LOS ANGELES -- Last Thursday night, at the Four Seasons in San Francisco, Nets head coach Jason Kidd met with a club official about the possibility of acquiring the first openly gay athlete in major professional sports history. As they reviewed the ramifications of signing Jason Collins -- specifically, the distractions, that nefarious but nebulous adversary of coaches everywhere -- a serious expression crossed Kidd's face, familiar to any point guard ever charged with halting him in the open floor. "This is historic," Kidd said. "It's like Jackie Robinson." He sounded more determined than daunted.
Kidd has mishandled some decisions in his first season as a head coach, but he recognized a Branch Rickey moment when it materialized. The next morning, in a team meeting at the Four Seasons before a game against the Warriors, Kidd told the Nets they were considering Collins. Players were encouraged to recall the biopic 42, reflecting on the ways that Robinson's teammates in Brooklyn helped and hindered his quest to integrate baseball. "There were a lot of guys nodding their heads," said a Nets source at the meeting. "They wanted to do this."
A little more than 48 hours later, Collins was at Staples Center, in the midst of a pre-game mosh pit. The Nets welcomed him back to the NBA with as many playful forearm shivers as they could throw, toasting the occasion while lightening the mood. After 10 months of training -- running five-mile trails with 30-pound weights strapped to his chest -- and waiting for the phone to ring, Collins was one of the guys again.
Early in the second quarter, he rose from the bench and strolled to the scorers' table, for his 714th NBA game and first as an openly gay man. Barely a murmur swept across his hometown crowd. Since April, when he came out in Sports Illustrated, Collins has made many public appearances. Finally, he was taking the stage he cared about most.
He entered to polite applause and clapped twice himself. On his first defensive possession, he jarred the ball from opposing center Chris Kaman, leading to a steal and a fast break. Later, he dove on the floor to dig out a rebound, and in the fourth quarter he back-tapped a missed free throw by Andrei Kirilenko that set up a Paul Pierce three-pointer. The Nets won 108-102, and as Collins walked to the locker room afterward he spotted his twin brother, Jarron. They pointed at each other. "I know I can play in the NBA," Collins said. "I think I showed that tonight." He went scoreless with two rebounds and five fouls in 10 minutes, but Kidd trusted him with the game on the line.
Anyone expecting more electrifying highlights from Collins probably just started following his career last spring. He is a screener by trade who has subsisted for 12 years in the NBA mainly because he is willing to use his 7-foot, 255-pound frame as a giant traffic cone. He stands stationary next to the key, absorbing blows from opposing power forwards hurtling at full speed, so more skilled teammates can curl around him for open jumpers. His pain is their glory. "I don't care about scoring," Collins said. "I care about helping my teammates get open and making their job[s] easier." His favorite part of Sunday night was hearing Lakers point guard Jordan Farmar complain to referees that he set an illegal pick.
Kidd was a beneficiary of those brick-wall screens for six-and-a-half years in New Jersey, Joe Johnson for three years in Atlanta, Kevin Garnett and Pierce for another season in Boston. United in Brooklyn, they found themselves perfectly positioned to set the ultimate screen for Collins. Of course, general manager Billy King had to extend the contract, and owner Mikhail Prokhorov had to sign off. But NBA teams follow the whims of their stars. This move came from the guts of the locker room. Pierce called Collins "inspiring." Garnett claimed it would be "in a sense racist" to exclude him. Deron Williams said that if Missouri undergrads could support a gay player then pros should do the same.
"It doesn't matter your race, gender or sexuality, because it's about being part of a team and caring for one another," Pierce said. "That's all that matters at the end of the day. Every guy in here does their own thing and so be it. It's great to have him here to open up the doors for so many athletes."
The Nets have been pilloried for spending too much money on too many veterans, but those pricey headliners are the ones who endorsed Collins, distractions be damned. Familiarity diminishes prejudice and the Nets knew Collins better than the clubs that passed on him. Williams and Kirilenko played with his brother. Brook Lopez worked out with him at Stanford. Nets execs still reminisce about the day they traded him in 2008. Collins actually played for the team that very night because they were short-handed and the swap hadn't been announced yet. The Nets were so moved they ran the first play for Collins, a back screen to set up a short jumper, and he nailed it. Memories overwhelm hang-ups.
Still, the Nets would have signed Glen "Big Baby" Davis to fortify their front-court Sunday. But when it became clear that Davis was bound for the Clippers, the Nets acted quickly. They signed Collins on Sunday morning and taught him a few plays during a walk-through at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Williams ribbed him about his notoriously ragged golf game. "He just has to be himself," Kidd cautioned, though Collins has already taken care of that. "Life is so much better for me," he said. "I don't have to hide who I am." He spoke by phone with Robbie Rogers, an openly gay soccer player, and Rick Welts, the openly gay president of the Warriors. He pulled up to Staples at 3:30 p.m. PT in his silver Lincoln Navigator and promptly took a physical. He wore No. 46, which he will soon trade for his preferred 98, in memory of the year Matthew Shepard was murdered.
Collins is on a 10-day contract, the opposite of a max deal. He couldn't be more different than the typical 10-day -- young, anonymous, and fresh out of the D-League --but the stakes are the same. After a week-and-a-half, he can be released or signed for another 10 days. After that, he must be released or inked for the remainder of the season.
He is done making history. Now he's just trying to make the team.