Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Mother and mentor guide John Collins' path to success

Wake Forest forward John Collins looks to get a signature win Saturday in front of a special guest.

More than 11,000 screaming fans converged to witness an oversized steel cage, a pair of world championship matches and the “Rated R Superstar” Edge. 

That’s what prompted a young John Collins to drag Roy Harmes, his youth basketball coach, along with him to Key Arena on Feb. 15, 2009 for the World Wrestling Entertainment pay-per-view “No Way Out.” 

Edge leveled the masked luchador Rey Mysterio Jr. with his finishing maneuver, a spear (diving football tackle), then rolled him up for a three count to come away the winner in the night’s main event — a six-person match in a caged contraption dubbed the Elimination Chamber. 

The crowd rose to its feet for the climactic moments of the match — a finish that elicited a mixed reaction of both triumphant cheers and vociferous jeers. 

Collins was ecstatic at his ringside seat because Edge was his favorite wrestler. 

And his favorite wrestler was leaving the ring. . . as a champion. 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

John Martin Collins III was born on Sept. 23, 1997 at Davis Hospital in Layton, Utah, the son of parents both serving in the United States military — his mother Lyria in the Air Force, and his father John in the Navy. 

Joint orders to Guam four months apart sent the young couple and their infant son to Guam, then just two years later Lyria took her 3-year old son with her to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. 

John wasn’t there long. 

The terrorists attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 not only changed the world, but it also led to Incirlik going on lockdown. Shortly after the attacks, the base was ordered to evacuate all civilians. 

Lyria found the perfect spot for John while she finished her tour in Turkey, with her parents Winston and Gladys Rissing in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, home of Wake Forest legend Tim Duncan. 

Collins met Duncan last summer. 

“It was cool. I had a quaint conversation, but it wasn’t much,” Collins said. “It was cool to meet the G.O.A.T., the best power forward of all time, and in my opinion the best Demon Deacon of all time.”

Though St. Croix is a territory near and dear to the heart of Demon Deacon fans, it’s not where Collins first discovered basketball. 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The youth recreational league season had just started at McChord Air Force Base in Pierce County, Washington, a little south of Tacoma, when McChord Magic coach Roy Harmes was asked if he had room for one more player on his team. 

Harmes was coaching children ages 9 to 11, but the Air Force base’s sports director had a 7-year old that was just a little bit bigger than everyone else — John Collins. 

Collins was added to Harmes’ McChord Magic squad as both the youngest and tallest member. 

Regular weekend visits with his father, who was stationed at neighboring Bremerton Naval Base became non-existent after he took orders for Norfolk, Virginia. 

Lyria and John Jr. eventually divorced. 

“Really after the first practice, I could tell John latched onto me,” Harmes said. “I knew Lyria was a single mom. It turned into more than just coaching on the court.”

Harmes and Collins ended up spending many weekends together, both on and off the basketball court. Collins helped Harmes hang Christmas lights and remodel his attic. Together, they won a father-son fishing derby. 

“He liked my competitiveness from a young age, because he’s super-competitive himself,” Collins said about Harmes. “We had a tight bond. That was my guy and is still my guy. 

“He showed me how to paint houses, fix cars and cut grass. My first job was cutting grass with him. I did a lot with him. He was like a big brother figure to me.”

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

As Collins slammed home a dunk earlier this season at Virginia, a late-arriving Cav defender inadvertently undercut Collins, forcing him to hang onto the rim while becoming entangled with the player. 

 

Once untangled, Collins came back to the ground, started jogging back for defense, but then turned around real quick to pat the opposition on the rear to ensure all was good. 

“I separate competing and foul play. I know the difference between a basketball play and a non-basketball play,” Collins said. “If it’s a basketball play, I’m going to be a good sportsman and do the right thing, but if you try to harm my teammate there’s going to be some type of aggression. 

“There’s no reason for anger or anything to come out of the situation.” 

Collins’ unflappable temperament was forged through a strict upbringing and unconditional love from his mother, Lyria. 

Never one to bark at opponents or referees, Collins does sometimes flash a look of surprise, disgust and derision when whistled for a questionable foul — especially since staying out of foul trouble has been his sophomore-season kryptonite. 

“You can tell when John wasn’t happy about something. He’s such a gentle kid. I’ve seen that face before but at 7 years old,” Harmes said about Collins look when picking up questionable fouls. “I had to learn that lesson of composure through high school, or I would have gotten kicked out of the game. It wasn’t that way with John.”

Instead, Harmes had to help instill a more aggressive nature in the young Collins. 

“You’re bigger than them, John. Don’t let them push you around,” he told Collins. “Stand your ground. Be as big as you are”

“It took him awhile, but I saw his growth even as a 7 and 8-year old,” Harmes said.

Now Collins finds ways to be aggressive on the hardwood without being overbearing or obnoxious. 

“I try not to show emotions. It’s not me to be screaming after a play,” he said. “That’s something I’m supposed to do.”

Last year, Collins had a choice — learn to become more assertive or get run over in practice by Devin Thomas. 

“That’s just the way DT is. That’s a contrast to myself. The way DT is on the court is the way he is off the court,” Collins said. “He has that fire with anything he does. I have that calm, cool temperament. That’s just who we are. That’s not a negative. That’s just who he is. Be who you are. 

“When we play video games together and I go up a point, he’s angry or whatever. That’s DT’s competitive nature. His fire. That’s just who he is.”

