On his first night in Turkey, Sherron Collins was jetlagged, dragging. He needed to rest, to quell the nerves from a long flight and all the unknowns that were awaiting him.
It was close to 5 in the morning. He couldn’t sleep. And then came the noise. A foreign-sounding voice, loud and cadenced, echoing through the city of Ankara, a large industrial center in the middle of the country.
For a moment, Collins was disoriented. He had traveled to this city of more than 4 million to play basketball, to make some money, to kickstart a fledgling career. It was the fall of 2011, and Collins was beginning his second full season of professional basketball.
Nearly a year and a half earlier, he’d finished a sterling career at Kansas, finishing as the No. 5 scorer in program history, hugging Bill Self on senior night with tears in his eyes. Three years earlier, he’d etched his name into KU history, dribbling out the clock as the Jayhawks clinched their third NCAA title.
Now Collins, 24, had one concern: What was all this noise?
“I called my coach,” Collins says. “And was like: ‘Am I all right?’ ”
It’s the mosques, his coach assured. They’re calling people to pray. This is Ankara.
“So he told me to pray,” Collins says. “So anytime it came on, I just prayed.”
As Collins finishes this story, he smiles — that round and luminescent smile you remember from years ago.
“The funniest story ever,” he says.
It is summertime in Lawrence, and Collins is standing in a hallway adjacent to the KU basketball facility. He is back in town for a few weeks, surrounded by old friends and a support system that answers every call and text. He is talking about the future, about accomplishing dreams and goals that have been put on hold.
“The plan is to go somewhere and make some money,” Collins says. “The plan is to get into the NBA.”
In the two years since he left Kansas, Collins’ basketball career has been marked by a series of setbacks and delays — some self-inflicted, some bad luck, some out of his hands. At times, his body betrayed him. Other times, it was his own mind.
This month, NBA training camps have opened across the country. And Collins was given a momentary opportunity, a non-roster invitation to the San Antonio Spurs’ camp. Five days later, Collins was waived. Back he went to the pro basketball wilderness, where he’ll have to find another path back.
“I still think he can do it, “ says former teammate Tyshawn Taylor, who spent two years at Kansas looking up to Collins. “I’ve seen him be out of shape and score 30 points in a game. He can do it. It’s just about wanting to and having that drive and hunger that he used to have.
“I haven’t talked to him much, but I don’t know if he’s still got it like he used to.”
Collins sits inside a sporting goods store on a Saturday afternoon. It’s late summer, and rain is dampening the Wichita streets. Collins, wearing dark jeans and a T-shirt, smiles as he lifts his right hand and scribbles his name in ink.
The line stretches nearly 30 feet across the store, full of Kansas fans who have set aside a few minutes to see an old friend. He’s come here for a book signing. For the better part of an hour, Collins fulfills every autograph request, poses for every photograph, listens to every quick story.
As the afternoon passes, Collins retraces the past two years. There was draft night, when 30 teams passed on the 5-foot-11 guard who had helped Kansas to four straight Big 12 titles and that championship in 2008. And there was that first year in the league, when Collins played his way onto the Charlotte Bobcats’ roster as an undrafted free agent. He saw time in 20 games that year, averaging 3.3 minutes.
He was waived in late February. But when Charlotte showed interest in retaining him in early March, Collins missed two flights out of Chicago and the Bobcats retreated.
The abrupt end to his time in Charlotte left Collins searching for a way to finish out the season. An opportunity in Lithuania came and went. So did a chance to play in Puerto Rico in early June, when Collins reportedly lasted just a day before parting ways with the Quebradillas Pirates.
“You know, going overseas is a different world,” Collins says. “It’s totally different. Everything is different. You just gotta take it, learn the experiences, and sometimes you just gotta play your hand as it’s dealt.”
Collins’ stint in Turkey brought some stability. He played well in spurts for a club called Hacettepe Üniversitesi. Made friends with some American military. Even managed to tag along for American food on the base. But a knee injury — a partial tear in his meniscus — cut his season short. And Collins decided to return home instead of risking further damage.
Worse than the missed time, Collins’ weight — a daily battle in his post-KU career — ballooned to nearly 30 pounds above his playing weight of 205 to 210.
“I think if I wouldn’t have had this injury, I’d be playing in the NBA this year,” Collins says. “But it slowed my whole summer up. It’s just basketball; it’s life, there are injuries that happen.”
