The next morning Collins bids his family goodbye, hops into his company car and begins his drive through Caserta – a picturesque city in Southern Italy nestled at the foot of the Campanian Subapennine mountains. Soon after, Collins arrives at his place of business and begins earning every penny of his six-figure salary.
Professionally, Collins is doing exactly what he always set out to do after finishing college. The former Maryland and Loyola point guard is now in his sixth year as a professional basketball player, this season with Otto Caserta of Italy’s Serie A division.
“It most definitely happened the way I dreamed it could,” Collins said of his pro career. “I’m happy.”
Collins’ overseas success probably won’t come as a surprise to those who watched him star for tiny Crisfield High on the Eastern Shore. And his accomplishments in Italy shouldn’t be a shock to Loyola fans that saw Collins finish his senior season with the Greyhounds as the nation’s fourth-leading scorer. But between a prep year at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia and a redshirt season as a transfer at Loyola, Collins spent two-plus seasons glued to Maryland’s bench.
Playing a minor role for the Terps wasn’t something Collins ever expected after his All-American prep career. But the time he spent in College Park – including his freshman season when Maryland won the 2002 national championship – was crucial in preparing him for life as one of Europe’s most accomplished point guards.
The conclusion of Collins’ high school career ended where his college career would begin less than two years later – Cole Field House. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound point guard averaged 30.5 points, 9.9 assists, 5.1 steals and 4.9 rebounds as a senior, leading the Crabbers to a 25-3 record capped with a win over Pikesville for the Class 1A state championship. After graduation, the four-year starter and three-time All-State selection, who scored 2,152 points in his Crisfield career, headed to Hargrave to improve his SAT score and refine his game.
At another college, Collins’ post-grad season – a year in which he averaged 15.6 points and eight assists – might have given him a leg up for playing time. But at Maryland, Collins joined a loaded team from top to bottom that was almost maniacally obsessed with winning.
“From the time I stepped foot on campus,” Collins said he knew the Terps were a talented team possessed. “We walked into Cole Field House and you could tell that guys were disappointed from the year before, when they lost to Duke in the Final Four when they were up by . They just had that championship attitude from the beginning – playing pickup ball in the preseason, workouts. Everyone had each other’s back. We were a full team.”
From the start of that 2001-02 season, Collins assumed the role of scout-team point guard and supportive bench player. While it was “very difficult” for Collins to ride the bench for the first time in his life, he admits now that he “wasn’t ready to play at that level” early in his freshman year. By midseason, Collins felt that he was “ready to compete,” but the Terps and their guards were rolling. Collins didn’t see action in UM’s 64-52 win over Indiana, but he was “most definitely happy” just to be a part of Maryland history.
Collins, who scored the final 3-pointer at Cole Field House, finished his freshman season averaging 2.2 points in 22 games. As a sophomore, Collins remained behind Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas on the depth chart, and finished the year averaging just 5.7 minutes in 19 games. The start to his junior year wasn’t much better, with Collins averaging 8.8 minutes before deciding to transfer after the sixth game of the season.
“It was never anything personal as far as me not getting along with anybody,” Collins said. “It was more so [that] I was determined to continue my basketball career after college. So I made a decision along with my family and my mentor. We just came to the decision. It was very stressful.”
Collins hung around College Park through the rest of the school year. Maryland assistant coach Jimmy Patsos told him to hold off on picking a new school. Collins obliged, and quickly followed Patsos to Baltimore after Loyola named the long-time Terps assistant its new coach. After a redshirt season, Collins was finally able to showcase his “abilities to people who doubted me.”
“At the time I was very hungry and very determined to prove to everyone I could play at the highest level,” Collins said. “At the same time, I also wanted to do that for Jimmy, for him putting trust in me and putting the program in my hands to help turn it around. During the process, I didn’t really look at it like I was part of the rebuilding process and going to turn that program around. I was just trying so hard to stay focused and better myself and better my teammates around me.”
