest of the season, posting a 6-7 record before getting bounced in the first round of the North Coast Section playoffs. After that, the Oilers slid back into mediocrity, failing to make the playoffs three years in a row. Carter stepped down to launch a career as a motivational speaker. He wrote a book, carried the Olympic torch through Richmond, and even coached a made-for-TV sport on the Nashville Network called SlamBall.

The Oilers found themselves without a coach just three weeks before they were scheduled to start the 2002-03 season. At the final hour, the school hired the last guy anyone in the East Bay basketball community would have pictured as the face of the Richmond Oilers: a raving, ranting Chris Farley lookalike who’d spent his entire career coaching in the suburbs. But in Rob Collins, the Oilers found a kindred soul.

Collins bonded with the players in ways that Carter never had. Kids growing up in Richmond know all about violence and adversity, and Collins treated them like family. He used his own money to buy them sports gear and meals, and filled a room next to his office with food so that they would never go hungry. The players responded. In just four years, Collins led the Oilers all the way to the state tournament for the first time in the school’s history.

But then he abruptly quit, lured away to a well-heeled school by a pay raise and a big-time budget. His passion and temperament, however, rubbed some parents the wrong way, and he resigned after just two seasons in Pleasanton, saying he was through with high school sports forever. But then when his mother died a year later he found himself desperately in need of distraction, so he returned to Richmond High. In his absence, the Oilers had slid back into the basement, putting together a dismal 4-44 record in two years and losing games by as many as 75 points.

Now, after two strenuous rebuilding years, Oilers basketball is back. It’s even spelled out on the T-shirts the players wear to school: “Oiler Pride: From nothing to upstart, from upstart to champion, from champion to dynasty.” This year’s team also has talent — a veteran point guard who averages thirty points a game and a couple of big men who are a handful for any opponent.

But success will depend on Collins’ ability to inspire these Richmond kids to believe. In the process, he’ll also need to control his emotions, stay healthy, and find balance in his life. If he can swing it, he and his team may once again rise to the top of the California high school basketball rankings. If not, he may very well flame out, and the Oilers could recede into obscurity.

Rob Collins was never the most gifted athlete on any of his teams. Throughout his childhood, he was told there was only one sport he’d ever be good at — football. In 1977, as a sophomore at Las Lomas High School in Walnut Creek, he was a big kid who looked the part: 6’3″, 220 pounds, with thick bowling-pin arms and a little Buddha belly hanging over his waistband. He lettered in three sports, but he only had eyes for one — basketball.

On the court, Collins could catch anything, but when he ran he may as well have had a piano tied to his waist. He was too short to play down low and too slow to patrol the perimeter, so he concentrated on all the little things that required more grit and determination than skill. “He was a player who got the most out of his abilities,” recalled Dave Girsch, Collins’ high school basketball coach. “He was always the guy who was on the floor fighting for loose balls, rebounding, doing all the dirty work inside that no one else wanted to do.”

Collins’ love for the game infected his teammates. Girsch said it was like having a coach on the floor: “He played hard and expected everyone around him to play hard. Most of the success we had was because of Rob.”

But at times, the fire inside Collins burned too hot. In four years as a high school athlete, he was ejected from one football game, one baseball game, and four basketball games.

Collins now says that he was born to coach, but he wouldn’t have figured it out if it wasn’t for a stroke of luck. In 1985, he was unemployed after flunking out of Cal State-Hayward and failing to hold down jobs as a fishmonger, a wine salesman, a carpenter, and a garbage man. He even tried to run his own animal excrement cleaning business, Poop `N Scoop (the phone number was 935-POOP), but that venture got flushed down the toilet, too. Then one day he learned that his old freshman basketball team at Las Lomas needed a coach. He called the school from a pay phone and was hired on the spot.

Two years later, Collins jumped over to Acalanes High School in Lafayette to reunite with Girsch, who was running the Dons’ basketball program. As an assistant, it was Collins’ job to fire up the locker room before games. “Lord knows what he said in there, but when they came out they were ready to play,” Girsch remembered. “He was very, very good at motivating kids to go out there and do their best.”

