By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The scene has never been fully erased from the memory, etched there now for almost six years because it summed up all the frustration of the West Virginia University basketball program during its rise out of the late Catlett years and back to respectability.
J.D. Collins lay on his back on the court in Albuquerque, N.M., every ounce of strength and courage drained from his body in an overtime game in which Louisville had erased a 20-point deficit, stealing away a game the Mountaineers had all but won to move to their first Final Four since Jerry West was a junior.
Collins, the littlest Mountaineer, had spent all his energy, had his heart ripped from his chest, just as he would a year later when Texas’ Kenton Paulino would hammer home a 25-foot, 3-point shot at the buzzer to keep WVU from having a chance to advance to the Elite Eight.
The memories came rushing back moments after the phone had rung, the voice on the other end of the line belonging to the man who was John Beilein’s first recruit at WVU, joining the coach in picking up a team that had won one Big East game the previous season and was looking at the Jonathan Hargett recruiting mess and the debacle that had been the coaching change.
J.D. Collins, like so many other former collegiate athletes, had reached that time in life where the road forks, where he could continue to try to hold to the dream and play professionally somewhere into his 28th year or move forward.
“I’m trying to get that chance, and so far I haven’t gotten it,” he would say.
Collins was not a college star, but he was the glue on a very good college team, the point guard who made others better around him, others who became Kevin Pittsnogle and Johannes Herber and Mike Gansey and Patrick Beilein.
He tried to go it alone, without representation, and had some bad experiences, playing in Finland and New Zealand, sometimes not being paid, other times being shorted.
“It’s been kind of tough working for myself,” he admitted.
He bounced from here to there, and it was fine at first, but very difficult.
“You worked for something, no matter what, even if you are going to be a doctor, those first years are rough years. You have to grind it and lay down your foundation. I take these experiences as that. If it doesn’t work out this summer, I’ll go into coaching,” he said.
He took it as he had to take it, as part of moving into the real world.
“It was a learning experience, being in a foreign country at 22 or 23. You’re out there learning everything on your own. It’s a business, and you’re trying to learn it on your own without any friends around,” he admitted.
“It was an adjustment but a great experience to see how other cultures live. I’m blessed to have that opportunity.”
Always, time was on his side.
Now, he realizes, that’s not the case.
He believes he can play at the professional level somewhere, either in a developmental league or overseas, but he knows that it is now or never.
“You have to be honest with yourself and make the decision. Everywhere I’ve been, they feel like I’m a pro, and I feel the same way. No matter where I’ve been, I’ve competed at a high level and I deserved to be there,” he said.
“I even trained at T Mac’s training center — Tracy McGrady’s. I’ve been around it. It’s a matter of do I want to give it up now because it’s hard or am I going to keep focus like anyone else would do if they are going to attain a goal? That’s what I’ve done up to this point.”
What J.D. Collins is saying is that he wants a chance; that’s all.
That’s what it has been about, all of it from the sizzling days on the blacktop during Houston’s summers to the gyms in a frigid Finland, playing basketball. He doesn’t want it to end just yet.
“This is what I do. I play basketball,” he said. “Hopefully, this will be my summer.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.