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Guest Post: On backups and basketball reasons

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Ed. Note: Evans Clinchy is a Bostonian and active member of the hoops blogosphere. He’s in his fifth season covering the Celtics, with his writing appearing on CelticsBlogNESN, and SI (among other places). You can follow him, his thoughts, and his writing on Twitter. He wrote this piece after watching Jason Collins’ debut with the Nets last night.

There was something oddly ironic about seeing Jason Collins make his 2013-14 NBA debut last night against, of all people, Lakers backup big man Jordan Hill. The two players are simultaneously so eerily similar and so starkly different, making for a historic night that was fitting, in an unusual sort of way.

Collins and Hill are comparable in a lot of ways. They’re both tall (between 6-foot-10 and 7 feet), both competent rim protectors, both active defenders, both capable of throwing six fouls at opposing bigs. They’re both – more or less – replacement-level centers on a playoff-contending NBA team.

Then again, Collins is a pioneer in sports history, a man whose name will likely go down in the history books someday next to those of Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood and others. Hill is… not that.

In the grand scheme of things, Jordan Hill is forgettable and Jason Collins is anything but. Due to their basketball similarities, though, the two names were bandied about in the same conversation earlier this week as the Nets looked to find a serviceable center for the stretch run.

With the Lakers thinking of shedding payroll at the trade deadline Thursday, there were numerous reports that the Nets were the leaders to land Hill, with talks heating up in the final few hours. Ultimately, the deal fell through, with Mitch Kupchak maintaining that he wanted a second-round pick via trade and Billy King deciding that asking price was a bit too steep.

Instead, the Nets signed Collins, and in so doing, they made history.

At least that’s the tidy little narrative that was foisted upon us by the mainstream media. The Nets, seeking a basketball player to join their team for basketball reasons, missed out on Hill at the deadline, and they whiffed on Glen Davis as well, with Big Baby ultimately deciding to rejoin old coach Doc Rivers and the Clippers. So the team did what any fringe playoff squad would do, in seek of a little depth heading into the season’s final weeks – they signed the best player available. Collins was a quality player who could help the team, and all else was “an afterthought.”

Which all makes for a nice party line. A totally understandable one to stick to, especially considering the pressures of playing in the media zoo that is New York City – in the middle of a frustrating season that’s opened everyone in the Barclays Center up to extra scrutiny, no less. The “basketball reasons” mantra makes sense. Then again, it’s also bullshit.

If all the Nets wanted was a competent big man, they had a whole host of options, even at this late date in the season. The scrap-heap guys lying around this February included Ivan Johnson, Drew Gooden, Kwame Brown, Chris Wilcox, Eddy Curry and a whole bunch more. Was Collins the best man for the job in Brooklyn? I dunno – maybe. It’s hard to say. I will say that Collins and Wilcox competed for minutes in Boston a year ago, and big J.C. didn’t do so well. But with just 29 games left in the season and all of the above players ranging somewhere from “meh, no thanks” to “meh, not bad, I guess,” I think it’s safe to say the Nets were looking at a wash, basketball-wise. They decided that the tie goes to the history-maker.

That’s a laudable decision. The world is a better place today than it was 48 hours ago because of it. Even if Collins and the Nets try to downplay it, the fact that he’s gay and actively playing NBA basketball matters. It’s a difficult thing to put into words in a news conference, which is why Collins and Jason Kidd and all the other Nets would rather stick to clichés about playbooks and pick-and-roll coverages than get philosophical (or worse yet, political). But they all know the truth. The basketball stuff is ultimately worth nothing here, and the societal implications are everything.

Collins’ sexual orientation is important. It’s so important that it’s made him into a public figure worldwide – it landed him a state dinner in Washington a week ago with French President Francois Hollande. It’s important because “who cares that he’s gay?” has become the new homophobia. It’s important because there are still people in this world practicing other, more blatant forms of bigotry, pledging to troll the civilized world by picketing Nets games. It’s important because there are still kids out there afraid to embrace who they are, and there are still athletes and pundits discouraging them, and there are still media people sending the wrong message by denying the importance of people like Jason Collins.

The Nets did something good for basketball and society by signing Jason Collins, and that took courage. They could have easily steered clear and gone with Hill or Wilcox or Johnson. But they made a statement instead. If LeBron James or Kevin Durant hit free agency and announced he was gay, there would be no doubt – all 30 NBA teams would drool after that player and line up to sign him. But in taking a stand now, on a fringe rotation player instead of a star, the Nets are saying something.

The Nets are probably going to finish seventh or eighth in the Eastern Conference this season, and they’re probably going to get whacked in the first round of the playoffs by the Pacers or Heat in a couple of months. No backup center, whether Collins or anyone else, is likely to move that needle terribly much.

Twenty years from now, no one will remember how many rebounds a reserve big man had, or how many charges he took. A lot of people, however, will remember Jason Collins. That’s nothing to be downplayed or overlooked.

Hardwood Paroxysm