Collins replaced Girsch as coach of the varsity team three years later and the Dons immediately started winning. “Can’t keep a girl, can’t hold a job, can’t write a check without bouncing it, but I can coach basketball,” Collins said.

As the wins mounted, word spread through the high school basketball community that the sideline show at Acalanes was one of the best tickets in the East Bay. Mark DeLuca, head coach at De Anza High School in Richmond, finally went to a game after friends badgered him for weeks: “They were like, ‘This guy’s crazy. It’s worth it.’ So I went and he was totally nuts.”

Collins looked like a 325-pound wind-up toy, buzzing up and down the sideline throughout the game. He was red-faced and intense, screaming so loud that his vocal chords sounded like they were shredding. His team fed off of his energy. “I could tell right away that he was really tight with his players,” DeLuca recalled. “If a team loves their coach, they’ll play really hard for him.”

That summer, DeLuca invited the Acalanes team to play in his Pinole Valley tournament just so he could watch “that crazy guy.” After the tournament, Collins’ check bounced, but DeLuca didn’t think much of it until his doorbell rang a few months later: “This weirdo’s at my front door, and he’s like, ‘Hey man, here’s the money I owe you.’ From that moment on we’ve been best friends.”

Collins’ coaching style was a natural extension of the passion he showed as a high school athlete; he demanded his team’s best effort every night. Practices were, in his words, “mild torture”: two straight hours of running, defensive shuffles with bricks, plus a bevy of mind games designed to break even the toughest kid’s will. Every drill was a competition with winners and losers — losers ran. “There were no excuses that were any good, man. I was in your face and if you didn’t do it right, you were running, and if you ran and threw up, then you cleaned it up,” Collins said.

Still, he was a guy’s guy and a player’s coach, who had a natural genius for knowing what strings to pull with each player. “He definitely knew how to get the best out of us,” remembered Chris Gilbert, who went on to play hoops at UC Santa Cruz after graduating in 2001. “For me personally, I liked that he got in my face and challenged me. I liked to prove him wrong.”

On Collins’ teams, no one was a star and everyone had a role: rebound, take charges, set picks. “Even our bench players prided themselves on being bench players — they called themselves the ‘roughriders,'” said Justin Smith, the Dons’ point guard in the late Nineties. “They knew what they were supposed to do and were happy doing it.”

Smith said the team bought into Collins’ excruciating program because he cared about the players off the court. When they had problems, he listened without judgment. He offered advice but didn’t preach. “I remember he helped me out a lot when my parents were going through a divorce,” Smith said. “I think he got all of his players to really give their hearts because he gave you his.”

The team won 73 percent of its games between 1996 and 2002, and the same year that Coach Carter was grabbing national headlines in Richmond, Coach Collins was named Coach of the Year by the Contra Costa Times for leading the Acalanes Dons to their first state tournament in the team’s history.

Yet parents complained about Collins every year. “Rob’s style of coaching probably wasn’t the best fit for Acalanes,” Girsch said. Things really heated up after several kids were caught throwing furniture into a hotel pool on a road trip to Crescent City in 2002. According to Collins, parents said the incident proved that he was no longer a suitable role model for teenagers. Dan Bledsoe, the school’s athletic director at the time, declined to comment, saying: “I always thought that Rob was really good with his players.” Eventually, Collins resigned, saying he was finished with high school sports.

As the 2002-03 season loomed, the Richmond Oilers still hadn’t replaced Coach Carter. Principal Haidee Foust was scrambling, so she reached out to Mark DeLuca, formerly a PE teacher at Richmond High. He responded: “Talk to the guy who replaced me.”

So Foust approached Collins. “She goes, ‘So hey, Collins, I hear you’re a basketball coach.’ And I said: ‘No, no, that ain’t me,'” Collins recalled. “Then, she said: ‘Nah, nah, somebody told me that you were Coach of the Year. Will you think of taking over here at Richmond?'”

