Why the Significance of Jason Collins Cannot Be Overstated

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Why the Significance of Jason Collins Cannot Be Overstated
David Zalubowski/AP Images

NEW YORK  Two hours before making his home debut as a Brooklyn Net, Jason Collins climbed onto a stage, peered into a sea of cameras and answered eight minutes of questions, both meaningful and mundane.

He was asked about his playing shape.

He was asked about his No. 98 jersey, which has been the NBA’s best seller for the last week.

He was asked about the wave of support he’s received from fans, even on the road.

He talked about the joys of setting a blindside screen.

He waxed sentimental about driving on New Jersey’s Route 17, a familiar stretch of road from his previous stint with the Nets, when they were based in the Garden State.

He mentioned a side trip to Costco, where he stocked up on home supplies.

And he assessed this most unusual phenomenon, where heJason Collins, the fourth-string center for a sixth-place teamis called upon for a daily press conference.

“I’m sort of getting used to this,” Collins said cheerfully. “Over time, it will go down.”

It has been a little more than a week since Collins signed with the Nets and became the first openly gay player in any of the four major North American sports. Interest remains high.

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

At every stop last weekin Los Angeles, Portland, Denver and MilwaukeeCollins was welcomed by inquisitive reporters and supportive fans. The media onslaught has become routine.

Then the games begin, and Collins returns to a sense of normalcy: setting hard screens, calling out switches, tussling for reboundsusually in the waning minutes of a game, as he did in Monday night’s 96-80 rout of the Chicago Bulls at Barclays Center.

When Collins is on the court, he simply fades into the scene, one of 10 players fighting for points and rebounds. And that’s the goal, isn’t it? To reach the point where a player is viewed simply for his contributions and not for his sexuality?

That is surely Collins’ hope. He has deflected every question about the historic nature of his return, repeatedly steering the discussion back to basketball.

There is a temptation to declare this is the new normal, to let the moment quietly pass, as if Collins’ presence alone means we have reached equilibrium in human rights. To shrug and move on.

This would be a mistake.

Yes, Collins broke a significant barrier last week, and in doing so demonstrated that the NBA is, and was, ready for an openly gay player. The positive response from fans has been encouraging.

But it is not about Collins now, or about the NBA. It’s about the next gay player who wants to live openly and honestly, whether he’s already in the league or if he’s a talented teenager with NBA aspirations. It’s also about the barriers that have yet to be broken in the NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball.

There are still players who fear coming out, and owners who might not draft or sign them if they do. So yes, Collins still matters and will for some time to come, even if his return has, so far, hardly created a stir.

“The idea that it’s rather boring is a good thing,” said Jim Buzinski, a co-founder of Outsports.com. “This is kind of what it should be, the reaction.”

This is a form of progress, but not the final word.

“We’re not at that point yet,” Buzinski said, “because we have one guy in the entire league, and nobody else in the other three sports.”

The significance of Collins’ return could be seen last week in Denver, where he met with the parents of Matthew Shepard, who in 1998 was murdered in an anti-gay hate crime. Collins chose the No. 98 to honor Shepard. His jersey instantly became a best-seller last week, with the NBA donating proceeds to the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

And yet the darker side of humanity also made itself felt, on social media and message boards. Some websites, including this one, turned off reader comments on stories involving Collins, to guard against the vitriol.

“There’s always going to be morons out there,” said former NBA center John Amaechi, who came out in 2007, three years after retiring as a player.

Amaechi said he receives his share of hateful emails. “But in amongst the mire, I get that one email from a kid who wants to talk about Jason and the impact that’s had on him,” he said.

Those emails reinforce why Collins’ presence is so vitala point that Amaechi made to Collins directly.

“I sent a message to him the other day that the emails I receiveI know that he’s receiving similar onesthat he should take them to heart and understand that he’s made a radical difference to people,” Amaechi said.

Every time Collins steps on the court, it sends a subtle message of comfort to those who are still struggling for acceptance.

“The truth is,” Amaechi said, “that it’s still an issue, because of what’s happening in Arizona,” where legislators tried to pass a law legalizing discrimination against gays and lesbians. “It’s still an issue because 30 to 40 percent of the homeless teenagers on the streets of New York or Chicago or Los Angeles are gaykids who have been thrown out of their house, because their parents have rejected them.”

Amaechi praised former commissioner David Stern and current commissioner Adam Silver for cultivating an openness that made Collins’ pioneering moment possible. The evolution in the public’s attitudes on sexuality also paved the way.

Indeed, had Amaechi come out 15 years ago, it would have ended his career, he said.

“I don’t think in 1999 I could have reasonably expected to get a text from the first lady or a phone call from the president,” Amaechi said. “I do think that some nod has to be given to the fact that not only sports has evolved, but in fact society, American society, has moved forward.”

So there was Collins on Monday, sitting on the Nets bench, waiting to make his debut in Brooklyn, the same borough where Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball 67 years ago.

A number of Collins’ friends and family members, including his twin Jarron Collins, were in the stands. So was Stern, who retired last month but made a point of attending this game. It took a while for the anticipated moment to arrive.

With 3:30 left in the fourth quarter and the Nets ahead by 17, the chants began: “Ja-son, Col-lins,” clap-clap, clap-clap-clap. Coach Jason Kidd finally motioned for Collins with 2:41 left, triggering a warm and enduring standing ovation. Dozens of fans aimed their phones at the court, to capture the moment.

“It was cool,” Collins said, before quickly pivoting back to basketball. “The most important thing was that we got the win.”

As Collins himself said, the storyline will eventually grow stale, and the media will move on. Yet by fielding these questions now, he is making it less likely that the next gay player will need to do the same.

Collins is expected to sign another 10-day contract on Tuesday. He is likely to stick around for the rest of the season. But at 35, his career is nearing an end. We don’t know who will be the next to step forward, or when, but there will be one.

That player will benefit from the path Collins carved, from the questions he has already answered and the unknowns he has confronted—the slow, gradual march toward the new normal.

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