Jason Collins is, indeed, a trailblazer.
No, not a Portland Trail Blazer, though he could be once his current contract with the Brooklyn Nets expires.
Rather, Collins, as the first openly gay man to play in one of the top four North American professional sports leagues (i.e., the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL), is charting a path forward for those who will inevitably follow in his giant footsteps.
But as much as Collins did to advance the cause of LGBT rights by virtue of simply stepping onto the court against the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 23, his return to life as an active NBA player may be short-lived.
The contract to which the Nets signed Collins isn't a particularly lucrative one, relatively speaking. In fact, the deal itself won't even guarantee that Collins has a job in pro basketball for the rest of the 2013-14 season, which runs through mid-April.
At the moment, Collins is operating on the cheapest and shortest of terms allowable under the league's collective bargaining agreement: a 10-day contract.
In essence, a 10-day contract is a midseason tryout that can be extended to a player when a team has a hole to fill and a roster spot (by rule, an NBA team cannot carry more than 15 players at a time) with which to do so. If a squad loses a player to injury, that team's management will often use a 10-day contract to sign someone whose skill set is comparable to that of the player lost.
In the Nets' case, Collins was brought in to provide a dose of size, toughness, rebounding and veteran leadership to make up for the loss of Brook Lopez, who, like Collins, is a seven-foot twin who played his college ball at Stanford. Lopez, an All-Star in 2013, fell victim to a season-ending foot injury (his second in the last three years) in late December.
"The decision to sign Jason was a basketball decision," said Nets general manager Billy King on the occasion of Collins' signing (via NBA.com). "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."
Brooklyn, though, wasn't immediately compelled to sign a replacement. Like most teams dealing with a major loss, the Nets spent some time evaluating the rest of their roster to determine whether adding another center was actually necessary.
The team's patience paid off. Head coach Jason Kidd, who retired from the NBA as a player at the end of last season, devised a system with the players he had on hand that proved to be effective in pulling the Nets out of their early-season slump.
The decision makers in Brooklyn's front office had other, more technical reasons to hold off on signing Collins until they did. Teams can't begin offering 10-day contracts until Jan. 5 (or the first business day thereafter) of a particular campaign. Those deals are guaranteed to last at least three games, even if that entails keeping the player in question employed for more than 10 days.
Per league rules, a team can only sign the same player to two 10-day contracts in a single season. Once those pacts have expired, the organization must bring the player on for the remainder of the schedule if it wants to retain him.
Chances are, the Nets wanted to explore all of their options before starting the clock on Collins. They were actively in search of a more substantial addition to their frontcourt in the days and hours leading up to the Feb. 20 trade deadline.
According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, Brooklyn had been in talks to acquire Los Angeles Lakers forward Jordan Hill just before the window closed. The Nets would've absorbed Hill's $3.5 million salary into a $5.25 million disabled player exception issued to the team by the NBA in light of Lopez's aforementioned foot injury.
Such a move would've cost Brooklyn a pretty penny. Aside from whatever the Lakers were demanding in return (i.e., a second-round pick in the NBA draft), Hill would've cost the Nets approximately $17 million in luxury-tax penalties. Under the collective bargaining agreement, the league penalizes teams for exceeding a certain threshold of player salaries. According to Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver, this year's luxury-tax line is set at $71.7 million, with every dollar spent beyond that incurring an additional, graduated fee.
And since the Nets' payroll was already in excess of $102 million—by far the largest figure in the league—adding Hill's contract to the pile would've only ballooned their expected luxury-tax payments to an unreasonable degree.
Not that Brooklyn couldn't have afforded it. The team is owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who checked in as the 69th-richest person on Earth when Forbes last put together its annual list.
Still, King opted for the more fiscally sound option in Collins once the trade deadline had come and gone. The salaries attached to 10-day contracts, while negotiable, typically tilt toward a prorated portion of the league minimum. That minimum ranges anywhere from $490,180 for a rookie to $1,448,490 for those with 10 or more years of NBA service under their belts. As a 13-year veteran of the league, Collins fits comfortably into the latter portion of the minimum-salary spectrum.
Assuming Collins' contract is, indeed, for the minimum, it won't cost the Nets an arm and a leg to keep him around. He seems as good a fit as any to stay in Brooklyn for the rest of the season, too. He began his pro career as a teammate of Kidd's with the then-New Jersey Nets and previously teamed with current Nets players Joe Johnson (with the Atlanta Hawks) and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce (with the Boston Celtics). Collins' twin brother, Jarron, also played alongside Brooklyn's Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko when all three were with the Utah Jazz.
The experience that those veterans bring to the table, both as individuals and as previous acquaintances and colleagues of Collins, should help to foster a healthy locker-room atmosphere that's properly equipped to handle whatever undue pressure may be imposed by the media, in light of the story that Collins' milestone represents, from here on out.
From a business standpoint, Collins' presence has already been a boon to Brooklyn's bottom line. His No. 98 jersey—chosen to honor the memory of Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student who was beaten to death in 1998 for being gay—is the top seller on NBA.com.
Which is impressive, given that Collins' actual impact on the court will hardly be commensurate with that figure. He's averaged a modest 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds in 20.7 minutes per game over the course of his NBA career. He'd be lucky to duplicate even those numbers now, at the age of 35, in a limited role with the Nets. In his first game back, Collins registered as many turnovers (two) and more fouls (five) than rebounds (two) without scoring a single point in 11 minutes of action.
Collins won't be without other career options if the Nets decide to let him go. Should that happen, he'll be eligible to sign with any of the NBA's 29 other teams, assuming those interested in bringing him aboard have empty roster spots at their disposal.
Even if Collins' life as a basketball player is nearly over, his post-playing career as an advocate for the LGBT community might just be getting started. Collins came out in a Sports Illustrated exclusive in April 2013 and spent the subsequent nine-plus months making the rounds through the media circuit and advocating for gay rights, in addition to preparing his mind and body for a return to the NBA.
Clearly, there is and will be life after basketball for Jason Collins. With any luck, that life will have to wait while he continues to live out his dream in the NBA.
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