Jason Collins checked in against the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 23 with 10 minutes and 28 seconds remaining in the second quarter. MarShon Brooks was shooting free throws, and as Collins walked to his spot beneath the bucket, a little extra applause rippled through the Staples Center.
At that point, it was clear Collins would have more supporters than detractors among fans—even on the road.
There'll surely be a few bigots who try to shout down the steady march of progress, but Collins has been an NBA player for more than a decade. He can handle a few hecklers.
More importantly, we learned in the lead-up and aftermath of Collins' landmark debut that his peers—at least the ones willing to offer their opinions—roundly support him. The backing, encouragement and, in some cases, admiration Collins earned from his fellow NBA players stands as a sign of society's evolution.
Just a Basketball Player
By and large, players throughout the league focused on Collins' reputation as a team player and locker-room leader. He's tough, physical and committed to winning. It's no surprise that some of the biggest names focused on those aspects of Collins in their supportive remarks.
“I just think about basketball,” Durant said. “He's a physical, physical center that plays his tail off for his team. And that's all we should be worried about is just how he plays basketball ... He's been looking for his chance to get in the league and now he's back.”
Asked if he thinks NBA players will accept Collins, Durant said yes.
“I think so,” Durant said. “From what I've heard from all the guys that know him, great teammate, put his body on the line for the team. I can roll with anybody like that.”
Dwyane Wade was even more blunt in his assessment of Collins' value:
Dwyane Wade on Jason Collins: "One thing I know about him is he fouled very hard.... Welcome back."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) February 23, 2014
In a way, comments like those are the most encouraging. Wade and Durant don't directly address the issue of Collins' bravery or symbolic importance. In focusing solely on the big man's basketball value, guys like Wade and Durant presage the way things will be in the not-so-distant future.
Soon enough, a player's sexual orientation will be completely irrelevant.
And if the comments Deron Williams made to Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN's TrueHoop are any indication, it seems many players are already tired of sexuality—a topic completely unrelated to basketball—being a topic of conversation: "It's 2014, you know. Michael Sam just came out, his teammates welcomed him. They're in college. It's time for the NBA as well."
Never one to overcomplicate things, Kevin Garnett told Tim Bontemps of the New York Post: “I think it’s important that anybody who has capabilities and skill level to have a chance to do something he’s great at or one of the things he’s good at."
The things Collins is good at were on display in his debut against the Lakers, per B/R's Kevin Ding:
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.
In the interest of giving progress a little extra push, it's good that so many players are simply focusing on the aspects of Collins that matter most: He's a professional athlete joining a team because he has something to contribute.
And Yet, Something More
At the same time, though, it's also refreshing to hear other players openly praise Collins as a trailblazer. And even if the Nets' recent 10-day signee doesn't want to view himself as any kind of hero, it probably still feels good to hear Kobe Bryant say things like this, via Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports:
There is a kid out there who … is going to say, 'Jason gave me strength in dark moments to be brave. He gave me courage to step up and accept myself for who I am despite what others might be saying or the public pressures. He gave me strength and bravery to be myself.'
We misuse the term "hero" in sports all the time. Guys who hit game-winners or fight through injury wind up with that label because they come as close to heroism as the constraints of professional sports allow. Generally speaking, nobody playing a game for a living is a real hero for anything he does on the court. If we're honest about what sports are and what they actually mean to society, the best we can usually say is: "What Durant or LeBron James or Bryant did in some particular game was entertaining."
These are games we're talking about, after all. There are no heroes in games.
But sometimes, someone like Collins uses those games as a platform to really, truly do something meaningful. To the extent it's possible to be a genuine hero in professional sports, Collins is one. Don't take my word for it; take Bryant's.
And what story of humans being kind to other humans would be complete without Pau Gasol, a man always on the short list of the NBA's all-time "good dudes"?
Richard Jefferson, like Garnett, actually played with Collins. His thoughts on his former teammate's greatest quality nicely combined the two avenues most of the discourse on Collins has taken. In one comment to Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated, Jefferson highlighted Collins' determination—a trait that helped him fight his way back into the league as a basketball player and enabled him to stand as a symbol for change:
Richard Jefferson--Collins friend and ex-teammate in NJ--was thrilled for Collins: "His attitude never changed. He was determined."— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) February 23, 2014
Collins is an athlete, a symbol and, in a very real sense, a hero. He'll continue to receive ovations when he enters games for as long as his career continues.
Based on the recent outpouring of love and support from his peers, the applause he's earned in NBA circles will take even longer to die down.