Is still-elusive Don Collins greatest ever?

THERE IS A website dedicated to the glory of the European portion of his nomadic professional career, complete with a photo of him soaring to a finger roll. More than three decades since his last game in crimson, the Washington State record book still features him prominently. And with Klay Thompson's recent selection as the No. 11 choice in the NBA draft, the name Don Collins has risen again.

Collins was the highest-ever NBA draft pick from WSU, the 18th selection in 1980, until Thompson supplanted him last month.

The 6-foot-6 forward from Toledo, it seems, is everywhere these days, at least in print and on the Internet. But when it comes to actually finding this uber-talent from the George Raveling years, you stand about as much chance as you would going one-on-one with him.

Efforts by Cougfan.com to reach Collins for a "Where are they now?" story ran into nothing but dead ends.

All signs, clues and suggestions say he's living in his native Ohio. Columbus perhaps. Or possibly hometown Toledo.


JAMES DONALDSON

Former teammates James Donaldson and Terry Kelly said they have not spoken to Collins in many years. Raveling and former WSU sports information director Rod Commons said the same.

Commons and Raveling said Collins returned to Ohio after his professional career ended in 1991, but that's as far as the trail goes within the Cougar family. Phone numbers for people named Don Collins living in Ohio proved fruitless.

But that doesn't mean the story ends.

Because in the minds of those who saw him play at WSU from the fall of 1976 through March of 1980, the legend of Don Collins burns bright – so bright, in fact, that the question begs: Was he the greatest player ever to suit up at Washington State?

Better than Thompson? Better than Kyle Weaver? Better than Ike Fontaine, Mark Hendrickson and Steve Puidokas? Or the series of WSU All-Americans from the 1940s?

The case for him is considerable.

Until Thompson last month, there was no touching Collins in the eyes of NBA scouts.

Statistically speaking, he was a dynamo. His 23.1 points per game average as a senior was – and remains – a WSU record and was the Pac-10's highest since Bill Walton. He was no one-trick wonder, though. That same season he averaged six rebounds and nearly 3 steals per game. In four years at WSU, he scored 1,563 points, grabbed 535 rebounds, snagged a school record 204 steals. He also supercharged the crimson faithful with backward slams, statement slams and sideways slams. During his junior and seniors seasons, WSU averaged 8,500 fans per home game -- a mark not even sniffed at until Weaver's senior season.

But that's not the most persuasive argument in Collins'favor as the best ever.

"To me, it's hard to compare players from different eras because the game changes so much over time," says CF.C co-founder John Witter, who started following Cougar hoops in 1972. "For instance, there was no shot clock or three-point line when he played. So the only legitimate way to compare people from different eras, I think, is by looking at how they did against the competition they faced on the court. And by that count, there is no Cougar who comes even close to Don Collins."

Indeed, as a senior in 1979-80, when All-American teams consisted of just five players rather than 10, he was voted to the second-team by the Associated Press and honorable mention by UPI. He also was named the Pac-10 and West Coast player of the year, among other honors. As a junior and sophomore, he was a second-team all-conference pick.

DONALDSON, KELLY AND Raveling all say there's no question Collins is one of the five best players in program history. Commons, WSU's sports-information director for three decades, says Collins clearly was among the "top two or three players" in that timeframe.

"If you're going to put together a starting five — Don would have to be your starting small forward," said Donaldson, who embarked on a 14-year NBA career after leaving WSU in 1979. "The way he could run up and down the court and score at will and was a super athlete."

Kelly, an attorney in his native Spokane, grew up following the Cougars before he became one.

"It's hard for me to come up with someone as impactful as Don," Kelly said. "He was big enough and quick enough to defend anyone. There's no way the 1980 (WSU) team gets to the NCAA Tournament without him."

One of Collins' most memorable performances came late that year when he scored 31 points as the Cougars defeated UCLA for the first time since 1966. The Bruins, who would go on that season to reach the NCAA championship game, were no match for Collins and the Cougs that day. WSU won 80-64 with a deafening Friel Court crowd helping lead the way.

The Cougs finished the regular season with a 22-5 record. They were 14-4 in Pac-10 play, winning seven of their last eight, including a 69-51 pounding of conference champion Oregon State in front of a Friel Court record 12,327 fans.


TERRY KELLY

WSU featured perhaps their most experienced starting lineup in school history — all five were seniors. Point guard Bryan Rison joined Collins on the all-conference team with 100 assists and 70 steals. Stuart House, a 6-foot-11 center, contributed 13.1 points and 8.4 rebounds per game while blocking 69 shots. Kelly, a long-range bomber, averaged double figures for the third straight season, and forward John Preston pulled down 112 rebounds. Angelo Hill and Clyde Huntley were solid off the bench.

Even with all that productivity, Kelly said that without Collins, WSU would have finished in the bottom half of the conference. That's because Collins was a game-changing force on both ends of the court.

While WSU fans have seen high-volume scorers in Thompson, who paced the Pac-10 with 21.6 points per game last season, and Isaac Fontaine in the 1990s, Collins' production came in a much different way: Closer to the basket.