For Wake fans used to four years of Thomas scowls, shouts and flexes, this year has been a different experience in the post, but the season of battling against Thomas in practice was valuable for Collins.  

“He’s competitive in everything he does, and that’s something I learned from him — just to compete like you have to do against him every day,” he said. “You had to compete or he’s going to take your head off. 

“You had to play 100 miles an hour against him. When someone comes at you, you have to compete right back. That’s what I learned practicing against him every day.” 

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Collins’ performance this season has elevated him in NBA mock drafts, but he’s already played in front of an NBA crowd. 

While starring for the McChord Magic, Collins competed during halftime of a game between the Seattle Supersonics and Denver Nuggets. 

As the team waited to hit the court, NBA stars like Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony walked by and greeted them. 

“It felt so cool. That was a great experience,” Collins said.  “I was so happy. I didn’t want to wash my hand for a week.” 

The McChord Magic season was over, but they regrouped for that halftime exhibition. 

“I was 7-years old along with John,” Harmes said. “It was a perfect end to the season. We had a blast out there.”

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Harmes also shared a ringside seat with Collins at the WWE pay-per-view in 2009. Collins went to the show wearing a replica WWE championship belt. He still has six replica title belts in a box in his Florida home, according to Lyria Collins. 

“There’s grown men wearing belts and they’re talking in this language that I don’t understand,” Harmes said about the experience. “He’s (John) having conversations with grown men and comparing belts. It was a proud moment for John, and a lot of fun.”

Collins was obsessed with wrestling, and would perform the various moves using his pillows as his opponent. He was inspired by his favorite wrestler, Edge. 

“That drove my competitiveness to see him fight consistently — obviously, I know now it’s staged,” Collins said. “But everything is earned, in my mind. That gave me a little bit of an edge.”

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Collins watched his hero acquire championship gold that night in Seattle, but he’s still searching for a basketball championship of his own. 

As a senior for Cardinal Newman (Florida) High School, Collins averaged 20.3 points and 10.2 rebounds a game as he carried his squad on his back en route to its first state title game in 15 years. 

A near triple-double (17 points, nine rebounds and nine blocks) wasn’t enough to bring home the title, as his team lost 53-46 in overtime in the final. 

Several months before that state championship game, Collins had signed a National Letter of Intent to play college basketball at Wake Forest, choosing the Deacs over his home-state University of Miami. 

“The option was if I wanted to play ACC basketball in my home town, or do I want to play ACC basketball and learn from the best power forward in Kansas history — arguably the best in college basketball history?” Collins said. “I think for myself, it was better to learn from (Wake Forest) coach (Danny) Manning. He’s been through the grinder. He’s seen all the tricks and the moves. 

“I think he sees a lot of himself in me. That was really the selling point.”

Playing behind Devin Thomas last season, Collins had limited minutes, but showed flashes of potential. In 14.4 minutes per game last year, Collins averaged 7.3 points and 3.9 rebounds a contest. 

The production growth this season for Collins is absolutely staggering. As the every-game starter in the middle for the Deacs, Collins leads the team in both scoring (17.0 per game) and rebounds (9.0 per game).

“John has certainly improved and gotten better. He’s a young man that we’re asking a lot from,” Manning said. “He’s doing a good job for us this year, but you also have to take into consideration of where’s he at from a maturity perspective — we’re throwing a lot at him.”

Collins leads the ACC and is fourth in the nation in Player Efficiency Rating, at 34.01, and his per-40 averages total to 27.4 points and 14.5 rebounds. The trouble area for Collins and the Deacs? He’s frequently been in foul trouble, which has limited his minutes at times this season. He’s averaging just 24.8 minutes player per game, when Manning would likely prefer him playing more than 30. 

“This is the first year he’s started multiple games. This is the first year he’s getting double-teamed,” Manning said about Collins’ development. “He’s averaging double-digit points and almost double-digit rebounds, so he comes into every game as a focal point of our team in terms of scouting report. He’s done a good job, but he’s got a ways to go.” 

His performance is sure to earn him many post-season honors. 

“I’m just ridiculously proud of this kid on how amazing he is on and off the court,” Harmes said. 

Wake (12-8, 3-5) is firmly ensconced on the proverbial NCAA Tournament bubble according to all major projections with 10 games left in the regular season. 

They’ve challenged themselves on the road and will continue navigating through a brutal 18-game ACC slate, but the one thing clearly missing thus far on their tournament resume is a marquee win. 

They have that opportunity Saturday when No. 17 Duke (15-5, 3-4) visits the Deacs at Joel Coliseum. It just so happens, Collins will have a special visitor watching him from the stands. 

His mother Lyria flew in Friday afternoon and the two had dinner together before John excused himself to rest up for the big game Saturday. When he gets set for the tipoff against the Blue Devils Saturday, he’ll look on his right arm adorned with a “Lyria” tattoo, but he’ll also be able to glance in the stands and see his mother smiling back at him.  

He’ll see a single mother who is watching him play basketball in Winston-Salem, but was also with him through good times and bad in Utah, Guam, Turkey, St. Croix, Washington and Florida. 

For John Collins, the game Saturday will mean just a little bit more. 

“It’s always good having mama here. Hopefully we can put on a good show and get the win for her, and then go out and treat her right,” he said. “I always try to show up biggest when mama is in the crowd, so it should be a good one.” 


Demon Deacon Digest Top Stories