BOSTON — Once upon a time, Doug Collins was given three years to prove that he could (or could not) turn the Chicago Bulls into a championship-caliber club. Collins’ team featured a budding superstar in Michael Jordan, a young enforcer in Charles Oakley and would eventually have promising rookies Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen to build around.
Most fans know how Collins’ tenure with the Bulls turned out. He was fired after coaching the Bulls to the Eastern Conference finals in 1989 and was replaced by Phil Jackson, who led Chicago to the same fate the following year before the team finally broke through and won a title in 1991.
Mike Brown‘s firing on Friday after 93 games with the Lakers, including playoffs and preseason, brought all that to mind for Collins as he prepared to direct the Sixers against the Celtics at the TD Garden. Deep down, Collins may believe he did not get a full opportunity to lead the Bulls to a championship, but even he was given three years and the chance to fall short multiple times before he was dismissed. Brown was given eight preseason games and five regular-season games, in which the Lakers went 1-12, with an entirely revamped roster.
“I feel bad for Mike,” Collins said. “This is a tough business. I was telling my [assistant] coaches that if your only failure in the NBA is getting fired as a coach, you’ve lived a pretty good life.”
Collins is one of the best coaches in the sport, as is Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who was fired by the Magic 11 games into the 2003-04 season after Orlando lost 10 straight games in a streak that would grow to 19 losses. The fact that both have been fired unceremoniously speaks to just how fickle their business is.
“We’re making a lot of money, all of us,” Rivers said. “The players are making a lot of money, the coaches, and that means there’s a lot more pressure. That’s part of it, and we have to accept that. If you don’t perform, it’s easier to move one [person]. That’s just the way this life is. I still love it, but I also understand for any of us, it could happen.”
Rivers admitted in hindsight that getting the ax in 2003 worked out well for him. It meant he was free when the Celtics needed a head coach in 2004, and that worked out pretty well for everybody involved when the Celtics won their 17th championship in 2008. At the moment of his firing, though, Rivers did not see such a rosy outlook. He knew his four children, who were all in school at the time, would hear their classmates’ opinions, and “kids aren’t very nice to kids,” he remarked.
Collins, meanwhile, has been turned into a caricature in basketball history as the man who could not win with Jordan, the greatest individual player of all time. Twenty years later, Collins should have shed such an oversimplified label, but the tag stuck all the way through a second stint coaching Jordan in Washington from 2001 to 2003 and until Philadelphia hired Collins in 2010.
If the immediate downside is all Brown sees right now, that would be understandable but misguided. Rivers and Collins both benefited from their time away from the court, which helped them recharge, re-assess their styles and principles, reconnect with family they often did not see for weeks at a time as well as rediscover their loves for the game. By the time the Celtics called, Rivers was excited to end his forced sabbatical. When the Sixers’ job became available, Collins pursued the position with enthusiasm. Both are now known as among the most thoughtful and energetic head coaches in the league.
At just 42 years old, Brown has now taken his teams to the playoffs six times in six years, been to an NBA Finals and been fired twice. Maybe his 93 games as Lakers coach could have gone better, but as Collins noted, they could have been worse.