LAWRENCE — Bill Self thinks the four-year marriage between Sherron Collins and Kansas deserves further study. But before we take you too far into Collins' wild ride from stubborn kid to not-as-stubborn young adult, we offer a glimpse of Self and Collins on Monday, two days before Collins' last game at Allen Fieldhouse:
Collins arrived first, striding to a podium that stood in front of a room full of reporters and TV cameras. He was alone, and he was comfortable, the face of a program that needs no face. Taken in a vacuum, this was no sensational thing; taken with the memory of Collins three years ago at this time, it was startling. Collins did not share much with anybody then, and he would have felt exposed standing in front of a crowd.
"I'd have probably been sweating, stuttering my words," Collins said. "But now it's like second nature."
Self followed Collins, and within seconds, he began to gush.
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"I love everything about him," Self said.
"He's meant as much to me as any player I've ever coached."
And as Self began to reminisce about the first time he took Collins to his home in Lawrence, Self had to compose himself as he spoke. He was about to get misty-eyed. Taken in a vacuum, this was no sensational thing. Coaches can grow to love their players the way they love their own children. Roy Williams never hesitated to cry about the kids.
But Self has never been like ol' Roy. Williams would let his seniors talk as long as they wished on their Senior Night, but after a few years, Self decided to limit the senior speeches to five minutes or so.
"All coaches have a soft spot in their heart for kids that do it against all odds," Self said. "He came into this situation really needing a place to change his thought process and to mold him into what he could potentially become... but to see how this place has changed him, and how he has allowed this place to change him, it's a pretty neat story if you really study it."
And study it we will, because Collins' KU career has truly been a wonder to watch, on the court and off of it.
Personally, he has stared down numerous obstacles, some self-inflicted, others thrown at him. Just weeks after moving to Lawrence from Chicago, he lost his firstborn son, Sherron Jr., who was born prematurely. He has since had two more children, son Sherr'mari and newborn daughter Sharee'.
Collins has been accused of exposing himself to a woman in a Jayhawker Towers elevator, only to see the civil lawsuit dropped after his name had already been plastered across the ticker on ESPN.
He has faced a cancer scare with his mother, Stacy, and he has reconciled his relationship with his father, Steven, who wasn't around because he was in jail for selling drugs. This spring, Collins will be the first man in his family to get a college degree, and he admits that's more important to his mother than it is to him.
Basketball is what is most important to Collins, and even in that forum, it has been a battle. He fought weight problems and was forced to change his eating habits. He has struggled to stay healthy, losing some of the explosiveness he had as a senior in high school.
Yet, he made two of the biggest plays in KU basketball history to help his team win the 2008 national championship game, and he has stuck around for two extra years because, deep down, he felt a call to lead the Jayhawks to another one.
Collins' career, no matter how you perceive him, has been fantastic in nature — which is why he has guaranteed there will be a waterfall on Wednesday night when he gives his senior speech.
"There's a lot of thoughts going through my head," Collins said, "about everything, bad times and good times, every time."
He came here in the summer of 2006 with no intention of staying four years. He was meant for greatness, and he'd taste just enough of it in Lawrence to move on to the NBA. Still, he was glad to be away from Chicago, where he'd spent enough time at the local Boys & Girls Club to stay out of trouble.
To Collins, Lawrence was an escape, a chance to be socialized into a new culture.
Self will never forget taking Collins to his lavish home.
"It was such a big deal to him," Self said, "because he'd never been in an environment like that, and that won me and my wife over immediately. For him to feel that something so trivial was so important to him, that was something that I realized right then that we had something special if he could just stay the course."
Collins' course was never lined with roses, and it's likely he wouldn't have known how to function if it were. While Self was there with the tough love, Brady Morningstar's parents, Roger and Linda, were there with the right dose of acceptance and reassurance.
Self's marching orders were matched by Linda's sweet text messages, and that helped Collins get through homesickness that first year.
Self knew Collins needed a tough hand.
"All young people, whether they admit it or not, they yearn for discipline," Self said. "They want it. He was used to coming and going as he pleased. That's not a knock on anybody. He grew up in a tough situation. Discipline and structure are probably the things that most helped him once he got here, that allowed him to kind of branch out and see a bigger picture."
When the news surfaced of the civil suit against Collins, he wanted to go back to Chicago to avoid the firestorm. Self wouldn't let him.
"He's like, 'You can't run from it,' " Collins said. "That was the most important thing, for me to stay around and keep my head up and keep doing things."
Over time, Collins began to trust Self the way he trusted the Morningstars. He realized that Self cared about him.
"I never thought I would love another place like I love home," Collins said. "It's to a point now where I don't care if I'm here or home."