Q&A: Darren Collison talks NBA, the UCLA coaching change and his favorite college memory

Since leaving UCLA as a three-time all-conference point guard, Darren Collison has carved out what looks to be a promising pro career. Now 25, the former Bruin made the All-Rookie team in 2010 after the New Orleans Hornets drafted him 21st overall, and is a restricted free agent after averaging 12 points and 5.1 assists in his fourth season.

He returned to the Los Angeles area recently, where he’s been busy with interviews as well as preparing his youth basketball camp. I talked to him this week about his season with the Dallas Mavericks, his thoughts on Ben Howland and Steve Alford, as well as a UCLA flashback.

Q: What have you been up to this summer?

I’ve just been chillin’ at my parents house in the Inland Empire. I actually started working out a little bit earlier than usual. I watch every (playoff) game. Every game. I told myself that I wouldn’t, because we didn’t make the playoffs, but I’ve been glued to that TV. Oh yeah, by far. I realized how tough it is. I missed the playoffs my first year, but after being in the playoffs my next two years, it made me miss it.

Q: What was your favorite series?

My favorite series would definitely be the Warriors and San Antonio. Or Warriors and Denver. The Warriors were just an incredible team in the playoffs. I definitely had fun watching them.

Q: What was your first year in Dallas like after playing in Indiana?

It was a little bit of an experience. Even though we didn’t make the playoffs, I got the chance to play with a Hall of Famer like Dirk, playing in a good organization like Dallas. It was definitely a good experience for me. The biggest change is just being on a big-market team. In a big market, we were on TV almost every other day. In Indiana, we didn’t get on TV until like the playoffs. They have more of a team, more committed to each other. In Dallas, it was one-year contracts — everyone had different things on their mind — but at the same time, we were able to bypass all that and still try to come together as a team. I think that’s where leadership came in. But there’s definitely pros and cons between a big market and small market.

Q: Does the difference in TV market size actually affect you day to day?

It does make a little bit of difference. From a family perspective, you want to see us play as much as you can. We got a chance to be on TV, excluding the exception of League Pass. Being on a small-market team, you’re not always seen all the time. Everybody’s always like ‘Who’s that? Who’s that?’ It does make a difference.

Q: Do you get recognized more when you’re out and about? And do you have any stories of crazy fans?

Yeah, man, it’s crazy. I didn’t think that would change, but I do have a little bit more notoriety in Dallas. Everybody notices me a lot more because I do play in Dallas. I’m on TV a lot more. I haven’t had any too crazy experiences when it comes to fans. The only thing I have — ‘cause I don’t mind signing anybody’s autograph or taking pictures — the only thing I have is when I’m eating, and they want to shake my hand. That’s the only thing.

Q: Were you surprised when Indiana traded you to Dallas?

It was kind of a mutual decision. Indiana, they felt like I could use my talents elsewhere and I felt the same way too. Indiana’s a great place to play, but I knew it was going to be my contract year and I’d have an opportunity to go a team where I could do those things.

I didn’t know too much about the organization. Of course, everybody knows about Mark Cuban. I was definitely excited to embark on a big challenge. I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into, but me personally, to be able to go to a new team and still have the same success was definitely fun.

Q: Do you have any good Mark Cuban stories?

Mark is just one of those guys who’s constantly yelling at the refs. He’s never yelling at the team. He’s very positive with the team, but he’s very negative at the refs. Mark, he’s one of the best owners because he cares. Every time you see your owner trying to fight for you throughout the game, that’s encouraging.

Q: Are you still open to returning to Dallas, or are you more inclined to look elsewhere?

It’s up in the air. We’ll see. We’ll see how that all plays out. Dallas is not a bad spot to play. The organization is good. I love the fans. We’ll see. It’s up in the air. I know there are a lot of other teams that have interest, but Dallas is one of the teams I’d love to come back to.

Q: How tough was it watching UCLA struggle after you left, missing two out of three NCAA tournaments?

It was a little bit hard just watching those guys. We knew it was going to be a little bit tough because we had some players that left earlier than usual. I thought Coach Howland did a good job with the players that he had. I thought he did a good job this year. I think they’re going to be right back where they need to be. Their recruiting class is on the positive side of things. The new coach, I’ve heard good things about him.

Q: Were you surprised when UCLA fired Ben Howland?

I didn’t think they would do it as soon as they did, but the writing was on the wall. They’ve been trying to get Coach Howland out of there. People have been saying a lot of negative things about him, which was pretty unfair to him and the players that were there. I think Coach Howland’s probably one of the best coaches out there. It’s unfortunate to see anybody lose their job.

Q: Did you have a chance to talk to him after the firing?

