It was the same old Jason Collins, sporting a sheepish grin and brimming with humility. He’s a man of few words, but they’re always meaningful.
His return to TD Garden for the first time since coming out as gay last April was uneventful, just as he predicted. At the Nets’ shootaround Friday morning, Collins sat by himself wearing a skullcap to keep warm, waiting for the media that is ever present since he signed Feb. 24.
As reporters walked toward Collins, he began smiling. It wasn’t a series of uncomfortable questions. Collins predicted the attention would soon wane and normalcy would return.
“There’s only so many ways you can write the story about the off-the-court stuff,” he said. “It’s kind of funny but it’s how I predicted it would be. I’m just trying to focus on basketball, not really focus on all the off-the-court stuff. So that’s been really helpful for me, just trying to make sure that’s the focus.”
Collins’s journey has been memorable. Following his announcement in Sports Illustrated, he met many people who admired his courage in being the first active professional athlete in the four major sports to announce he was gay. He met President Obama and the First Lady. He was the grand marshal of the gay parade in Boston. His teammates, including Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, embraced his return to the NBA.
Despite being 35 and without a job for several months, Collins never wanted to retire. Nets general manager Billy King’s decision to sign Collins erased any misconceptions that the burly center would be blackballed because of his sexuality.
“I really wasn’t thinking along those lines,” he said. “I was thinking along those lines of telling my own truth, tell my own story on my own terms.”
The story has been told and there isn’t much left to tell. Collins wants to concentrate on basketball. He spent part of last season with the Celtics and the Wizards keeping a secret only family members and close friends knew. Only when he approached former Celtics coach Doc Rivers and Pierce did anyone in the organization know Collins was gay.
“It’s pretty much the same questions,” he said. “Now and then I’ll get a political question.The size [of the media contingent] is going down and regardless, you guys have a job to do in the media and as a player I try to answer your questions to the best of my abilities.”
Eventually the questions dried up. How many ways can you ask Collins about his sexuality? He made sure over the years to keep his private life private before the announcement. He had no juicy stories to offer. He wanted to talk basketball.
In his first game back in the NBA, the foul-prone Collins committed a team-high five in just 10:37 in a Nets win over the Lakers. If there was any perceptions Collins would change as a player after his announcement, he dispelled those assertions following that vintage performance.
“You can’t take them with you,” he said about the fouls. “The game before [Friday] I got a foul in like 10 seconds on the court. I’m one of those players that wakes up and has like three fouls already. I check into the game and the ref cleans the whistle off, ‘OK 98’s coming in.’ I’m one of those players that’s physical and I use my fouls.”
Collins spent most of last season setting hard picks and committing tons of fouls for the Celtics. He said he had no intentions of making his announcement during that time.
“Most of my friends and family knew last season when I was playing for the Celtics and the Wizards and it’s the people that I have in my life and I can share with them and it did not become public,” he said. “A lot of people in my life were very protective of me and at the same time, I’m glad I had that outlet, that I was able to be myself with my friends and family and that’s why at the end of last year I was ready to be myself with everyone else.”
Collins, who was a DNP-CD against the Celtics, was himself Friday, humble, unassuming, and gay. And as he predicted, the novelty of his announcement has dissipated, replaced by awkward silence from reporters because the questions are drying up.