Jason Collins seemed disturbed, and a tad embarrassed, by the amount of attention he received as a 35-year-old center on a 10-day contract logging 11 minutes against the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday night.
As soon as Collins, the first publicly acknowledged gay player in a major sport, signed with the Brooklyn Nets, I looked forward to seeing him play—and, yes, it feels odd admitting that. It wasn't exactly appointment viewing, but a curiosity nagged at me enough that I looked up tip-off time and checked my watch through the course of the day.
I had seen Collins play countless times, both on TV and in person, but I'd never made a specific point to watch him. He's a 7-footer who communicates well, doesn't need to touch the ball to feel involved and is content to set screens and do a few minutes of yeoman's work in hopes it will produce box score numbers under someone else's name that tilt the outcome in his team's favor. I've always appreciated his intelligence and unselfishness, but let's face it, swallowing your pride to draw an NBA paycheck isn't up there on the scale of extraordinary human achievement.
Walking out onto a theater-lit court before nearly 20,000 as the first of anything, however, is. Or it feels as if it should be, especially when it's something as socially volatile as being a homosexual in the macho world of men's professional sports.
I don't really know the level of courage that requires, and neither do you, gay or otherwise. That's the problem in giving it the appropriate weight; there's only one person who knows and he's not interested in putting it on a scale.
But should it be a big deal? Is celebrating Collins' 11 minutes on the Staples Center floor as an achievement comparable to walking on the moon as wrongheaded as believing his sexuality violates some human law?
I reached out to John Amaechi, a five-year NBA veteran who acknowledged he was gay in 2007, four years after his retirement. Amaechi now works as a broadcaster of NBA games in the United Kingdom and an advocate of gay rights on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. He stayed in touch with Collins as he waited for his shot at returning to the league. What importance did he place on Sunday's events?
"I wasn't too concerned about the game," Amaechi said by phone from England. "It was the middle of the night over here. As he said, I was worried about his timing and how he'd play more than anything else. A crowd in L.A., or pretty much any major city in the U.S., wasn't going to boo him off the floor so I wasn't worried about that."
So there it was—validation that this was far too much attention for a 35-year-old center on a 10-day contract. Only Amaechi didn't stop there.
"The vast majority of people‚and we now know it's a vast majority because of the Gallup polls—are embarrassed that it's 2014 and there are still people out there that treat other people's sexuality as a concern," Amaechi said. "But I rebuff those who say it shouldn't be a big deal by simply pointing southwest. To Arizona."
Amaechi was referring to the proposed law sitting on Arizona governor Jan Brewer's desk, awaiting her approval. The law, which Brewer is expected to veto, (update: she did) would allow business owners to refuse service to gays and lesbians if they could prove doing so violated their religious principles. If passed, it would mean Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver, should he feel compelled, could go way beyond not signing Collins to a contract because of his sexuality. He could prohibit him from buying a ticket to watch the Suns play. (Not that he would.)
The mindset of the Arizona lawmakers was not evident in the Staples Center on Sunday night.
The response from the crowd and players was so tepid that I couldn't help but immediately be amused at how much had been written and said in anticipation of the moment, along with my own curiosity. With all the Hollywood types in the building, the chance of an over-exuberant reaction seemed plausible, but while the friendly smattering of applause was certainly more than the typical opposing sub might garner, it was well short of thunderous.
Collins took his place next to the Lakers' center, Chris Kaman, who said, "What's up, big fella?" and then passed on a hello to Jason's twin brother Jarron, one of Kaman's former teammates with the Clippers.
No doubt, as everyone from Kobe Bryant to commissioner Adam Silver has noted, the night represents a watershed event for those who have feared reprisal for acknowledging who they are. Amaechi said he knows of a Division I basketball player who has been thinking of "coming out" to his team who tuned in to see how Collins fared.
"He watched with bated breath," Amaechi said. "It was the most important game of his life."
What that player failed to see and the highlights didn't show, however, was the most important place of Collins' acceptance: in the locker room, among his teammates.
"There were a massive number of myths that exploded," Amaechi said. "One of them was not seeing nine straight men run screaming from the locker room."
I never expected that to happen, even though I know there are people in the league—players, coaches, executives—who believe homosexuality is immoral. They would play with and against Collins and perhaps hang out with him socially, but they are convinced his lifestyle is a choice and a vice, the same way someone chooses to smoke or do drugs.
I have yet to meet anyone, however, who would take a public stand against him and suffer the potential consequences. The NBA, by and large, is not filled with individuals who value social advocacy above the chance to be a millionaire. Few places are.
I still felt silly seeing Collins look as he always has and wondering exactly why I expected anything different. I especially had to laugh hearing the breathless description of otherwise mundane contributions. The subliminal message: Look, a gay man can box out! He can foul hard and dive on the floor!
Collins' tip-out of a missed free throw that eventually led to a fourth-quarter three-pointer was described as some master stroke, as if slapping a rebound out toward half-court that a teammate snared and then swung to another teammate for a three-pointer was a rare sort of genius.
Granted, to write about the events surrounding an openly gay athlete when you're not gay feels akin to writing about racial prejudice when you're not a minority. There's the how-would-you-know card ready to be played by anyone in possession of one, along with the fear that saying or writing something perceived as insensitive could cost a writer or analyst his or her job.
So why address the topic? Maybe because a field or court, for me, has long been an egalitarian oasis where how you dressed, talked or looked melted away if you could play. Maybe because I suspect I'm not alone in sorting out how not to pay undue attention to something with a spotlight on it. Or maybe because Collins' willingness to be who he is reminded me to do the same. I'm someone who loves the game of basketball—and appreciates anyone who can play it well, in whatever nuanced way that might be.
I'd prefer it not be any more complicated than that. Much like Collins, I've come to accept that sometimes it is.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.