A Leap Forward


The Brooklyn Nets’ signing of the openly gay Jason Collins is a historic breakthrough for the NBA and professional sports in general, despite whether he is the first of many or few

I remember going to my first ever NBA basketball game with my dad during a spring vacation at Orlando, FL. It was my first visit to fabled theme parks like Universal Studios and Disney World but, as a diehard basketball fan, one thing on that trip excited me more than anything else. I am a Louisianian, but the Hornets were still playing in Charlotte back in 2000 and the Jazz had bailed from the Superdome to go to Utah before I was even born.  So my dad and I tripped over to the now-demolished Amway Arena to see the scrappy hometown Magic, whose leader was first-year head coach Doc Rivers. They played a truly awful Chicago Bulls team coached by Tim Floyd and the Magic dominated them.  Orlando was about as starless of a playoff-caliber NBA team as I had ever witnessed and, in hindsight, I was glad to see first hand how selfless this team was before barely missing out on the postseason. Rivers’ best player statistically was point guard Darrell Armstrong and they had a raw but athletic force named Ben Wallace. I even remember Monty Williams, who later became the head coach for the New Orleans Pelicans, playing on that ragtag of a team.

But little did I, or anyone else in the arena including the players,  know that one of the Magic’s best players , 6’10” center John Amaechi, was secretly gay. Amaechi’s background before joining the Magic was that of a world traveler and a champion of many diversities. He was born in Boston from a Nigerian father but was raised by his English mother in Stockport, England, along with his two sisters. Amaechi, in interviews, still speaks with a British dialect. He attended grammar school in England and then moved stateside to play high school basketball in Toledo, OH. With his height and strong frame (playing at well over 250 pounds), Amaechi barely played at Vanderbilt before transferring to Penn State. He had three excellent seasons from 1992 to 1995 for the Nittany Lions. He went undrafted in ’95, but signed on with the Cleveland Cavaliers and played sparingly.

Amaechi got cut, but paved a new path for himself by becoming one of the first players to branch out to international clubs straight after graduating from an American college. He played all over Europe with teams in France, Greece, Italy, and his native United Kingdom hoping to find his way back into the NBA. At the age of 29, he made that happen when Doc Rivers and GM John Gabriel signed Amaechi to a Magic team that had lost most of its best players from the previous season. People thought Amaechi was crazy when word came out that he had turned down a $17 million contract from the Lakers for a deal just over the league minimum from the Magic in the offseason. His reasoning was something you rarely see in most players today: He stayed with Orlando because they were the first team to give him a real chance, and money wasn’t going to sway him away from that thoughtfulness. It seemed crazy on paper, but Amaechi’s decision showed that his goals were even more unique than his 6’10” body was.

With age not being on his side as a burly center, already reaching his 30’s before 2001, Amaechi played one more season for the Magic before signing with the Jazz. He played two seasons there as a bench warmer before being traded twice in 2003 to the Rockets and Knicks. He never played a game for either team and walked away from the NBA after that. All the while, Amaechi was a closet homosexual who, under the fear of what confessing would have brought upon him and his team, kept it hidden throughout his pro basketball career in the United States and Europe. In a 2002 interview with a Scotland newspaper, while he was still playing in the NBA, Amaechi mentioned the prospects of an openly gay player in the league. “It would be like an alien dropping down from space,” he said. “There’d be fear, then panic; they just wouldn’t know how to handle it.”

Years later, when Amaechi came out of the closet in 2007 with a tell-all book titled Man in the Middle, the reaction amongst fans and NBA players young and old was frosty to say the least. Former All-Star Tim Hardaway’s comments on a radio show were especially insensitive and hateful along with plenty of discourse between reporters and players about Amaechi’s admission. But the secret behind the concerns with  homosexuality in male pro sports is that despite the onrush of public criticism that Hardaway received for his homophobic statements, he was not alone in his bigotry-laden sentiments. Shavlik Randolph was infamous at the time for being quoted as saying that he did not mind having a gay teammate “as long you don’t bring your gayness on me.” Although many players were publicly cautious in this perception-reliant culture (and avoid what Hardaway did) about whether or not gay players would worry teammates in the locker room, there had to be some taboo worry merely by the fact that it was so carefully managed every time the topic was approached.

