LOS ANGELES -- At the end of every season, NBA players report to their practice facility one last time, for an exit interview with their coach and general manager. It is a somber event for 29 teams, and especially a team with a $100 million payroll that has just been swept out of the playoffs. Lakers forward Metta World Peace had his exit interview Monday with head coach Mike D'Antoni and general manager Mitch Kupchak to discuss his performance and status. He wore a bright blue Cookie Monster T-shirt for the occasion. Only after careful deliberation did he decide against the matching pants and hat. "You should be free to act and do what you want to do, as long as it's not violent," World Peace said. "I came here in a Cookie monster shirt because I wanted to. I was going to wear the pants and the hat, too, but I thought you guys would judge me. And I don't watch Mitch to judge me. But I should have worn it. You should be free to do and act how you want to act."
World Peace was not talking only about Cookie Monster couture. He was responding to a question about Jason Collins, a 12-year NBA veteran, who announced Monday in Sports Illustrated that he is gay. The quote from World Peace reached the blogs because he sounded typically daffy, comparing himself to a pioneer for the simple reason that he happened to be wearing a shirt with a picture of a Sesame Street character. But with World Peace, there is usually a sliver of wisdom hidden beneath all the folly, and he was revealing in his own way why the NBA is the right place for the first openly gay active male athlete in a major American sports league. The NBA embraces all kinds, including a defensive stopper from Queensbridge who used to drink cognac at halftime in Chicago, charged into the stands in Detroit, and thanked his psychiatrist for helping him win a championship in Los Angeles, which led to an unlikely second career as a spokesman for mental health issues. "It is reflective of society," said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. "The NBA has always been open-minded. I think it will continue to be so."
Different sports foster different values that evolve into different cultures. In football, you hear about the need to be disciplined. In basketball, you hear about the need to be free. In football, players camouflage their personalities, because 11 must work as one. In basketball, players showcase their identities, because one often carries five. The institutions are as different as Tom Brady and Chris "Birdman" Andersen. "Be you," NBA coaches tell their players, a kind of league-wide mantra. Ty Lawson drives. Steph Curry shoots. Rajon Rondo passes. Tyson Chandler dunks. Only a fool would try to change them. For 12 years, Collins screened. His role might have seemed frivolous to those who didn't have to chase guards around his 7-0, 255-pound physique. Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and the old New Jersey Nets reached two NBA Finals bounding off those screens. Be you? "Twin," as Collins was known in Jersey, seemed like an expert. But only now has he completed the job.
"When you're holding things in, you get this unnecessary stress to your heart, to your mind," World Peace said. "When you release it and talk about it, you feel better. That's how it is with anything -- coming out if you're gay, or having a mental issue, or another stigma. It's important for people to say what they want, as long as they're respectful. You feel better." World Peace's sentiments were echoed throughout the NBA on Monday, though in different terms. "I'm proud of Jason," said Clippers guard Chauncey Billups. "I'm proud that he feels comfortable enough in his own skin to be who he is and come out. Now I'm pretty sure he feels free and can live a little bit. The world is different now. This is what the world is today. With the media, and all the different outlets of social media, I'm proud that he had the courage to do it."
Donny Marshall, a former NBA forward who played with Collins in New Jersey, was at the gym Monday morning when he heard someone ask, "Why now?" Marshall, raised by an Irish-American mother and African-American father, looked up. "My first reaction, coming from a mixed-race family, was 'Why not now?'" Marshall said. "If this is who you are, why not let people know you are?" He thought about John Amaechi, a teammate in Cleveland, who came out after he retired. "I think most people fear what they don't know and it's awesome that Jason can be that instrument for educating people," Marshall added. "He's a beautiful person and I love the fact that he found the courage to let everyone know who he really is." Marshall spoke Monday morning with Kidd, who had already talked to Collins. "Your teammates are your family members, you would hope, but for sure your teammates are the first ones who think to accept you," Marshall said. "It's the rest of society, the rest of the fans, the onlookers who are slow to accept it."
Many around the league were inspired but most sounded indifferent. "I'm not sure I had a reaction," said Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, who spent two seasons with Collins in Atlanta. "Everybody has their own personal lives. Everybody goes home to their families. I wasn't surprised but I also wasn't expecting it. I was like, 'Oh, okay.'" Another former Hawk, guard Kirk Hinrich, was no more alarmed. "It's really not significant to me," he said. "It doesn't really change what kind of person he is. He's a good guy. And that's just who he is." The most critical comments came from an NFL player, Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace, via Twitter: "All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys SMH," Wallace wrote. The NBA is hardly immune to insensitivity, either. Two years ago, Kobe Bryant was fined for directing a homophobic slur at a referee, and Joakim Noah for shouting one at a fan. They happen to be two of the most cosmopolitan players in the league. Bryant quickly apologized, and this season, he upbraided a fan on Twitter for using the same slur.
"Jason is going to make a huge impact on a lot of people, especially young people, not only to speak their minds but to come out," said Lakers point guard Steve Nash. "Of course detractors aren't going to say anything right now because no one wants to look like the jerk. I don't think it's fair to sit here and say it will be a walk in the park and he'll be everybody's best friend. But at the same time this is a really important issue and a really important time and somebody has finally taken a role." Nash expressed hope that Collins will remain in the NBA, hardly a sure bet. His contract expires in July and he averaged only 1.1 points and 1.6 rebounds for the Wizards this season. Five general managers told SI's Chris Mannix that Collins's sexuality will have nothing to do with whether they sign him. They're just not sure if he can produce anymore. Also, because of his tenure in the league, Collins will command $1,399,507 in his next contract, $884,293 paid by the team. A second-round pick makes the minimum salary, $490,000.
"The only question I would have of a player is, 'Can he help us win?'" said Lawrence Frank, who coached Collins with the Nets. "That's what matters. This is not going to prevent anyone from signing Jason. Twin was the master of the intangible. He is in great shape. Every team he has been on, they say the same things, that he is a professional veteran who can guard the post and be a positive force in the locker room. We are running out of those guys in the league. He is going to be on a team next year. It took great courage to do what he did and he should still be on a team."
World Peace made one other point that wasn't amusing enough to dent the blogs. He said, "I've got gay friends, gay people that work for me. It's not anything out of the norm." In the NBA, more than the NFL and Major League Baseball, players hire assistants and publicists, stylists and chefs, trainers and psychologists, to help extend their careers, organize their lives and grow their brands. They are constantly flanked by specialists with far different backgrounds than their own. Many are straight. Some are gay. "I think the NBA will react very, very well," said Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo. "I hope that we would react even better than the rest of society....I think we can handle it all better.