Since the widespread hope here is that stories like this one eventually become non-stories and the acceptance of homosexuality becomes even more the norm rather than the exception, we start with this sobering reality about Jason Collins and his historic decision to sign a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday.
He had better spend these next nine days knocking heads and making good use of all six of his fouls, lest he find himself unemployed again soon.
The 35-year-old Collins became the first openly gay player in all four major North American professional sports nearly 10 months after announcing his sexuality. Along with the extremely positive proposition that he could have a greater social impact now that he’s employed to play basketball again comes the truth about the the NBA: Good jobs are hard to find and even harder to keep
With the Nets plotting their playoff push and having considered the likes of the Los Angeles Lakers’ Jordan Hill (via trade) and big man Glen Davis (via free agency) before choosing Collins to add badly-needed depth down low, his first order of duty is to earn a second 10-day contract. From there, the Nets would — per the rules of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement — have to decide whether he’ll be with them for the rest of the season or if this sensational story will be coming to an anticlimactic end.
Nets officials who went looking for frontcourt help because of a season-ending injury to center Brook Lopez in early January were quick to clarify their collective state of mind in relation to the Collins signing Sunday, with general manager Billy King saying in a release, “The decision to sign Jason was a basketball decision.”
It was a subtle-but-fitting statement, a reminder that — as Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant would say while unofficially speaking for so many others — “(Collins is a) physical, physical center that plays his tail off. That’s all we should worry about, is how he plays basketball.”
Still, in this world of men’s professional sports that has been so behind the times on this issue, this was nothing short of momentous. And Brooklyn’s part in it — both as a team and as a city — can’t be overstated.
In the same place that gave Jackie Robinson his first shot at equality in 1947 when he became the first African-American player in Major League Baseball, Collins will now join a team that is owned by a Russian man in Mikhail Prokhorov who just sent a strong statement to his homeland. And talk about timing.
With the Winter Olympics in Sochi having put President Vladimir Putin and his anti-gay culture on center stage, here comes Prokhorov to show a more-enlightened side. The billionaire who ran for president in 2012 and ultimately lost to Putin was quoted in June 2013 condemning Russia’s ban on “homosexual propaganda,” saying, “I think we are breaching the international convention of human rights and freedoms we have signed. My position is very simple: This is a personal affair. It is a personal affair who has sex with whom.” Eight months later, his approval of the Collins signing was celebrated in the gay community and beyond.
Michael Sam, the former University of Missouri defensive end and NFL prospect whose announcement earlier this month that he was gay came approximately three months before the draft, tweeted, “Congratulations to my friend
@jasoncollins34 – excited to see you do work out there #courage #groundbreaking
Robbie Rogers, the 26-year-old Major League Soccer star who came out as gay in Feb. 2013 and began playing with the L.A. Galaxy three months later, tweeted, “Very excited to watch @jasoncollins34 tonight (in Los Angeles against the Lakers) more importantly I am proud to call him my friend.”
Kenneth Faried, the Denver Nuggets forward whose mother is a lesbian and who has become an activist for gay and lesbian rights, said in a statement released by the organization deemed Athlete Ally Response: “With Jason Collins signing with the Nets today, I believe our world as professional athletes will open up and become less ignorant of gay male athletes playing and more accepting and embracing of the whole situation.”
New NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who doesn’t typically weigh in on 10-day assignments, said in a statement: “Jason told us that his goal was to earn another contract with an NBA team. Today, I want to commend him on achieving his goal. I know everyone in the NBA family is excited for him and proud that our league fosters an inclusive and respectful environment.”
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Those closest to Collins say he’ll make the most of this challenge, that he’ll return to the physical, role-playing ways that helped keep him on an NBA team’s payroll from the time he was drafted 18th overall out of Stanford in 2001 until the date of his last game, April 17, 2013, while with the Washington Wizards. Collins’ first six seasons, coincidentally, came with the then-New Jersey Nets when he was teammates with current Nets coach Jason Kidd.
In the many months since Collins announced his sexuality in a Sports Illustrated article, he has become a spokesman for his cause and was even a White House guest of first Lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union address in January. But he has also been training, getting his body NBA-ready again in Los Angeles and preparing for this day that has finally come.
When a training camp invite never came his way, and when teams passed on the chance to pick him up midseason despite having a need because of various injuries, his agent, Arn Tellem of the Wasserman Media Group, kept telling Collins to remain patient and positive. True to Collins’ widely-respected form, he did just that while maintaining a daily — sometimes twice-daily — workout routine in the weight room and on the nearest track.
“He was working out in the gym where our office was (in Westwood), so we’d bump into him all the time,” said Greg Lawrence, who also represents Collins as part of the Wasserman group. “And he was just doing his job, going to work, staying ready and he really just had tunnel vision on it to make sure he was doing everything he can so if the opportunity came up he was in a position to make the most of it.”
If the doubt crept in, Lawrence said, Collins didn’t show it.
“If he did (question whether he’d play again), I don’t think he let it on,” Lawrence continued. “I think his attitude and just his outlook on it has been positive, and working to make sure that when the chance came that he was ready to go, and understanding that once we got past training camp and into the season, it was going to be like something like what happened today, where it kind of happened quickly and that he had to be ready to go. Certainly with the contract that he has now, he has 10 days to prove himself.”
The next nine, of course, are what matter now.