Heading into the big game, basketball coach Gary Collins’ Portland, Conn., Highlanders were undefeated.
A perfect record only made them a prime target, though, especially to this opponent: archrival Valley Regional. Amped by the prospect of saddling the Highlanders with their only loss, the Warriors came out playing like it was the seventh game of the NBA Finals. Nevermind that the average height of the players was about 4 feet 6 inches.
This fourth-grade matchup is no mere basketball game, ever. Portland’s a predominantly working-class community; Valley is mostly affluent. “That always adds an undertone to the game,” says Collins (BA ’88). But this installment of the rivalry figured to be even more ferocious than most.
Collins, a lawyer, political activist and writer whose 20-year legal career includes a stint as an assistant U.S. attorney under Eric Holder, is no stranger to heated contests. In the early aughts he made a run for Congress (it was thwarted by redistricting). And as an undergrad at UB, he quarterbacked the football team.
As challenges go, however, Collins’ latest might be his greatest: He’s switching careers, from law to literature. In 2014 he published his first book, “The Last Election: A Novel of Politics,” the story of a reluctant politician who runs for office because he believes elected officials can help people if they can tolerate the scandals and corruption long enough.
Collins still takes pro bono cases. And he runs the country’s oldest civil rights agency, the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. But his dream right now is to be a successful novelist.
Rising every morning at 4, Collins works out and then hunkers down at his computer keyboard. Here, amid myriad photos of his wife, Amy, and their two boys, 9-year-old Harrison and 12-year-old Grant (named for Ulysses), Collins finds the psychic space to write. “There’s a stillness and a serenity I just really like about the early morning hours,” he says.
“The Last Election” was inspired by Collins’ father’s experience as a young man seeking a career. In his early 20s and recently discharged from the Air Force, Huwelett B. Collins was driving a cab because he couldn’t find work as an airplane mechanic. Then one June day in 1963 he picked up a fare that changed his life—and not only his but also those of his children, and of their children yet unborn.
A man named Hobart Taylor Jr. climbed into Collins’ cab outside the U.S. Capitol, requested to go to the White House and, settling in for the ride, asked the cabbie his story. Invited to vent, Huwelett Collins did—all the way down Pennsylvania Avenue.
He loved his country. He’d served in the Air Force. But he couldn’t find a job in his field. There were jobs to be had, but every interview ended abruptly when prospective employers discovered the color of Huwelett Collins’ skin.
Taylor, recently appointed by John F. Kennedy as executive vice chair of the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, gave Collins his card. “Come to my office on your day off,” he said. Collins did, and ended up getting hired as a mechanic at Grumman Aircraft Engineering on Long Island.
The Grumman job effectively rerouted the fortunes of the Collins family for generations, charting the sort of middle-class course through life that affords more choices and greater opportunities. Without it, the cycle of poverty that had constrained the Collins family since the days of the Civil War may not have been easily, if ever, broken.
Though coaching affords the opposite sensory experience of writing—a gym full of fourth-graders and their parents is far from serene—this, too, Collins likes. And he’s pretty good at it.
In the Valley game, though, he messed up.
By the third quarter Portland had built a 14-point lead, primarily on the narrow, bony shoulders of No. 1—Gary’s son Harrison. But the lead quickly evaporated after Gary instructed his charges to slow the game down to protect their advantage.
With two minutes left, Portland’s lead down to one point and the place going nuts, Gary Collins signaled for a timeout. His decision to slow down was costing the Highlanders this game. So, now what? Sometimes what you do in one moment impacts all those that follow. That’s how you think when you’re the son of Huwelett B. Collins.
Gary launched his team back into attack mode, and the Highlanders held on to win by a point, 31-30.
“Don’t ever forget what you were supposed to learn today,” Collins told his players afterward as they gazed up at him, wide-eyed. “You can never let up. The moment you decide to play it safe, you give up every advantage you have.”