Posted May 2, 2013 11:29 AM
Much as we'd like to believe, the world didn't change Monday morning. A new piece of it was merely revealed. The significance of the revelation is undeniable, but nothing changed. Those who believe someone's sexual orientation is as relevant to knowing them as what brand of toothpaste they use still believe that today. Those who genuinely believe that being gay is a sin and would thus judge and condemn homosexuality will continue to do so.
That is not a cynical position. It is, actually, hopeful. The importance of Jason Collins' decision to disclose he is gay is relevant, but we shouldn't forget that it is most relevant to Jason Collins.
It really doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. We improve as a society when people are comfortable living their own truth, whatever that is, wherever it takes them. We were diminished when Collins felt compelled to live a lie, to not be his true self around his co-workers and his family, because we were deprived of the true person he is.
So Collins' first-person account to Sports Illustrated is significant, as is the support he immediately received from almost all corners of the sports and political worlds. (It is no coincidence that he gave his first TV interview to ABC's George Stephanopolous, the former press secretary to President Clinton, whose daughter Chelsea was, and is, good friends with Collins, her classmate at Stanford University.)
But his disclosure is no more significant than the young person of either gender who comes out to their parents in Indiana or New Mexico. Not being gay, I am empathetic but not privy to the pressures gay kids are under, but the decision as to how they will live remains theirs. No one else can move their feet forward toward the truth. If Collins stepping forward helps them, though, that is all to the good, and if a troglodyte high school or college coach now thinks twice before using a homophobic slur against a player, even better.
Now, when Collins puts on the number 98 jersey, we know that he does so in honor of Matthew Sheperd, the teenage boy who was murdered for being gay. If that makes us think about Matthew Shepard for a minute, that is a good thing.
Sexuality is not the only place where people have to make awful choices and disguise themselves. When black kids who are smart and speak well are assaulted at both ends -- by (mostly) well-meaning whites who marvel at how "articulate" they are, and by that sliver of the African-American community that demeans them as trying to "act white" -- they cannot be themselves. And when people of faith are ridiculed and marginalized for wanting to live their lives according to their beliefs, we live in a lesser place.
Speaking of which: I know ESPN's Chris Broussard is getting a lot of heat the other way for saying on ESPN's Outside The Lines that he personally thinks homosexuality, like heterosexual sex outside of marriage, is a sin, and that gay people can't be true Christians. I disagree with Chris on the non-Christian part (leaving defining sin and those who would pass judgment on it to the Big Man/Woman/Being). But Chris is a friend, and he lives his life consistently and genuinely as a Christian. It was not a revelation to the producers of OTL that Chris believed what he said he believed, and he certainly shouldn't be punished in any way for being honest.
As for Collins, the rest of his playing days will be likely affected more by his age and his remaining skills than by with whom he chooses to sleep. At 34, and with microscopic scoring and rebounding averages, Collins was already an acquired taste -- a smart, heady veteran who works for a contending team like the Celtics, but probably not for a rebuilding team like the Wizards. (Given the state of his career, he played for both of those teams last season.) So he'll be judged accordingly this summer, when he's a free agent and able to sign with any team he wants.
"He was a vet min before, and he's a vet min now," one GM texted Monday, as in "veteran's minimum" salary, which is around $1.4 million this season.
Collins, known around the NBA as "Twin" (he has a twin brother, Jarron -- no one ever said NBA players or media were especially creative), has made his way around the league for 12 years because he still knows the game, he can still set a good screen, he can still give a hard foul and he's still 7 feet tall.
Neither Jason nor Jarron has ever approached stardom, or even lasted long as a solid rotation player. But if you watched Jason spend 15 minutes stretching in the Wizards' locker room late in the season, continuing to work his core, knowing he was almost certain not to see a second of action that night, you'd know what the word professional means.
Collins was a first-round pick by New Jersey in 2001. But he's always been more grinder than a high flier, a worker bee. Byron Scott and Eddie Jordan loved having Collins on the floor for those Nets teams that made back-to-back finals in 2002 and 2003 because Collins kept the ball moving in the Princeton offense the Nets ran, reversing the ball from one side of the floor to the other at the top of the key. He was barely a scoring threat, only on the occasional putback or flash in the lane.
"I take charges and I foul -- that's been my forte," Collins wrote. "In fact, during the 2004-05 season, my 322 personals led the NBA. I enter the court knowing I have six hard fouls to give. I set picks with my 7-foot, 255-pound body to get guys like Jason Kidd, John Wall and Paul Pierce open. I sacrifice myself for other players. I look out for teammates as I would my kid brother ...
"I'm not afraid to take on any opponent. I love playing against the best. Though Shaquille O'Neal is a Hall of Famer, I never shirked from the challenge of trying to frustrate the heck out of him. (Note to Shaq: My flopping has nothing to do with being gay.) My mouthpiece is in, and my wrists are taped. Go ahead, take a swing -- I'll get up. I hate to say it, and I'm not proud of it, but I once fouled a player so hard that he had to leave the arena on a stretcher."
Those skills are valuable, but in the luxury tax age, can be a luxury themselves. As another GM noted Monday, it's not like Collins was in high demand the last few years. If he isn't signed this summer, the immediate reaction shouldn't be that there's rampant homophobia and bigotry in the NBA. You do have to earn your keep. But one would think Collins could continue to do that.
If he is signed, will Collins be a "distraction?" (Man, I hate that word.) Only to the degree that Collins' future teammates allow it to be, and the guess here is that, in NBA locker rooms, it won't be much of one at all. NBA players can be accused of a great many things, but not being inclusive isn't on the list. Having been around these guys for a long time, prejudice is not something that lasts long: Anyone who thinks Dirk Nowitzki is an untalented white guy gets set straight real quick.
Yes, some NBA players are promiscuous, and some smoke too much weed, and some of them are overpaid. But generally, the league as a whole gets the big things right. When Karl Malone and Mark Price expressed reservations about playing with Magic Johnson in 1992 after he disclosed he had contracted HIV, Stern made it clear: Johnson will be in the All-Star Game. And he was, famously embraced by most players when the game was over, and for all of that glorious summer of the Dream Team in the States and in Barcelona at the Olympics.
The NBA consistently gets higher grades for gender and racial diversity than all the other leagues from Richard Lapchick's organization based out of the University of Central Florida, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES). The first female president of a major sports team was in the NBA, more than 20 years ago, when the Washington Bullets named Susan O'Malley to the position.
There will surely be a yahoo or two with beer muscles who shouts something stupid at Collins at an arena next season. And if that happens, the person who should say something is the guy or woman next to Mr. or Ms. Yahoo, not anyone on Collins' team. We fight back best against "ists" of any stripe -- racists, sexists, ageists -- when we make them feel as uncomfortable as they hope to make people like Collins feel. Telling a bigot to shut up and sit down will do worlds more than Collins' words.
The suspicion here is that there will be any number of teams that will see no real risk at all in signing Collins, giving him a familiar spot on the bench, letting him break down the opposition's plays before they are run. Maybe Dallas, whose owner, Mark Cuban, has been a public supporter of gay rights; maybe New York, a city so big that Collins' story would be front page news for a day or two, then be pushed off by some act of depravity or hilarity; maybe Golden State, a team in need of size, whose president, Rick Welts, disclosed he was gay in 2011 and whose community is historically comfortable with gay life in all its hues.
Wherever Collins winds up, the season will go on as if nothing at all important has happened. Which is, exactly, what has happened.
Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT, and the author of The Morning Tip, which appears every Monday morning on NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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