Collins quickly learned that Richmond basketball was vastly different from what he was used to in the suburbs. Most of the Richmond players were traumatized from losing friends and family to gun violence, a majority of the kids didn’t have relationships with their fathers, and many went through the school day without eating. They were uninspired, disruptive, and often tardy. “I remember the first meeting: The kids were looking at me like, ‘Who is this big fat guy, this white dude?'” Collins said. “They weren’t buying into me at all. I could see that in their eyes.”

But the team bonded over the summer, traveling all over the Bay Area to compete in tournaments against some of the region’s best teams. Collins would buy the kids barbecued ribs for lunch and take them out for pizza after the games. It was a nonstop party and the team became a family. When classes started in the fall, Collins gave players a ride to pre-class practices, piling them into his truck before sunrise. He paid for gym bags, sweat pants, and basketballs out of his own pocket. He also cleared out a storage room next to his office, turning it into a team room stocked with Gatorade, Top Ramen noodles, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. His point guard slept on Collins’ couch for three months after the boy was kicked out of his mother’s house. “He took care of us like we were his own, like we were his kids,” said Rick Coleman, the team’s three-point specialist.

The same brash and abrasive coaching style that offended parents at Acalanes endeared Collins to his players in Richmond. “People were saying, ‘Five black guys aren’t going to listen to a white guy,'” said Eli Holman, who’s now playing college basketball at the University of Detroit, Mercy. “But it’s not about race, it’s about respect.”

It was also about humor. Everyone laughed the day Collins danced around the locker room like Chris Farley, singing along with the music that was pounding from the gym’s PA system during halftime: Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me? Don’t you wish your girlfriend was a freak like me?

Collins continued to forge deep, intimate bonds with his players, just as he had in Lafayette. But the relationships took a more urgent tone in Richmond. “He took me in as a son,” said Holman, who was temporarily sidelined during his senior after being shot in the right shoulder. “He said, ‘You don’t have to resort to violence, come to me instead.’ You’d be surprised how many times I went to Coach Collins.”

The chemistry was visible on the court, too. The Contra Costa Times described the scene after the eleventh win of Collins’ second season with the Oilers: “Witness Collins’ connection with the kids, which on Tuesday was manifested in Collins performing a full-on victory dance as his teammates surrounded him. Once in the locker room, Collins made it a point to go to every player and congratulate him with a hand shake or a bear hug.”

In his fourth year, Collins took the Oilers to the state tournament — the first in the team’s history. They were eliminated in the first round, but with most of the starters returning for the 2006-07 season, the town was buzzing with talk of a state title. But the hope was punctured a few weeks later when news broke that Collins was skipping town to coach the Amador Valley Commodores in Pleasanton. “I left them,” Collins said. “I turned on them all because I wanted to make more money, thinking that was going to make me happy.”

Collins’ phone started ringing almost immediately after the final whistle of the 2005-06 season. Don Underwood was retiring after 25 seasons at Amador Valley and athletic director Lou Cesario thought Collins could fill his shoes. At first, Collins brushed the suggestion aside — why leave Richmond when the team was so close to winning a state title?

But as Amador Valley pressed its case, Collins wavered. At Richmond, he scrambled to find the bare necessities, like ice and tape, while the basketball team at Amador Valley had its own luxury bus, team shoes, and a budget of about $30,000 a year. The fans in Pleasanton followed high school sports with Midwestern zeal; the city even has a cafe that serves meals named after every coach in town (Coach Collins’ dish was bacon and eggs). “I finally asked myself, how can I turn this shit down?” Collins said. “I’d have to be crazy to say no to an extra $35,000” in salary.

But Collins fell apart. He may have looked rather GQ prancing down the sideline in $500 suits, but his weight was creeping close to 400 pounds and he was taking eleven ibuprofens a day to soothe the pain brought on by heel spurs that he said felt like razorblades slicing through his Achilles.

His physical deterioration was accompanied by a decline in mental health. After losses, he’d often stay up all night smoking cigars in his backyard, brooding over broken plays and missed opportunities. He resented the daily emails from parents bemoaning decisions he made about playing time. He became abrasive. At the first parent meeting of the 2007-08 season, he said: “We’re talking about playing time today, and that’s it for the rest of the season. You want playing time? You get playing time in practice.”