One year after Loyola’s 6-22 campaign, Collins averaged 26.1 points in guiding the Greyhounds to a 15-13 record. His prolific scoring numbers didn’t go unnoticed by pro scouts. Collins picked up an invite to the Portsmouth Invitational for prospective NBA players, but declined the opportunity while petitioning for an extra year of eligibility. When the NCAA denied his request, Collins hired an agent and “very quickly” signed his first pro contract with Carife Ferrara of Italy’s Legadue conference.
With the second-division club in northern Italy, Collins immediately found his niche as a scoring point guard that thrived in a European system. He drew comparisons to former Clemson star and Italian League MVP Terrell McIntyre, and routinely had showdowns with other ex-college standouts and NBA players.
Collins’ most high-profile matchup with Ferrara came when he was pitted against Earl Boykins – the diminutive former Eastern Michigan star and, at the time, a nine-year NBA veteran.
“Man, that game was just amazing,” Collins said. “I think it was one of the best games I’ve played in my professional career. I had like 20 points in the first half and I ended up finishing with like 25, five assists, five steals and like five rebounds. … I knew he was a big name when I played against him. I felt it was an opportunity for everyone to see I could play at a high level against whoever.”
Collins, who led Ferrara to the league championship during the 2007-08 season, moved up with his squad to Serie A the following year. After three years, the former Terp left Ferrara to sign “an offer I really couldn’t refuse” with Virtus Bologna -- “one of the most historic teams in European basketball.” Collins, who broke his hand in training camp, parted ways with Bologna after the 2009-10 season, but rebounded quickly by signing a deal with Scavolini Pesaro. One year with that club led to Collins landing with Otto Caserta for the 2011-12 season.
Today Collins is 22 games into his sixth professional season, and for the first time in three years, the Eastern Shore native is back to his normal self. Injuries with Bologna and Pesaro limited him significantly, but Collins is 100 percent healthy and thriving on a team that fits him to a T.
A typical day includes two practices followed by quality family time with Andre Jr., and Ashley, who Collins met in high school and has dated seriously for “about a year and a half.” When Otto Caserta hits the road, Collins rooms with NBA veteran Charlie Bell – a fellow national champion who won his title at Michigan State two years before Collins won his with the Terps.
Collins, who averages 14.5 points and 5.7 assists, is enjoying his time with Otto Caserta – currently the 10th-place team in Serie A out of 17. While soccer remains the sport of kings in Europe, Italian League basketball has a fairly rabid following. Collins said “it’s impossible to go to a restaurant” and not be noticed by fans and autograph seekers. There are parts of his basketball-playing life that remind him of his time at Maryland and his time at Loyola.
“It’s a lot like the college level,” Collins said. “Loyola wasn’t so crazy as far as people wanting autographs or whatnot. Maryland was like that a little. You really felt like you were a professional athlete at Maryland. I would compare Europe to that aspect of Maryland. As far as me playing personally, it was two different types of careers at Maryland and Loyola. It’s very similar to Loyola because I have a lot of freedom to play the game the way I did at Loyola.”
During the summer, Collins comes home to Maryland for a couple weeks of relaxation followed by a couple months of basketball training. He remains close with former Terp Chris McCray, with whom he plays pickup frequently. Collins and his fianceé have a condo on the Eastern Shore, and they’re planning to build a house there in the next year or two.
Professionally and personally, Collins couldn’t be much happier with his state in life. He’s armed with a $300,000-or-so-contract in Europe’s top league, and is playing in a pick-and-roll-based system that suits him perfectly. His time at Maryland, meanwhile, serves as both a motivational tool and a constant reminder of what it was like to achieve ultimate team success.
“It definitely made me humble,” Collins said. “I’ve always been very competitive. I’ve always had a fire in me. It allowed me to step back from the game and just watch it. I learned from older players. I didn’t take basketball for granted after that. It made me really go back and work on my game, work to get better. It was a learning lesson for me. I think it’s very important that I went through it. That made me a better player and a better man."