The topic of gay players in the NBA laid dormant for years even after Amaechi’s coming out due to the fact that there were no examples of players “outing” themselves after he had done so in his book. Although Amaechi had originally suspected to feel “the wrath of America,” in his own words, when word got out about his homosexuality, the more relaxed and socially accepted response to it revealed to him that maybe pro sports was ready for an openly gay player after all. After being generally frowned upon during the 1980’s and early 1990’s, we live in a society now where it has become politically correct to not necessarily promote but to objectively accept the individual values of the L.B.G.T. community in every walk of life. The presence of a gay employee, caretaker, or even political official has occurred on such a frequent basis over the past decade or more that we are at a point where we not only have set the precedent, but have properly set the rules to guarantee equality for gay rights in the workplace and the neighborhood. The once-prevailing fear culture that homosexuals were all untrustworthy deviants loaded with AIDS has been long since overcome by common sense and simple ethical behavior in the normal landscape of the United States (Some countries, like a certain one that just hosted an Olympic Games, still continues to struggle with that truth).

Despite the acceptance of gay culture as the new normal in most American practices, one of the last walls to break through in regards to that acceptance was certain to be the male-centric, testosterone-driven aspects of professional sports. Lesbians in women’s sports like Sheryl Swoopes in the WNBA and Martina Navratilova in tennis have been at a lower stake simply because women’s sports are not as nationally influential as those that the men participate in. Perhaps there are plenty of examples of successful gay athletes in individual sports such as golf, tennis, or racing in which locker room etiquette is not something to worry about. In team sports where brotherhood, loyalty, and other personal convictions can be intermingled at times, the possibility of an openly gay player in that environment has been the cause for worry to this day. In an age where it has become a favorable campaign strategy for the President to support gay marriage, a topic once considered toxic in the political world less than a decade ago, you knew that the so-called barrier for gay players in one of the four major American sports would disappear sooner than later.

It turned out, though, that the player who broke that barrier was one who had played in the NBA for more than 12 seasons. Like John Amaechi, Jason Collins was a center (albeit taller at 7 feet) but, other than that, Collins’ background was very much different. Jason and his twin brother Jarron grew up in Northridge, CA, before they both went to high school in Los Angeles. They followed each other at Stanford, where they helped Mike Montgomery lead the Cardinal to a Final Four appearance and All-American status. Jason was drafted 18th overall by the New Jersey Nets while Jarron was selected in the second round by the Jazz. At New Jersey, Collins’ size and knack for rebounding were key as he was one of Byron Scott’s favorite role players when the Nets went to two straight NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003. In the 2003-03 season, Collins was a de facto starter at center and started every postseason game for the team.

Jason Collins played for the Nets for seven seasons until he was traded in February of 2008 to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for Stromile Swift. After that, Collins became a journeyman big man whose defensive prowess and veteran presence always earned him a spot on a team from season to season on teams both good and bad. He played for the Minnesota Timberwolves, then was a dependable back-up to Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia for the Atlanta Hawks as they went to the playoffs every season he played for them. It was in 2012 that Collins signed with the Boston Celtics and played for Doc Rivers, who also coached John Amaechi in Orlando. He was traded at the February 2013 deadline along with the injured Leandro Barbosa to the Washington Wizards for Jordan Crawford. Although it was a business decision to let Collins go, Rivers has mentioned in several interviews how much he and his team respected Collins as a reliable teammate and selfless player while he was in Boston.

But when his contract expired at the end of last season after finishing with the Wizards, Collins made a move more bold and courageous than any post move or shot block he could have made on a basketball court. In May of 2013, Sports Illustrated publicized an article written by Collins himself revealing to the world that he is a gay man. The timing in which he disclosed his sexuality to his friends and family was not completely unearthed by the article, but we do know that he was in a relationship with former WNBA player Carolyn Moses for eight years and they were engaged before the wedding was called off in 2009. Moses said later that she was surprised by the announcement and only found out about it shortly before the article came out. No matter who knew what and for how long, the most significant thing that came out of Jason Collins coming out was the overwhelming amount of support he received from a variety of avenues after it was announced.

Unlike Amaechi’s tell-all controversy in 2007, Collins’ openly gay status was celebrated by players both in the NBA and other sports as a shining example of personal courage and self-belief. From superstars like Kobe Bryant to former commissioner David Stern to even the President and First Lady via Twitter, a reaction that had once been considered mixed at best not too long before now enticed unanimous praise and celebration. Collins’ sudden onrush of media appearances came with the fact, however, that as a 35-year-old in the twilight of an otherwise forgettable career, there was a decent chance that he would never get signed to a contract by a team to become the first openly gay player to compete in an NBA game. I considered the chances very slim when the topic came up in the summer and fall, and it seemed to be headed that way as Collins was considered for some team workouts, but never received an offer.

