Ex-Hawks forward John Collins returns to State Farm Arena ready to compete

Things will feel and look different for former Hawks and now Jazz forward John Collins when the teams face off Tuesday night at State Farm Arena.

The NBA big man suited up in a Hawks uniform for 364 games over six seasons. Now in his seventh season in the NBA, he dons a different uniform. He’ll take a bus to State Farm Arena instead of his usual route. He’ll go in through a different entrance, and he’ll run onto the court through a different tunnel before tipoff.

It’s a day that Collins has anticipated for a long time since the Hawks dealt him to the Jazz in June and since the season began in October. But he’s had to wait, as Tuesday’s game will be the first of two meetings between the Hawks and the Jazz, and the wait carried a little anxiety and nerves.

“Just anxious to get out there and play, see my old guys and see some familiar faces,” Collins said at the Jazz’s shootaround Tuesday morning. “Just happy to be back, but I’m focused. I’m ready to go.

But as soon as he got into the arena, a few of those nerves melted as Collins felt a sense of familiarity.

“It’s a first coming in on that side of the arena on the opposing bus,” he said. “I didn’t really know how to feel. Just trying to go through it and get on the court. I knew once I got on the court and got some of that emotion out on the court, I knew I would feel a lot better.”

It’s been his focus during the days leading to Tuesday’s meeting with his former team. He’s tried to remove as much emotion as possible that could get stirred up in his return to the city where he grew up as an professional athlete. It’s also a team where he had a lot of success including an NBA All-Rookie second-team nod, as well as a career year during the 2019-20 season that saw him average 21.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game while shooting 40.1% from 3. It also is the place where he helped lead the Hawks to the franchise’s second appearance in the Eastern Conference finals and first since the 2015-16 season.

Though Collins, who averages 14.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game this season, looked back on his accomplishments with the Hawks, he remained adamant that he kept his focus on business.

“It’s really me being focused and locked in tonight,” Collins said. “Obviously, I have a lot of fond memories here, and I got a lot of love in this arena but I’m trying to come to work. I’m trying to do my thing tonight. I want to play the best basketball I can and put on a show for everybody.”

While Collins looks to play well Tuesday, while picking up a win for the Jazz, he said has no feelings of making this a “revenge game.” When players return to former teams, the phrase often comes up because those former players put up strong performances as they look to, like Collins said, put on a show.

But, it’s not how Collins envisions Tuesday.

“It’s love for me,” he said. “I don’t have any feelings of revenge on any of the people that I’m going to see on the court tonight. So, I’m gonna compete and compete my (expletive) against them in the best way. Not gonna lay down but revenge, it’s not my thing and I’m coming out play basketball and try to win and have fun.”

That means that Collins plans to give it everything against former teammates such as Clint Capela and Jalen Johnson. While Collins would also love to compete against center Onyeka Okongwu, the Hawks have ruled him out (big left toe sprain) for the next week and a half until he is re-evaluated.

“There was a lot of good memories, a lot of practices and flights, buses, all of the sort,” Collins said. “So, shout out to Big O, J.J.‚ Clint, those are my brothers. But can’t give out anything but I know we’ve learned a lot from each other. So, they know I’m gonna come play hard. I’m gonna respect them by giving them all tonight.”

It’s also not just his former teammates he looks forward to seeing but also the Hawks fans who embraced him.

“I’m going to love it,” Collins said. “I like to show love where love is shown back to me. The city of Atlanta has obviously done that big time for me. So, I love every single one of the fans that supported me and had my back through my time here. So, much love to them, to all the fans here in the ‘A’ and try to continue to put on a show for them wherever I am.”