Collins will have to prove he can lead Jayhawks
By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH
The Kansas City Star
LAWRENCE | The Kansas Jayhawks had a bad practice last week, and Sherron Collins knew the drill.
The young guys weren't focused. They hadn't been playing hard all the time. And they were about to get what KU coach Bill Self likes to call a "mountin'. " But before Self could utter a word, Collins fell on his sword.
"It's my fault," Collins told his teammates and coach.
"You're darn right it's your fault," Self agreed.
It didn't matter that Self knew Collins had worked hard during the practice. This season, everything is Sherron Collins' fault.
"That sounds like too much to put on one guy, but it's basically true," Self says. "I've told him that, and I mean that."
There are more bad practices than good ones right now. The Jayhawks are filling the holes left by eight scholarship players - six of whom play professionally, or will - with seven inexperienced bodies. Almost seven months after Collins tossed the ball into the air in celebration at the Alamodome, the defending national champions are in his hands.
That may seem odd, considering that Collins hasn't been the most dependable guy. His freshman year, he arrived on campus overweight and was kicked out of his first two individual workouts because he couldn't keep up.
"Get out!" Self yelled at Collins, who sulked out of Allen Fieldhouse.
In his sophomore year, Collins' knees couldn't take the beating of a full season. He had surgery in the offseason but didn't do the necessary rehab to be ready for the Jayhawks' Canadian exhibition tour over Labor Day weekend.
Collins knows that, if this were an election, his opponents would have plenty of smear material. But he vows that he is a leader.
"I think everyone is watching me to see if I'm ready to handle it," Collins says. "I think it's a fair question at this point. Honestly, I think I can handle it. I just love when a lot of pressure and responsibility is on me. I thrive on that."
For the next five months, he'll have every chance to prove it.
Sherron Collins is in a reflective mood. The other day, Kansas was in the middle of what Collins called a hard practice. The weird thing? He actually enjoyed it.
"I caught myself just looking to the sky, just being thankful for being here," Collins says. "This place changed my life."
He means that now more than ever. In August, when Collins probably should have been working out in Lawrence, he was back home in Chicago recovering from a bout of homesickness. He went back to the streets where he grew up, to the Boys & Girls Club that nurtured him, and realized the opportunity he has at Kansas.
"I just walked down the streets with a few of my friends, going through memories," Collins says. "We played football in this lot. We played basketball behind this house with these crates. Walking through the neighborhood showed me how appreciative I am to make it out of there."
The first thing anybody wants to know about a potential leader is his experience. According to KU junior transfer Mario Little - Collins' friend since they played AAU ball together in Chicago - Collins' life away from basketball may be more important in evaluating his leadership potential than what he has done on the court.
"Sherron has had to be a leader all his life, just growing up, making decisions on his own," Little said.
Growing up in Lathrop Homes on the northwest side of Chicago, Collins was constantly confronted with tough decisions. His mother, Stacey Harris, often had more than one job and was putting in 16-hour days. His father, Steven Collins, was in jail for selling drugs. Most days, it was up to Sherron and his older brother, Steve, to stay out of trouble.
For Sherron, it was simple: Play basketball or end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"I had friends that wanted to go the other way - that wanted to not play basketball but do something destructive, and I wouldn't go," Collins says. "If there were six of us, I'd drag three or four with me, be a positive leader. I think it just came naturally. I'm not afraid to let people know they're doing something wrong."
Walt Harris, Collins' uncle, said: "He's always been the peacemaker, trying to avoid violence at all costs."
Collins doesn't want to paint the wrong picture. He had plenty of help, too, from his uncles and his mentor at the Boys & Girls Club, Vernon Leach. And, of course, that round, orange ball he just couldn't put down.
"We had it set up for the younger kids to be out by 5:30," Leach says. "He would find some sort of way to sneak back in here until it was time to go home at night."
By the time he was in seventh grade, Collins had made a name for himself.
"The gym would be packed whenever he got ready to play," Leach says. "I had him on the varsity team when he became a seventh grader."
One thing that all of Collins' coaches can attest to is his will to win. Or, rather, his will not to lose.
"He cries when he loses," says Anthony Longstreet, Collins' coach at Crane High. "I think that carries over into what he's trying to get the other guys to buy into: 'This is life or death, man. We can't lose.'
"The classic example was the national championship game. There were a lot of people that gave up. He said no. He made that steal. That was classic Sherron Collins."
Collins' career trajectory at Crane was similar to what has transpired at Kansas. His freshman year, he was the sixth man on a varsity team that had five senior starters. Longstreet had no choice but to hand the team over to Collins his sophomore year - just like Self has done now.
"That was probably his toughest year in high school," Longstreet says. "As a freshman, he comes in the door, we were 26-1. He was used to winning. He kind of had to learn how to be humble."
He didn't look very humble to his opponents, victimizing them with his crossover dribble. Collins' supporters in Chicago say that Kansas fans haven't seen anything yet, that this year will be his coming-out party.
"You guys are all probably seeing about 60 percent," Longstreet says.
Still, while the folks back home want Collins to drop in 20 and 30 points a game, like he did in high school, they have a more pressing concern.
"What we're all looking for him to do," Longstreet says, "is lead."
The afterglow of the national championship ended quickly for Sherron Collins. On June 16, news broke that a Douglas County district judge had entered a $75,000 default judgment in a civil lawsuit filed by a woman against Collins alleging an assault.
The woman accused Collins of exposing himself and rubbing against her in a Jayhawker Towers elevator in May 2007, near the end of Collins' freshman year. The judgment was eventually set aside, and no criminal charges were filed because of lack of evidence. The civil case will go to trial in April. Still, for Collins, the perception that he may have done something wrong has continued.
Collins didn't do himself any favors by coming back from Chicago overweight and out of shape. Self put his star player back in the news, calling him out to reporters. The Jayhawks had 10 practices before leaving for Canada, and Collins tried to make up for lost time. He couldn't do it, and he played only 22 minutes in three games.
"It was a little tough to watch," Collins says.
Collins tried to act as a fourth assistant coach in Canada. It was all he could do, and it didn't fix anything in Self's eyes.
"He knew I was mad at him," Self says. "I feel like we lost an opportunity to get better because he wasn't out there."
In his two years at KU, Collins has had great moments. He also has had his share of forgettable ones. For a player who is to lead one of the nation's most cherished programs, his résumé may seem a bit incomplete, but Collins has a plan of action.
"Last year, we all looked at each other," Collins said. "Now, more of them look toward me. I gotta be more vocal. It's my team, and I have to be responsible for practice going bad because I'm not supposed to let that happen. I have to bring them together."
To make sure he's not making promises in late October that he can't follow through on in January, Collins must stay healthy. That means keeping his weight around 200. People don't understand how difficult that is for Collins.
"If Sherron looks at food too long, he'll gain weight," Longstreet says.
Collins is sticking to a low-carb diet. Lots of meat, salads and Subway sandwiches. The most important thing is no fried foods. His new diet affects the people who eat with him just as much as Collins; his rule is that his dining partner has to eat the same thing.
"This is how I know how serious he is," Harris says. "I said, 'I'm not on a diet. I want pizza. Give me some wings.' He ordered me baked chicken."
To make it to their 20th NCAA Tournament in a row, the Jayhawks just might have to eat a lot of baked chicken. Self won't be surprised if Collins pulls it off.
"He's always had the most innate leadership ability of anyone we've had here," Self said. "You could make a case that, within our players' minds, Sherron can get them to do what he wants them to do if he plays his cards right and learns how to massage the situation. He has great leadership abilities, and these guys want to be led."