LOS ANGELES — My daughter has to do an individual oral presentation for her second-grade class every other week.
This week, she needs to read a biography and then share insight into why that person is important and worth studying. She picked an autobiography by Bethany Hamilton, who lost her left arm in a shark attack at 13 but persevered to achieve her dream of becoming a professional surfer.
The instructions for the oral presentation include boxes to mark the person’s accomplishments. My daughter gushed that Hamilton fit almost every category besides the simple one of “sports”…things like “leadership,” “new ideas,” “being first,” and the one she ultimately marked with the biggest check:
Jason Collins’ entire story is outside the box, but on Sunday, it restated lessons for adults everywhere. After signing a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets, Collins became the first openly gay player to compete in any of the four major North American professional sports leagues.
In so doing, he cemented himself as a story that can never be marked only as “sports.”
Collins plopped down Sunday evening for a news conference with an official Brooklyn warm-up shirt on, fresh out of his physical exam to verify him as capable of playing NBA basketball. His left wrist was wrapped tightly by medical tape, and his words made clear that he would feel accomplished on this night only if he learned and executed the Nets’ defensive coverages properly.
“Focusing on the task at hand and not thinking about history,” Collins said before playing 11 minutes in the Nets’ 108-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Collins really tried, amid all the sweeping pregame questions, to stay tunnel-visioned on his return to the NBA, where he played 12 years in relative anonymity. It may have been his straight college roommate marching in a gay pride parade that clarified he needed to tell his story, but Jason Collins has long prided himself on being the consummate NBA professional.
The Nets indeed did not bring Collins aboard as a publicity stunt or a sociology experiment. Nets general manager Billy King’s statement read: “We needed to increase our depth inside, and with his experience and size, we felt he was the right choice for a 10-day contract.”
The reality is that Collins would still be unemployed if the Nets had decided to take on the heavy luxury-tax penalty that would’ve come with trading for Lakers power forward Jordan Hill last week. And the Nets had prioritized Glen Davis to sign instead of Collins, but Davis opted to join the Los Angeles Clippers.
So Collins woke up at 8:15 a.m. Pacific time Sunday having missed several calls from his agent and a couple of text messages from Nets coach Jason Kidd, Collins’ former teammate.
It was his day, the one Collins believed would come despite no NBA club signing him since his first-person Sports Illustrated piece in April announcing he is gay.
“I always try to stay positive and try to control what I can control,” Collins said about sitting out so long. Then he added the context that is so important to him: “That’s part of being professional.”
Kidd addressed Collins’ signing before the game in explicit basketball terms, saying: “Win ballgames. That’s what it’s all about.”
How stressed was Kidd about being the first coach to have an openly gay player? Well, he was actually whistling as he strolled down the Staples Center corridor toward the visiting locker room.
Kidd is clearly comfortable with Collins. So are Nets teammates Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, who played with Collins on the Boston Celtics last season. So is Deron Williams, longtime teammates with Jarron Collins and a friend to Jason. So is Joe Johnson, who spent three years with Collins with the Atlanta Hawks and back in April called him “one of the best teammates I’ve ever had.”
“In this locker room,” Williams said of Collins’ arrival, “it wasn’t a big deal.”
It’s a stable locker room crew more capable than any of keeping this business concentrated on basketball.
It’s just that too many people outside that locker room are at such varying degrees of comfort with themselves and those around them when it comes to sexual orientation that the broader ramifications are unavoidable.
Collins and the Nets can and should be focused on their basketball jobs. Doesn’t matter—the layers reveal themselves organically now.
For example: The Nets’ motto for this season, “Are You Ready?,” suddenly jumps from being simplistic marketing to resonating in a substantive way.
The game’s essence has never been limited to the court.
Almost exactly a year ago, Collins was at Staples Center doing the same largely anonymous job he has for so long. A fill-in defensive presence at his best, Collins was with the Celtics and came in to guard then-Lakers center Dwight Howard. Collins played just five minutes.
The lasting memory of that game was a sense that something greater felt right because the Lakers had beaten the Celtics in L.A.'s first game since team owner Jerry Buss’ death. The games just seem to figure out ways to give us more.
Collins, 35, said this Staples Center setting could not have been more perfect for him: to drive from home, down the 405 and over on the 10, and play in his hometown…to come back to the Nets, who in their history have had only two players (Buck Williams and Mike Gminski) play more games for them than Collins.
The Nets won this one Sunday night. Collins got modest applause when his name was announced in the first quarter, and he played the fewest minutes among the 10 Nets who appeared in the game.
Collins did what he does: He talked and pointed and prioritized defensive communication for his team, and on offense he set screen after screen, legal and illegal. One of his two rebounds was a clever tap-out that pushed back against a Lakers rally and set up Paul Pierce’s three-pointer for a 95-86 Nets lead.
Collins had no points and five fouls but easily did enough little things for him to declare firmly after the game: “I know that I can play in the NBA. I think I showed that tonight.”
But even in that postgame news conference, a simple plaid shirt on and a big black watch now in place of that tape around his wrist, Collins remained reluctant to shift the focus off the game and his job. He cited the names of openly gay athletes and followed up immediately with the following umbrella statement:
“It’s about being an athlete.”
Thing is, Collins was a happier athlete Sunday night than he was for those other 12 years in the NBA—or the 30-odd total years he has been playing basketball.
He didn’t have to say so afterward. He had already said so before the game in one of his few open moments, explaining how “incredible” it has been since he said what he said back in April.
“Life is so much better for me,” he said. “I don’t have to hide who I am. I just have to be my normal self.”
We live in a mark-your-box kind of world, but Collins’ moment of history is a reminder that we flow far beyond categories when we find the courage to smile in our own skin.
Asked his advice for others, Collins offered the following message:
“Be your true authentic self. Never be afraid or ashamed to be your true authentic self.”