Raveling said he "nearly was impossible" to stop when he received the ball around the baseline.

Kelly agreed.

"He was an extremely gifted athlete. What surprised people was his quick first step and jumper. He got around a lot of defenders."

Perhaps nothing illustrated Collins' importance to the Cougars more than the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. WSU, a No. 5 seed, traveled to Purdue to face Ivy League champion Pennsylvania. Collins got into foul trouble early and then picked up his fifth with just under four minutes left and the scored tied at 51. Without Collins for the duration, the Quakers upset the Cougars, 62-55.

THREE MONTHS LATER, Collins was the No. 18 NBA pick by the Atlanta Hawks. He played six seasons in the league with four different teams, averaging nearly 10 points per game, but was plagued with problems on and off the court.

Eventually he was on the outside looking in. He turned to the Continental Basketball Association and dominated. He scored 61 points in one game and led Tampa Bay to three straight titles. It wasn't all smiles, though. He was released by his first CBA team, Baltimore, because of ongoing feuds with coach Henry Bibby.

"Don just was never able to ultimately escape his past," said Raveling, who cited drugs and marital problems among Collins' personal woes.

He said the neighborhood where Collins was raised in Toledo was so rough that Raveling believed some college coaches shied away from recruiting him.

Kelly dubbed Collins a good teammate, but said he was not surprised to see him run into issues as a professional. He declined to elaborate.


COLLINS BASKETBALL CARD WITH WASHINGTON CIRCA 1983

Donaldson, who last saw Collins when both were in the NBA, said Collins' background coming from a tough area was a profile that fit many players Raveling recruited.

"George was a fixture that kind of filled that void for so many guys that came to Pullman," he said. "He did a great job of keeping a lot of guys on track."

Raveling said Collins' grit was something to remember. He recalled Collins spending an entire week in the hospital before a Saturday game. Raveling told him he could not suit up, but Collins did just that and pleaded with his coach to play as the team was warming up.

Donaldson said that was typical of Collins.

"He was one of those guys who never shied away from competition," he said. "He just kept coming at you, which made him a great player and helped all of us elevate our games a little more."

It was just one reason why Raveling argues that Collins could be the greatest player in Cougars' history. And at the very least he was one of the coach's two most important recruits along with Steve Puidokas who came to WSU several years earlier.

Getting Collins to WSU meant convincing him that Pullman, which is more than 2,000 miles from his hometown, was the right fit. Raveling had two aces in his hand: He was friends with the Collins' high school coach, and Pullman itself is as safe a community as there is.

"(His coach) felt he needed to get away from his environment," Raveling said. "I don't think we ever would have gotten him without his coach.

"He helped get the program to a level of legitimacy," said Raveling, adding that subsequent recruits were impressed with Collins and the program's success. "He really gave us an air of legitimacy we lacked."

Kelvin Sampson, who joined the Cougars as an assistant under Len Stevens in 1985 and became head coach two years later, told CF.C in an interview three years ago that Collins' impact extended beyond the Raveling era.

"Don Collins was a legend around Washington State when I arrived there as an assistant coach five or six years after his last game for the Cougars. That's how good he was. He was a runner, a dunker, a tremendous athlete."

CF.C'S ALL-TIME COUGAR HOOPS TEAM

The Modern Era
C Steve Puidokas (6-11, 260, Chicago) 1974-77
F Don Collins (6-6, 190, Toledo), 1977-80
F Mark Hendrickson (6-9. 240, Mount Vernon) 1993-96
G Ike Fontaine (6-4, 210, Sacramento) 1994-97
G Kyle Weaver (6-6, 201, Beloit, Wis.) 2005-08
Sixth Man: Guard Klay Thompson (Ladera Ranch, Calif.) 2009-11


GALE BISHOP: All-American in '43 and then military service in WWII disrupted career. Many observers of the era believe he was a once-in-a-generation type talent.

The Middle Years
C Jim McKean (6-9, 207, Tacoma) 1966-68
F Ted Weirman (6-9, 235, Yakima) 1967-69
F Larry Beck (6-3, 215, South Bend) 1955-57
G Ron Bennick (6-1, 175, Lynden) 1953-55
G Terry Ball (6-2, 180, Seattle) 1960-62
Sixth Man: Forward Charlie Sells (Seattle) 1960-62

The Friel Era
Paul Lindemann (6-7, 240, Cowiche) 1939-41
Vince Hanson (6-8, 200, Tacoma) 1943-48
Ray Sundquist (6-1, Hoquiam) 1939-41
Gale Bishop (6-3, 195, Sumas) 1942-46
Ed Gayda (6-2, 210, Hoquiam) 1947-50

Sixth Man: Guard Vern Butts (Stanwood) 1939-41

Of note: The above lists are based on a player's WSU career only. If it were to include pro careers, then Gene Conley, James Donaldson and Craig Ehlo would be automatics. In addition, it should be noted that Guy Williams, who played at WSU from 1981-83, might have been the most talented Cougar of them all but his time in crimson was limited by both injury and the fact he started his career at USF.

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