As Collins says this, he rubs his hands together, imagining the possibilities. Life in the NBA. That always seemed like the next step — something so attainable.
Even at Kansas, on teams that featured future NBA guards such as Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush and Xavier Henry, Collins’ talents stood out. Old teammates still tell the stories. Sure, it was Chalmers who hit The Shot against Memphis. But it was Collins who made the pass, Collins who had put the whole comeback in motion with a steal and a three-pointer minutes earlier.
“He was the best guard on that team,” says Taylor, who arrived on campus one year later. “Mario’s been in the league four years now, and he’ll probably tell you the same thing.
“Sherron just had some (stuff) that nobody else had. You can’t teach what Sherron brought to Kansas.”
Collins is 25 now. This summer, he lived in a condo in Chicago, just a few miles from where he grew up. Of course, as Collins says, it might as well be another planet. That old neighborhood, where crime infested the streets, where Collins found a sanctuary at the local Boys & Girls Club — he doesn’t inhabit that world anymore.
He’s in a good spot, he says. His 2-year-old daughter, Sharee’, can come by and spend quality time with her father. (Sherron’s son, Sherr’mari, now 5, lives in New Jersey.)
But there are still plenty of reminders of what’s at stake — where he came from, the people depending on him. After he spent a few weeks in Lawrence, living with the family of former KU teammate Brady Morningstar and getting workout advice from Andrea Hudy, KU’s strength and conditioning director, Collins returned to Chicago, where he tried to keep up a daily workout plan with NBA guard and fellow Chicagoan Will Bynum.
By early September, Collins had dropped 15 pounds. He believed he was just two or three weeks out from being ready to go.
Sure, Collins says, the injuries and setback have been trying. But they’ve been more frustrating for friends and family; those who wonder why all these players that Collins used to shred are now playing in the NBA while he’s not.
“It gets to me a little bit when I see dudes (in the NBA) that couldn’t guard me if they tried to,” Collins concedes.
Says Taylor: “I know Sherron, and he busted his (rear) to get to the NBA; we all do. And I know where he comes from; I know his family. So to see him get to where he’s busted his, and it’s just not worked out, it’s just a sucky feeling, man.”
One way or another, Collins will likely make money somewhere this season. Could be in Europe, where other former Jayhawks, including Aaron Miles and Keith Langford, have flourished and carved out lucrative careers. Another former teammate, Russell Robinson, has signed to play with the Italian club Angelico Pallacanestro Biella.
“There’s opportunities to make big money there,” Robinson said in the summer. “And I think that I’m gonna pursue that as much as I can.
“You factor in lifestyle, you factor in that (you’re) actually playing … It’s about living life and being happy with yourself.”
For now, though, Collins is not resigning himself to a career overseas. Not yet.
“The NBA,” Collins says. “It’s three letters. It speaks for itself. It’s enough motivation.
“Now you got some players that are good college players, that just don’t stick well in the league, and that happens. But I don’t think that’s me. I think I’m an NBA guard.”
Collins stands up, retreating to the back of the sporting goods store. The crowd of fans has mostly dispersed, and as Collins finds another seat, the building’s loudspeaker continues to play the audio broadcast from the Jayhawks’ 2008 national-title game.
This season will mark the fifth anniversary of the championship. Collins can’t believe it.
“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” he says.
He pauses and listens to the audio. He says he tries to stay away from moments like this — from sitting and watching the Memphis game, or spending too much time daydreaming about that night.
“It triggers too much, like, feelings; too much emotion,” Collins says. “You get to missing those teammates. Sometimes you wish you could come back and play.”
Collins smiles. These words don’t come from sadness, but from the feeling many get when they remember their college days. Collins hopes to keep playing basketball for years, be it in the NBA, Europe, or someplace else.
But nothing will feel the same as Kansas.
“It doesn’t feel like five years,” he says.
Nor does it feel like his NBA aspirations have expired. Or that he can’t become the old Sherron again. His latest chance in San Antonio wasn’t to be, but it might not be his last.
“Had fun,” Collins tweeted after being cut. “Went hard now on to the next stop, yeah im very motivated time to keep working.”
He may need to rebuild his reputation in certain circles. But that, Collins says, is all part of the plan. All he needs is time.
“It’s just patience,” Collins says. “Patience is a virtue. So I’m not gonna rush it. I’m not gonna hope on it. I ain’t gonna get down by it. I’ll be back.”