There has been a lot said about Jason Collins’ first game since coming out as gay last April. Just look around and you’ll see just about everyone has already posted their opinion regarding last night and what it all means. This makes adding more to the conversation beyond the affirmative head nod a little difficult, but there is: timing.
When Collins gave us his revelation last April, the timing was a little curious. Collins’ contract was expiring and was also entering the free agent market at the age of 35, something that would make it difficult for many players to land a job. But there’s rarely a perfect time for moments like this and Collins eschewed concern for making his job hunt even more difficult. Collins understood the risk that came with making the announcement at this stage in his career, but it was a worthwhile gamble to not have to live his life in secrecy and be unabashedly himself. For Collins, the reception was mostly commended, as it should have been, but we wouldn’t be exactly sure yet how the NBA would respond to having an openly gay player until Collins or someone else actually played in a game.
As spring turned to summer, the basketball community kept an eye on free agency, but especially Collins. It was an intriguing storyline to the player movement period, but Collins would go unsigned. While most people realized that from a solely basketball perspective that Collins was not going to necessarily going to land a job right away anyway, but others wondered if teams had some trepidation over potential distractions that would be coming with him.
Perhaps the timing then wouldn’t have been as ideal as it was on Sunday night. Again, not that there is ever a perfect time to make history, but instead of Collins signing early and hearing about how it’s a PR move or anything like that, we had a 10 month wait instead. Over those 10 months, anyone who had any lingering reservations about accepting an openly gay player had time to come around to the idea and Collins had more time to prepare for that call should it come. And it did when the Nets signed Collins to a 10-day contract.
Going to the Nets was the perfect situation for him. He was already going into a locker room of friends and former teammates including Deron Williams, Andre Kirilenko, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. What’s more than that, the Nets needed Collins’ skillset after dealing Reggie Evans to the Kings at the trade deadline. The Nets desperately needed a big body in the paint who could play some defense and rebound, especially when Garnett needs a rest. With six fouls to give and a willingness to leave on the floor, Collins was the perfect man for the job. The wait may have seemed discouraging to the cause, but now this was a basketball move that coincided with Collins making history. Again, the timing was precise.
As Barry Petchesky noted at Deadspin, the Lakers crowd either stood and applauded or didn’t seem to notice, which is the way it should be. One thing they most likely did notice, however, was Collins’ immediate impact. On the game’s first play, he managed to stay in front of Chris Kaman as he drove to the hoop and was able to poke check Kaman’s dribble loose to Williams for the season. Collins was a basketball player that was out there playing out his role to perfection and finished with the most Jason Collins statline of all time: 5 fouls in 11 minutes and zero points. Yep, that sounds like Collins.
“His impact [Sunday night] is greater than what people think,” Bryant told Yahoo Sports before the game. “You look at it from the context of having the first openly gay player. But they missed the domino effect that it has way beyond sports.” …
“It’s fantastic. It sets an incredible precedent,” said Bryant, who is currently out of the Lakers’ lineup indefinitely with a knee injury. “I think the most important part about it, what I’ve learned on the issue is that one person coming out is showing this type of courage that gives others that same type of courage.
“It’s dealing with a lot of issues for kids who are afraid to be themselves. Afraid to be themselves because of the peer pressure that comes with it. A lot of these kids have depression issues or they’re being teased from other kids for being different. You wind up seeing a lot of suicides, kids injuring themselves and getting hooked on things that they should not be hooked on.” – Kobe Bryant to Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports
But how would the players respond? Kobe Bryant said that he thought that Collins was setting a great precedent, and he was right. Not only is Collins’ impact greater because he is actually on the court, but the ripple effect of him playing will carry across the other major sports in America. We’ve seen it in soccer and soon in the NFL with Michael Sam. We now see that some of us may have underestimated professional athletes and their ability to be “ready,” as well as how tolerant fans would be of having an openly gay player. I mean, Sunday night didn’t exactly play out like a scene in “42″ once Collins checked into the game. Yet, perhaps most importantly, Collins may ultimately end up giving some kid the courage to be himself and follow his dreams and that they won’t have to choose between the two. So, when someone says “Who cares?” this is why we should care. No, we shouldn’t care simply because he is a gay man, but we should care because this is an important milestone in our sport. The reaction to Collins and Sam is encouraging because it seems that we are heading towards a day when people won’t need to write 1,000 word articles on the subject, but we aren’t there yet.
From what we’ve seen from the NBA in regards to Collins is that who he loves has less to do with his future than what he is able to do on the court, which is the way it should be. Collins’ initial timing seemed imperfect as a player on the wrong side of 30 with a specialized skillset, but it appears that it was perfect. Perhaps the best part is that Collins’ cause wasn’t cheapened by being viewed as a publicity stunt by a team trying to sell season tickets in training camp. Ultimately, it seems like Collins wants this to be about basketball, and that seems to be exactly where the focus is.