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New Northwestern basketball coach Chris Collins shows you can go home again

CHARLOTTE NC - MARCH 20:  Associate head coach Chris Collins Duke Blue Devils reacts while taking Michigan Wolverines during

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 20: Associate head coach Chris Collins of the Duke Blue Devils reacts while taking on the Michigan Wolverines during the third round of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at Time Warner Cable Arena on March 20, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Chris Collins

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Updated: May 3, 2013 6:30AM

Chris Collins will be introduced as Northwestern’s basketball coach at a news conference Tuesday at Welsh-Ryan Arena, where he scored 40 points in Glenbrook North’s triple-
overtime loss to Stevenson in the IHSA playoffs in 1992.

It was the final game of a high school career that culminated with Collins being named a McDonald’s All-American, and it was the last time he was at what is now his home court.

After leaving high school, Collins would spend 17 of the next 21 years as a player or assistant coach for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. Still, those who know Collins best say Chicago always has been home.

‘‘The Chicago upbringing never left him,’’ brother-in-law Paul Romanczuk said. ‘‘He’s a big Cubs fan and Bears fan. He’s a Bulls fan. He’s always going to be that. It’s in his blood and his DNA. It’s part of him. He’s very proud to be coming back home. It means a lot to him.’’

Chris’ father, Doug, used to coach the Bulls and now coaches the Philadelphia 76ers. He will take advantage of a break in the 76ers’ schedule to attend the news conference. It’s unlikely it will be the last Wildcats fans see of Doug Collins, who will evaluate his future with the 76ers after the season. Last month, he said serving as his son’s assistant would be his ‘‘dream job.’’

‘‘I wouldn’t say that’s out of the question,’’ Romanczuk said of Doug Collins joining his son on NU’s bench. ‘‘I really wouldn’t. Coach [Doug] Collins is such a wonderful teacher, and his knowledge and ability to make people understand the game of basketball are unmatched. His level of expertise and skill set would’ve been great for the college game. I know recruiting wasn’t something he wanted to do, so he went the NBA route. But his style would translate well to the college game. It would not surprise me if, down the road, he did something like that.’’

The last time

The last time Chris Collins set foot in Welsh-Ryan Arena, the stands were packed and the atmosphere was electric.

‘‘There were people from Northbrook who could not get in who were trading Bulls season tickets for tickets to that game,’’ former Glenbrook North coach Brian James said.

Whether that’s true or not, those who were there claim it was one of the most exciting high school games in memory. The Spartans’ starting center had a broken hand, and another starter had a separated shoulder. Collins made shot after shot, which had become the norm.

‘‘The bigger the game, the brighter the moment, the better he was,’’ James said. ‘‘When the game was close, he was better and better. A lot of people shy away from that moment, but he hit game-winner after game-winner after game-winner against all sorts of defenses.’’

The relationship between Doug Collins and James easily could have been an awkward one. Collins was a four-time NBA All-Star, had been a successful coach and was a well-known NBA analyst. But their relationship predated James coaching Chris Collins and continues today, with James serving as one of Doug Collins’ assistants with the 76ers.

‘‘Doug never interfered with coaching Chris,’’ James said. ‘‘He told me he wanted me to work his rear end off and win as many games as I could because, if I did those things, colleges would find him.’’

Chris Collins scored 50 points in one of the few AAU tournaments he entered, drawing the attention of Krzyzewski. He picked Duke over Illinois, helped the Blue Devils win the NCAA title as a sophomore and was a team captain as a senior.

Coaching second choice

Collins never set out to be a coach; he wanted to play. It wasn’t until his dream of following his famous father to the NBA died that coaching became his next-best option. Collins was the leading scorer in a league in Finland before being cut by the Minnesota Timberwolves before the 1997 season.

‘‘Everyone talks about how it must be great coaching, but nothing beats playing,’’ said Romanczuk, a former player at Penn and a successful high school coach in suburban Philadelphia. ‘‘It’s very hard to step away when it has been a very large part of your life.’’

Doug Collins wanted to hire his son as an assistant when he was coaching the Detroit Pistons, but he knew it might create problems in the locker room. Instead, he called Nancy Lieberman. Then the coach of the expansion Detroit Shock of the WNBA, Lieberman gave Chris Collins his first job. The Shock started 0-4 but finished 17-13, missing the playoffs by a game.

‘‘Chris Collins was so ahead of his time,’’ Lieberman said. ‘‘He was so good at preparation. He knew X’s and O’s and was a great practice coach, and he was still in his early 20s.

‘‘He’s very disciplined and aware of what he can and can’t do, but he won’t let anybody tell him what he can and can’t do. There’s no doubt in my mind Chris will be a great head coach and will take that program to levels it didn’t know it could go.’’

Tommy Amaker, another Krzyzewski disciple, soon would make Collins one of the youngest full-time assistants in major-college basketball. With Collins’ help, Amaker led Seton Hall to the Sweet 16 in 2000.

‘‘I was with him when he received the call, and Coach K said he wanted Chris to come home [to Duke],’’ Romanczuk said. ‘‘Leaving Seton Hall was a very emotional time for him.’’

Whether it be Durham, N.C., or the Chicago area, the idea of home always has been a siren song for Collins. If he can persuade local recruits to stick around, it might be the dawn of a new era in Evanston.

‘‘First of all, it’s home,’’ fellow Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski said when asked why NU was a good fit for his friend. ‘‘He goes back there and has a lot of friends and family, which makes it unique. The school is a great school. There is great opportunity to do great things.’’

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