Although Collins has been a great ambassador for the L.B.G.T. community through speaking engagements and youth rallies in support of individual rights. He revealed that in the last few seasons, he wore the number 98 in dedication to Matthew Shepard, a gay man in Wyoming who was brutally murdered in a hate crime in 1998. Much-respected publications like the Christian Science Monitor were in stern support of Collins’ quest to rejoin the NBA, calling professional sports the final frontier in the acceptance of gay rights and the eventual elimination of homophobia. Collins’ story joined that of MLS soccer player Robbie Roberts, who came out in February and played for the L.A. Galaxy in May. Both of those stories became sidebars to the topic when Michael Sam, a defensive end from Missouri who is projected to be picked in the NFL Draft this May, told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” that he is gay. Like Collins’ summer of interviews, Sam was quickly swarmed in media attention at the NFL Combine wondering which team would choose him and make him the first openly gay player in NFL history.

I had always thought when asked that the first openly gay player in pro sports would be a circumstance similar to Sam’s: A very talented and surefire player on the verge of entering a pro sports league who reveals and embraces his homosexuality upon introduction to prospective teams. Sam would have been the first openly gay player in the history of major pro sports and fit that bill, until Sunday afternoon. This past Thursday, the Brooklyn Nets made a move at the trade deadline by swapping hard-working power forward Reggie Evans for some offensive punch in shooting guard Marcus Thornton.  The Nets tried to sign Glen “Big Baby” Davis for some muscle inside after he had been bought out by the Magic, but Davis signed with Doc Rivers’ Los Angeles Clippers. As most teams do in the dragged out final months of the NBA regular season, young prospects are promoted from the D-League and veterans looking for one more shot are signed to 10-day contracts. Sometimes, these players can be signed consecutively to these contracts before being signed for the remainder of the season.

With the lack of depth in the front court in Brooklyn due to Evans’ departure, Kevin Garnett resting his workload, and Brook Lopez being gone for the season, general manager Billy King eyed workouts in California with Collins, and interest was at its peak. Then it was on Sunday that the move was made and King signed Collins to a ten-day contract. That very night, Collins suited up in a game that he was certain to play in given the number of big men in street clothes for the Nets that night. Early in the second quarter, Collins, less than a year after coming out, was coming back into the spotlight, this time on an actual NBA court. He received a generously warm reception from the Los Angeles crowd as his twin brother Jarron watched from the crowd. His impact in the Nets’ 108-102 win over the Lakers was fairly inconsequential, snagging only 2 rebounds and no points in over 10 minutes of play. But what looked on paper like a fairly meaningless performance has become a watershed moment for the community that Collins has since embraced since announcing his sexuality. His No. 98 jersey that he will wear beginning this week has already become a top seller on NBA.com.

The outpouring of love and appreciation for Collins’ quest of playing in the NBA once again, this time as an openly gay man, speaks to how far we as people have come as a tolerant and inclusive society in the past decade when it comes to gay rights. However, with that luminous attention to Collins’ story comes with it the inverse danger that we as a society may have not fully moved on just yet. The media may act merely as a literate window to what our society reflects at times, but judging by the near-microscopic nature of reporters and human interest types tracking Collins’ every move this past week, that spotlight can quickly turn into the type that can burn. Certainly, all of the columns you have read so far about Collins (outside of religiously minded detractors that are fewer and farther between these days) are enriched with positivity and heroism about his return as an NBA player. But sometime s coverage can almost become overtly optimistic to the point that you lose sight of the goals of the LBGT community in this country: To be provided equal opportunity and treatment regardless of sexual orientation.

Certainly, the positive reaction to Jason Collins is an encouraging trait for sports and society, but it also shows that we are not all the way past this hurdle just yet.  In order to truly abolish the stigma of stereotyping any group, we must not only accept their differences but move past those differences and allow such people to avoid categorization. The attention that Collins’ story has garnered has been an enlightenment for what we now consider as socially acceptable in a country where the so-called loss of traditional values can be easily misinterpreted. But no matter if Jason Collins is the first of only a handful of openly gay NBA players, or the first of dozens as the years go by, the truth is that we as people, as members of the media, and as fans, will be able to fully move past this dilemma until what looks like a universally accepted issue becomes a non-issue. Through the whirlwind of reporters that spoke to Collins after his first game back as a Net, he said to reporters, “It’s not going to be like this every day.” For his sake and ours, I hope he is right.