If there was a surprise to any of it then the surprise was how ordinary it all was, this Sunday night that changed so much. It happened how things often happen, you blink and there is the second quarter, the ten minute mark. Rebirths are never what you think. Jason Collins was on the court after a one year absence, after the self admission he was a gay man, after waiting so long for this opportunity. It was historic as moments go even though Jason did not score a point. The human element was extraordinarily obvious, a man no longer hiding his secret as if it were shameful and accepting his truth as if he were proud: be the change you want to see in the world. Jason was a gay man. He expressed it to the world. But one wonders what is more noble, to be an athlete and to embrace the cause, or the other way around? What the cause is remains unclear. Is it equality or acceptance or just change? Or is it a 35 year old man trying to recover his career? Earlier in the morning Jason completed the business side by signing a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets after being unemployed for most of the season. Jason’s four months of waiting, fairly or unfairly, was a debt upon the league itself. It was an appearance of segregation even as segregation is a lie. Keep Jason out and you keep the issue of gay men in professional sports out. You don’t have to answer questions about sexuality and worry about distractions. But as Martin Luther King Jr. once noted, progress is not necessarily automatic. Someone has to have courage.
And yet at its foundation, this decision of the Nets had less to do with social hallmarks than with basketball realities. The end days of the season are approaching. The Nets are in desperate need of size on the interior as they march towards a possible playoff berth, this team with the highest payroll and Jason Kidd as their coach. In an odd irony to all of this, the Nets needed Jason Collins, the basketball player. Jason Collins, the gay athlete, did not need the Nets. But he wanted to play. It all made sense. That its beginning was on center stage where epic stories of myth and triumph and tragedy and romanticism have played out, where the Lakers call home, added the final layer of inevitability. Of course the Lakers would host Jason Collins. Of course they would. They would host diversity. They would host history intersecting culture and drawing a line in the sand.
Basketball is easy to understand; it is the world that is complicated. And yet there is something backwards about the past few years whereas the world’s complications have softened and the basketball world has hardened like rock. It took this long to get here. Imagine there is a door. There is a key. But the door still won’t open, someone won’t let it. Jason Collins announced he was gay on April 29, 2013. Exactly 300 days have passed since then, 300 jobless days for Jason Collins. Was it necessary? Could he have filled in when injuries befell seven footers like Al Jefferson and Tiago Splitter, Tyson Chandler, Pau Gasol, Omar Asik, Andrew Bogut, Marc Gasol, Anthony Davis. They all missed some time. But Jason was never asked to fill the void and perhaps it was a technical judgment, an unbiased view on a player’s value rather than his sexuality. Jason is 35 years old. Only a handful of players in the NBA are 35 and older. More than 400 players are younger than 35. It is the rule of Father Time being undefeated. Or maybe the risk of adding Jason Collins, the first openly gay professional athlete, to southern cities like Charlotte or San Antonio or Houston was a risk teams just did not want to take. The community backlash over religious and cultural values may have overwhelmed the product itself, dissolving the narrative. And yet for everyone who uses the my community is not ready for a gay player excuse, those same general managers do not follow their own dogma, they do not overlook sexual abusers who are dragged into court or drug offenders who are arrested in the middle of the night. For them there is a place.
Even as he was out of work, Jason could not escape his career. It was a race, a slow moving one, similar to a marathon, a long run upon steep roads. Largely unnoticed, Jason was never a star, never an offensive player nor was he a pretentious one. Game plans were never designed with Jason in mind. He was drafted by the Houston Rockets with the 18th pick and traded to the New Jersey Nets. His Nets teammate in 2001 is his Nets coach in 2014; talk about destiny. Once upon a time Jason Kidd and Jason Collins were teammates who played the Lakers for the championship. That was in 2002. They played for the title again in 2003 against the Spurs. They lost both years. In fact, the arc of Jason’s career would gravitate between good to mediocre. He played four more seasons with the Nets before he went to Memphis, then Minnesota, Atlanta, Boston and finally Washington. In the past five years he has averaged 34 games of playing time as injuries and age have been relentless enemies.
He entered the game on Sunday night and received applause, some stood. This is a tolerant community. But Los Angeles is not the rest of the world. When Magic Johnson played basketball with the HIV virus lurking as an unwanted visitor there was considerable backlash. The same may be true now. Not every NBA player is accepting of a gay teammate, just as not every NBA fan is accepting of a gay player. But the truth is gay players have played in the NBA since games first began in 1946. Jason Collins is the first athlete who has admitted it, and then, only after he had played for twelve years in the league. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said of Jason Collins, “I know everyone in the NBA family is excited for him and proud that our league fosters an inclusive and respectful environment.” Respectful is not the same as tolerant and tolerant is not the same as accepted and those are the bridges to be crossed.
Jason, who has not played in nearly a year, was true to his normal form. He made his presence felt, his size is enough to alter shots. The Nets are a middle of the pack team with a ridiculous payroll and lots of questions to be answered. Jason Kidd is still a rookie coach. Deron Williams ankles are one turn away from a lost season. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are not getting younger. The Miami Heat are better. The Indiana Pacers are deeper and younger. The Toronto Raptors are more athletic. This leaves the Nets in no-man’s land, not good enough to get to the Eastern Conference finals but better than most of the teams in the East. “I need to be a solid basketball player”, Jason Collins said before the game.
Sometimes sports is theater and sometimes sports is misery and sometimes sports is cruelty but on this night sports was history. “Never be afraid of being who you are.” That was the truest thing Jason Collins said. He knows. We want players to be interchangeable and remind us of someone else, we want one generation to mimic a past generation, we believe there is such a thing as a Mt. Rushmore of sports. But the truth is every athlete has his own particular race, something to run no one else has ever run before. It is uniquely their own. And so it is for Jason Collins, the Stanford grad, the NBA journeyman, who started this race in 2001 when he thought he would have a basketball career and that would be that, nothing else would interrupt it or camouflage it or depress it. And then he revealed he was gay. After twelve years his race changed. But his basketball career did not, nor did his masculinity, nor did his leadership, nor did the beloved expressions of support from fellow NBA players who are on his side. On this one night basketball did what it should have done years ago, pushed into the present by a thirteen year veteran, a journeyman player, Jason Collins. The NBA made up ground. It embraced humanity. It caught up with the rest of the world.