Jason Collins became a cultural icon the moment he boldly stepped forward last April and declared, “I’m gay.” If he never played another minute in the NBA, never set another screen, never grabbed another rebound, his place in history would be secure.
But this was the point of the exercise, wasn’t it? To keep playing, to keep setting screens and grabbing rebounds, to be the first active, openly gay player in a major professional team sport.
This trail-blazing moment was laced with complications.
The season was over. Collins was 34 years old. His skills were declining. His contract was expiring. There were no guarantees he would play again, regardless of his sexuality.
If Collins went unsigned, the doubts would linger: Was it because he was no longer useful, in the eyes of coaches and executives? Or because he was gay?
Those questions did hover, uncomfortably, for nearly eight months, until Sunday afternoon. The Brooklyn Nets signed Collins to a 10-day contract. The NBA became the first American major sports league to welcome an openly gay player. The barrier collapsed, loudly and unambiguously.
Nets general manager Billy King called it “a basketball decision,” as if to disregard any other significance. Commissioner Adam Silver politely disputed that narrow assessment.
“While it shouldn’t be a big deal—and I understand Billy King saying, in essence, it’s just a basketball decision—it is a big deal,” Silver told Bleacher Report in a telephone interview.
Two hours later, Collins, now 35, would be greeted by a packed room of reporters in Los Angeles—the first 14th man to hold a pregame press conference. When he checked into the game against the Lakers, Collins received a warm ovation, a rare honor for an opposing player (albeit one who was born nearby, in Northridge).
“I’m excited for Jason,” said Silver, who texted his congratulations to Collins earlier in the day. “I’m honored, in so many ways, that the NBA presented to him a comfortable environment in which he both felt comfortable coming out last April, and one in which an NBA team felt comfortable signing him based on his ability, and in no way to make a political statement.”
History was unfolding Sunday, but Silver quickly noted, “I think we all have to be a little cautious about congratulating ourselves, because it’s also long overdue.”
Silver meant that in the broader sense, that it has taken professional sports too long to reach this threshold. Whether it was overdue for a team to sign Collins is a more complicated matter.
Collins had hoped to sign with a team last summer, or at least in time for training camp last fall. The NBA season started without him, for the first time since he was drafted in 2001. The doubts began to percolate.
“You don’t want to speculate—I don’t go there,” Collins told The New York Times' Harvey Araton in October. He also said, pointedly, “I feel there are players in the league right now that, quite frankly, I’m better than.”
There were rumblings at the time that some teams did not want to deal with the hype and the media crush that would accompany Collins. Whether any team opposed signing him on moral or religious grounds is unclear.
NBA officials monitored the situation with interest, but at a distance. The league generally does not involve itself in the basketball affairs of individual franchises. Silver also kept apprised of Collins’ status through his agent, Arn Tellem, a longtime friend.
“I felt pretty confident that the decision up until now has been about basketball, in part because I’ve talked to so many teams directly about this situation,” Silver said. “So I wasn’t concerned that he wasn’t going to get signed.”
Indeed, several team executives predicted last fall Collins would be picked up later in the season, once teams had a chance to assess their personnel and perhaps after injuries had thinned the big-man ranks.
Roster spots began loosening up as the Feb. 20 trading deadline approached. The Nets, who opened the season with the maximum 15 players, trimmed their roster to 13. They had been in need of another center since losing Brook Lopez to a foot injury in late December.
“I was hopeful that the right opportunity would present itself,” Silver said. “But at the same time, on behalf of the league office, I did not think it was our role to be more active in terms of a basketball decision.”
The league did assure teams it would provide whatever support was necessary to handle the added media crush or any other concerns. Silver is convinced, however, there will be no issues among NBA players, coaches and fans.
“I’m not concerned,” he said. “As Deron Williams said, it’s 2014. But having said that, it’s our job to always be prepared for anything.”
The NBA has prided itself as a progressive and inclusive league, welcoming every nationality, ethnicity and religion. The league has been far ahead of the other major sports in the hiring of black coaches and team executives.
The NBA was the first to hire female referees. It was also the first league with an openly gay team executive: Rick Welts, who came out in a New York Times story in 2011, when he was chief executive of the Phoenix Suns.
Welts, who worked in the league office for 17 years, is now president of the Golden State Warriors.
“That was enormously significant in the NBA community,” Silver said of Welts’ decision, adding, “I think each step incrementally makes it that much easier for the next athlete.”
Welts’ announcement helped pave the way for Collins, who in turn helped pave the way for Michael Sam, the Missouri football player and NFL prospect who came out earlier this month.
Had Collins gone unsigned, Sam would likely have been the one to break the barrier later this year.
“By no means did we see it as a race,” Silver said. “As I said, it’s a long time coming. Had it happened first in another league, I would have been proud on behalf of the entire industry.”
Collins’ debut Sunday went exactly as the Nets could have hoped. He set hard screens, dished out a bunch of fouls, scrapped for loose balls and helped secure a victory. Fans cheered. Players were supportive. History came with a collective shrug.
But there will be other nights, in other cities, where the reception might not be as kind. The Westboro Baptist Church has already threatened to picket the Nets.
Silver said it was the NBA’s duty to ensure Collins has “a comfortable and supportive environment to play in.”
“And if anyone tries to interfere with that,” he said, “we will take whatever steps are necessary.”
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @HowardBeck.