SALT LAKE CITY — It was a landmark 10 minutes, 37 seconds for Jason Collins, the NBA, and acceptance Sunday night at Staples Center.
Collins collected 2 rebounds, 1 steal, and, of course, 5 personal fouls in his return to the NBA and first game as an openly gay player hours after signing with the Brooklyn Nets, who beat the Los Angeles Lakers, 108-102.
The former Celtic was showered with attention and adulation before the game, and addressed the media in a packed room afterward, all to discuss something he has done before, play in the NBA as a gay man. The only difference this time is Collins went public with his sexuality last May in a magazine article. He had been unsigned for the first 3½ months of this season.
Collins didn’t cry about homophobia or discrimination. He didn’t complain about potentially being blackballed from the league after his revelation. He worked feverishly to stay in shape in Los Angeles, waiting for his opportunity.
And the NBA treated Collins like it does all of its aging players out of work, calling him when his services were required. Just as the Warriors did, signing big man Hilton Armstrong from the NBA Developmental League, or the Wizards, who are expected to sign Drew Gooden because starting center Nene is out for six weeks.
Brooklyn general manager Billy King needed a defensive-minded big man who could set crisp screens after he traded useful Reggie Evans to the Sacramento Kings to acquire Marcus Thornton. The Nets weren’t the only team keeping tabs on Collins. Other NBA clubs knew he was a free agent looking for an opportunity.
Collins is just your normal, everyday NBA journeyman, except he is gay, and it seems that one point is no longer a major deal to a league filled with players who are more focused on winning than their teammates’ personal lives.
When asked about his former teammate’s reemergence, Rajon Rondo said what a lot of players are thinking: It will be a major issue as long as the media continues to discuss it. But there was little buzz about his return in the Celtics locker room. It wasn’t a major topic of discussion. It seems the players digested the news when it broke, understood that Collins probably isn’t the only gay athlete in the four major sports, noticed how professionally he carried himself, and accepted his presence.
“I don’t think it is,” Rondo said when asked if Collins’s return was significant. “I guess you could keep talking about it. I don’t know. He was a great teammate. Very professional. Always ready. He would go maybe six or seven games without playing and then he’d get eight minutes on the court and make an impact right away. I think he’s a great addition with the Nets, especially having KG [and being able to] bang down there with the big guys. I’m sure he’ll do well.”
What should be celebrated as much as Collins being able to be honest about his lifestyle is the reaction — or lack thereof — from his peers. It’s an ever-changing and progressive world, and it seems that, for now, the buildup to the first openly gay player on a roster of the four major sports has been exaggerated.
Collins has as much right as anyone else to commit five fouls in 10:37. He should play in the NBA because he’s qualified and capable, and he shouldn’t be subjected to constant questions about his personal life. Hopefully, this story won’t be sensationalized or embellished because the news cycle is slow.
He went through the entire 2012-13 season, with the Celtics and Wizards, as a gay man and made no headlines. Collins should be allowed to cement his role with the Nets during his 10-day contract without becoming a distraction. Having covered him since his days at Harvard-Westlake School in California, where he and his brother, Jarron, dominated opponents as the San Fernando Valley’s version of Sampson and Olajuwon, Jason is refreshingly humble and understated. He acknowledged the attention is overwhelming but he didn’t disappear into the sunset because he still loved the game, and that was worth the potential backlash.
Hopefully, the NBA can return to the normalcy of late February, when teams are beginning to ramp up for the postseason, including the Nets, who despite a sub-.500 record are fighting for playoff seeding in the Eastern Conference.
Hopefully, the Nets will renew Collins’s 10-day contract if his performance dictates. Hopefully, the significance of this story will fade and gay athletes simply will be viewed as athletes, those who commit hard fouls, set crisp picks, and are respected among their teammates and coaches.
When asked about Collins, Celtics forward Brandon Bass seemed almost stunned about the question. There hadn’t been much thought put into his return.
“I think it’s a big accomplishment for him, to get the opportunity to extend his career, being that it’s like his 13th year in the league and that he’s able to extend that,” he said. “That’s a blessing in itself. Congratulations to him.”
The opportunity to continue doing what he loves, extend his career, and see his hard work come to fruition, that’s the story here. Hopefully, it’s nothing more than that.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.