The big deal about this . . . is that it’s not a big deal.
Veteran NBA center Jason Collins came out of the closet Monday. In a first-person article for Sports Illustrated, Collins told the world that he is gay. He became the first active player in a major American sport to acknowledge his homosexuality.
And it is not a big deal. It is not Jackie Robinson in 1947. Collins has come out at a time when few will challenge his right to his own sexual identity. There no doubt are folks who wish Collins kept this to himself, but woe is the ballplayer or commentator who will question anything about Collins’s sexual orientation.
We have evolved. There are gay men and women in just about every workplace. There have been gay ballplayers for more than a century. We just didn’t know about it.
If you saw Collins in a Celtics uniform earlier this season, you might have noticed his unusual uniform number: 98. Not many of us knew that the number had significance for him.
“My one small gesture of solidarity was to wear jersey number 98 with the Celtics and then the Wizards,’’ wrote Collins. “The number has great significance to the gay community. One of the most notorious antigay hate crimes occurred in 1998. Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was kidnapped, tortured, and lashed to a prairie fence. He died five days after he was finally found. That same year the Trevor Project was founded. This amazing organization provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention to kids struggling with their sexual identity.’’
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge traded Collins and Leandro Barbosa to the Wizards for Jordan Crawford in February. The trade was made over the objections of Boston coach Doc Rivers, but Chris Wilcox was difficult to deal because of his contract.
Ainge and Rivers had nothing but great things to say about Collins Monday.
“Jason was a great teammate and a class act his entire time with us in Boston,’’ said Ainge. “This doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t change how I feel about Jason Collins as a person or as a player.’’
“I am extremely happy and proud of Jason Collins,’’ Rivers said in a statement. “He’s a pro’s pro. He is the consummate professional and he is one of my favorite ‘team players’ I have ever coached. If you have learned anything from Jackie Robinson, it is that teammates are always the first to accept. It will be society who has to learn tolerance.’’
Somewhere (extremely) high above courtside, Red Auerbach is smiling. A Jewish man from Brooklyn, Auerbach was first to draft a black player in the NBA. He was the first to start five black players and the first to hire a black head coach. He’d have been proud to know that the first openly gay player had been a Celtic.
US Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy was Collins’s roommate for six months when the two attended Stanford together in 2000-01.
“He’s just one of those good people, and he did a courageous thing today,” Kennedy said in a Globe interview Monday night.
“He’s a strong person and he didn’t need any help to do what he did. He deserves to be a historic figure for what he did, but he’s still Jason, and that’s not going to change.”
This would be a bigger deal if Collins were a starter in the prime of his athletic career. His status as a 34-year-old journeyman dents the impact of his announcement. We don’t really know his future value as an NBA player.
If he is not signed, it will be easy to dismiss the inactivity as pragmatism. Thirty-four-year-old guys who average less than 2 points per game are easy to resist. Rejecting the services of Collins is not suspicious. It’s not anti-gay. It’s practical roster management.
On the other hand, if Collins is signed by a team, it could be viewed as a publicity stunt. There are owners and franchises that might embrace the notion of hiring the first openly gay male athlete. Collins may have bought himself more time in the NBA with this announcement.
“Jason is a player that has sort of been hanging on for the last few years,’’ said Ainge. “He may or may not be a valuable asset for another year or two. I really think he’ll be judged on his play.’’
What about the culture of the locker room? In any group of athletes — because of religion, culture, or perhaps bigotry — there will be players resistant to the idea of a gay teammate.
“I think NBA players don’t care,’’ said Ainge, who has been an NBA player, coach, and general manager. “There might be somebody that has some phobias here or there, but I really believe the players in the locker room care about how hard you work and how hard you play and if you sacrifice yourself for the team.
“I think those characteristics outweigh any thoughts you might have. I think the players are beyond that.’’
Ainge was asked what he would do with a player who had a problem with having a gay teammate.
“I would probably talk to that player and get him over that problem,’’ said Ainge. “I don’t know any players that don’t have problems. None of us are perfect. We all have different challenges. NBA basketball teams know that. You try to help and lift those around you — whatever struggles they may be having.’’
As a Mormon, is Ainge accepting of a homosexual ballplayer?
“Absolutely,’’ he said. “I’m accepting of everybody.
“Jason Collins is one of the classiest professionals we’ve had in our organization since I’ve been here. That doesn’t change.
“He is a person I trust, and like, and enjoy being around. He did his job as professionally as anybody we’ve had.’’