Eventually, a parent complained to the school district, and even though Collins was exonerated, it reminded him of getting run out of Acalanes. As time passed, he wallowed in regret. “In Richmond, he felt responsible for making sure the kids made it to school, had dinner — they were his family,” said Cesario, the school’s athletic director. “In Pleasanton, the kids have moms and dads, they don’t need a family.” After two years, Collins resigned, saying he needed to quit this time to “save his life.”

As Collins unraveled in Pleasanton, the Richmond High Oilers won the team’s first NCS championship, earning another trip to the state tournament. Collins watched from the bleachers as his kids brought home the NCS title — a prize that has eluded him in more than 25 years of coaching. “Some of us were in tears when we looked up into the stands and saw Collins,” Holman recalled. “We won that championship for him.”

After most of the Collins-era players graduated in 2007, Oilers basketball relapsed to its pre-Carter state of hopelessness. In two seasons under Coach Donnye Ross, the team compiled a 4-45 record, losing games by lopsided scores of 97-26, 109-30, and 109-42.

Basketball aside, Ross also was managing the personal traumas of his players: Three kids’ fathers had been murdered and another had witnessed his brother’s murder — he was shot multiple times in the back of the head at a bowling alley (his step-brother had also been murdered a few years earlier). And then, midway through his second season, one of Ross’ own players was murdered. The victim’s brother was also a member of the team. “It was very, very difficult,” Ross said. “When you look at the dynamics of coaching in an environment like that, it makes you really evaluate where you want to be.”

By the last game of Ross’ tenure, the Oilers had only eight players left in the program.

Collins, meanwhile, had been rehired as a physical education instructor at Richmond High in June 2008, but he kept his distance from the basketball team; he needed to get healthy. “My doctor told me everything that was wrong with me: heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity — and that I wasn’t going to be around very long” without some significant lifestyle changes.

That year, Collins hit the gym before sunrise every morning, riding the bike for a half-hour, running sprints another half-hour, then lifting weights for a couple more hours later in the day. As the year progressed, a bunch of students started dropping in to pump iron with him. “It was probably one of the coolest times in my life because he was there to talk to me and help me stay positive when my life was getting really negative,” said Kalani Mouton, who’d lived in six different homes that year. By the end of the school year Collins had dropped more than one hundred pounds.

But tragedy struck over the summer when Collins’ mother suffered a heart attack and died. “She was my support,” Collins said. “I could do no wrong in her eyes, she always had my back.” In the fall, Mouton and couple other kids from basketball team pressured the principal into rehiring Collins. “They kept saying, ‘You gotta hire Collins, you gotta hire Collins,” said Principal Julio Franco. Collins was reluctant at first, but he eventually agreed. “I needed something to do because the only thing that was in my mind was the pain I was going through,” Collins said.

In a matter of weeks, he was picking up the pieces of the program he had abandoned a few years earlier. He committed himself to a new philosophy: teacher first, coach second. “Let’s face it: Last time, when I was driving those guys all over the place, I knew they were damn good players,” Collins said. “If you’re truly a teacher, it’s about the development of a young person, watching them become a more complete person.”

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.

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?”

Chauchan nodded.

“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.”

He strolled around the gym leisurely in his red, white, and blue Oilers’ pullover and camouflage cargo shorts, checking in with every kid along the way.

“You think we can beat Berkeley, coach?” asked guard Matt Conway.

“There’s no reason why we can’t beat everyone in the ACCAL if we keep doing our thing, man.”

He provided encouragement, offered advice, and told a few jokes. A couple freshmen kids played one-on-one on a side hoop while a JV player sat in the bleachers with his nose buried in a textbook. Laughter permeated the gym. Collins shook his head: “Here we are: It’s Friday night in Richmond and we’re playing some basketball — staying alive!” Then he bobbed and sang: Staying alive, staying alive — ah, ah, ah, ah, staying alive.


Newsletter sign-up

eLert sign-up

clear sky
52.1 ° F
54 °
50 °
78 %
0 %
57 °
57 °
52 °
52 °
53 °