I talked to him. I had a chance to chat it up with him a little bit. We kind of just talked about our experience together. We were very, very optimistic that he’ll get a job again. I know he’s in Santa Barbara chillin’ right now, waiting for a new coaching gig.

(He’ll take a year off,) I think that’s what it is. Coaching at UCLA is a lot of work. You’ve got to know what you’re doing. I think he handled that pressure over the course of the year, the least several years. I thought he did a great job. Especially players that left, he didn’t expect them to leave but they did. He’s had some success with pressure, but I think he handled it well. But I think he definitely needs a break.

Q: How did you feel about the Steve Alford hire?

I didn’t know too much about him to be honest. But I’m hearing a lot of good things about him. I’m hearing he’s a defensive coach, which is something we do need. That’s what Coach Howland did bring to the table. Any time we have a new coach that’s from a winning organization in New Mexico — they did a good job despite being knocked out early — he’s had some success. I think he’s definitely a worthy candidate of handling the pressure at UCLA. I’m definitely happy for him. I want to see what he brings to the table. I’m actually going (to UCLA) right now to do a workout, but I haven’t talked to him personally.

Q: What’s your favorite UCLA memory?

I think my best memory there would have to be against Gonzaga (in the 2006 Sweet Sixteen). I think we were down 20 that game. [The Bruins trailed by 17 in the first half, and by nine with just over three minutes left.] I’m not exactly sure. The game seemed out of reach. We weren’t going to come back. We were getting ready for the summer. We managed to turn things around it and make it one of the best games in college basketball. We happened to make it all the way to the Final Four, just from that one experience.

Q: What was going through your head as the team capped that comeback?

I couldn’t believe what was going on, to be honest. I didn’t understand what was going on. I just knew we got the jump ball and next thing you know, the ref is pointing towards our side. I remember Jordan (Farmar) had passed to Luc (Richard Mbah a Moute), and we had this one-on-one. As soon as we got that jump ball, and it was going our way, I just knew we had the game from there on out.

Q: What did you think of Adam Morrison crying?

Everybody talks about that. From a competitor’s standpoint, he really cared about the game. I’m pretty sure everybody brought that up. The pictures were all over, just from that one game, about Adam Morrison. He was an exceptionally good player in college. I think he was the best college player at the time. To beat his team, to overcome that deficit was fun.

Q: Do you feel bad for him at all? It seems like that moment has overshadowed his career.

Yeah, but you know, everybody has their highs and lows in life. I think he’s definitely known as one of the best college players, even though his NBA career didn’t pan out. I think everybody still knows him for the talent he brought to college.

Q: Your basketball camp at your alma mater, Etiwanda, is entering its third year. What made you want to start running one?

I always wanted to work with kids. What better way to start than with a basketball camp, especially in your own neighborhood? I could’ve done it at UCLA, but I decided to do it locally at Etiwanda. A lot of kids, they don’t have the opportunity to go to a basketball camp, especially an NBA basketball camp. I just want to be able to give that privilege to kids around the neighborhood.

Q: How many kids came out last year?

We had a lot. It’s been growing every year. The first year, we had about 100 kids. Second year was over 200. This year, I’m expecting a higher number. I just want the kids to come out and participate. It’s not a lot. They can afford it. It’s a lot of fun. You don’t just talk about basketball. We talk about life, school. Not everybody’s going to be a basketball player. There’s got to be ways we can impact kids’ lives and make them more enthusiastic about life in general.

Q: Is this something you wish you had when you were in middle school or high school?

I went to basketball camps here and there, but I think the difference — something that I wanted to do a little different was, when I did go to basketball camps, I didn’t necessarily see the host of the camp or the NBA player every single day. They’ll probably just stop by the last day of the camp. Basketball players, they have a busy schedule. I really want to set aside my time, be there at the camp every day, every minute, working hands-on.

Q: Is there any financial assistance for families who can’t afford the full $99?

I think it’s affordable. It’s not that much. But if they did, I just want them to just come. Just show up. We’ll figure out something at the door that’s reasonable to help that kid out. Just show up. The camp is more important than the financial side of things. We definitely try to make a big impact on these kids lives, and I don’t want them to not show up because of money. If we have to figure out a situation at the door, I’m all for it.

Q: Who else is working with you on the camp?

I’m going to be the main one helping them out. I’m working with my traveling coach, a guy that I’ve worked out with pretty much my whole career since I’ve been in the NBA. We have a lot of players that play Division I basketball that are coming back to help out too. A lot of guys at the college level and the professional level will be helping out. Nothing’s set in stone (as far as names), but these coaches — what I’m really trying to do is trying to get some NBA players to talk to these kids. We didn’t get that last year. We’re trying to bring at least two or three players down. I think that’d be neat for the kids.