Jason Collins' signing noteworthy, but one day it won't be
Someday, we will look back and wonder what the big deal was.
We will wonder why athletes with no criminal records, with no history of boorish behavior, who have been widely respected in every locker room they've ever stepped foot in had to prove to some people that they still belonged in one.
On Sunday, the Brooklyn Nets agreed to terms with free agent Jason Collins on a 10-day contract. If his name weren't Jason Collins, no one outside of Flatbush would have taken notice. A 35-year old center who averaged 1.1 points and 1.6 rebounds for two teams last season? That signing shouldn't even make the ESPN ticker. But his name is Jason Collins so, for now, we all stand up.
We stand up because Collins is gay, because the moment he steps onto the floor he will make history, becoming the first openly gay athlete to play in any of the four major U.S. sports. Last May, Collins opened up about his sexuality in a story in Sports Illustrated. Collins hasn't played since, creating speculation that some teams weren't interested in bringing him in because of the circus that would have come with him.
To be fair, gay or straight, Collins might have been out of the league this season anyway. Collins -- as the aforementioned numbers indicate -- is in the winter of his career. He can still defend and sets screens like a brick wall, but those aren't good enough reasons to fork over $1.4 million -- the veterans minimum, a portion of which is picked up by the NBA -- for a player with no real future to sit on the end of the bench. Second-round picks can do that.
But Collins stayed sharp, stayed positive, stayed in shape and now he is back now, with the Nets -- an organization he played 6 ½ seasons for when the franchise was located in New Jersey -- playing with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce (his teammates in Boston last season) and for Jason Kidd, his point guard in New Jersey. It's an ideal situation for Collins, who friends say declined training camp invitations because he wanted to go to a situation where he could contribute. The Nets didn't sign Collins for the publicity. They signed him because Glen Davis turned them down and they needed another big body for the stretch run. Collins impressed Nets officials during a workout in L.A. with assistant coach Eric Hughes, particularly with his conditioning. It was a basketball decision, the only kind Collins ever wanted made about him.
Collins is back, which transitions to that question that someday we will wonder why we ever had to ask: Is the NBA ready for him?
"I think it's ready," Jazz forward Richard Jefferson, Collins' friend and former teammate in New Jersey, told SI.com. "I won't say it's not a big deal, because it takes courage to come out. But I don't care what anyone does in his off time. Jason is a great guy; there are a ton of bad guys in the NBA. I don't care what it is they do, either. The only time is if it affects me as an individual or affects us winning. Dennis Rodman was one of the most absurd players in the world, but he helped [the Bulls] win games, so Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen respected him. What he does is his business."
There will be the dissenters, the Jonathan Vilma's, the athletes who have conjured up a reality where an openly gay player will be unable to restrain himself in the showers. There will be anonymous quotes from players and coaches citing the potential for distraction, the new codeword for intolerance. But they will eventually become anomalies, rarer and rarer in a world that becomes more progressive by the minute. Consider this: Michael Sam -- the Missouri Tigers defensive end who revealed he was gay earlier this month -- has been out to his teammates for almost a year. And that group of 18- to 22-year-olds, by all accounts, couldn't have cared less.
"When you talk about younger players in the NBA, they have grown up in a different era," Jefferson said. "If you grew up in the 40's, you will have a different mind set than someone who grew up in the 60's, if you grew up in the 80's, you more open minded than someone who grew up in the 70's. Today's young players have seen John Amaechi, [Collins] and Sam. They have been seeing these stories since high school. It's not as a big a deal for them."
The media frenzy is coming. There is nothing the Nets, the NBA or Jason Collins can do to stop it. The Nets will play in L.A., Portland, Denver and Milwaukee before heading home next week, and Collins will be swarmed by reporters at every stop. It comes with the territory. Collins is a pioneer, breaking one of the last barriers in professional sports. It's a big deal now. Someday, it won't be.