Setting Picks, Breaking Barriers

March 03, 2014

Last Thursday night, at the Four Seasons in San Francisco, Nets coach Jason Kidd met with a club official about the possibility of acquiring the first openly gay male athlete in major American pro sports. As they reviewed the ramifications—or the more nefarious but nebulous issue, the distractions—that would come with signing center Jason Collins, a stern expression crossed Kidd's face, familiar to any point guard once 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 made some curious decisions in his rocky first season as a coach, but he recognized a Branch Rickey moment when he saw one. The next morning, in a team meeting at the hotel, Kidd said the front office was considering bringing in Collins. Players were encouraged to recall the biopic 42 and reflect on the ways Robinson's fellow Dodgers helped and hindered his quest to integrate baseball. "There were a lot of guys nodding their heads," said a source at the meeting. "They wanted to do this."

Before he became a pioneer, the 35-year-old Collins, who finished last season with the Wizards, was best known as a professional screen-setter. For 12 seasons he had planted himself atop the key, absorbing body shots from power forwards at full speed, so more skilled teammates could curl around his 7-foot frame for open jumpers. His pain was their glory. Kidd benefited from those picks for six years in New Jersey, Joe Johnson for three in Atlanta, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett last season in Boston. Now united in Brooklyn, the four found themselves in position to return the favor and set the ultimate screen for their friend.

Ten months had passed since Collins came out to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, a landmark followed by a letdown. He ran five miles a day near his home in Los Angeles, sometimes with a 30-pound vest strapped to his torso, waiting for a phone call that never came. "I can play in the NBA," Collins said to himself, but he needed more powerful voices to speak on his behalf.

The Nets have spent too much money on too many veterans, but perhaps that was the high price of progress. With the club trying to hold on to a playoff spot and in need of frontcourt reinforcements, Pierce called Collins "inspiring." Garnett claimed it would be "in a sense racist" to exclude him. Point guard Deron Williams suggested that if a college football team in Columbia, Mo., could support a gay player, then a pro basketball team in New York City should do the same. GM Billy King completed the transaction and owner Mikhail Prokhorov signed off, but nothing of significance gets accomplished in the NBA without the stars. The movement for Collins came from the guts of the locker room, and from old-timers who remember when he was traded from the Nets to Memphis in 2008 but still suited up that night because the team was shorthanded and the swap hadn't been announced.

Collins signed a 10-day contract, the kind of deal typically reserved for the young and anonymous, fresh out of the D-League. On Sunday night, while Michael Sam was at the NFL combine, Collins found himself in the middle of a pregame mosh pit at Staples Center before taking the court against the Lakers. The Nets welcomed him back to the NBA with as many forearm shivers as they could muster, toasting the occasion while lightening the mood. Williams needled him for his notoriously ragged golf swing. He was one of the guys again.

Early in the second quarter Collins checked into his 714th regular-season game and first as an openly gay man. He entered to polite applause, then crumpled 6'2" Jordan Farmar with a screen, dived on the floor to dig out a loose ball and back-tapped a missed free throw to set up a Pierce three. He went scoreless with two rebounds and five fouls in 11 minutes—a typical Collins line—but the Nets beat the Lakers 108--102 and didn't seem all that distracted.

"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. "It's great to have him here to open up the doors for so many athletes." Pee Wee Reese never put it better.

The Nets' response to the idea of bringing in Collins, the NBA's first openly gay player? "There were a lot of guys nodding their heads."

Will Collins make it easier for other athletes to come out?

Join the discussion by using #SIPointAfter and following @SI_LeeJenkins

PHOTOANN JOHANSSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (JENKINS) PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (COLLINS) ILLUSTRATION

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