At a recent Sunday morning service at his church in Los Angeles, Jason Collins swayed along with his fellow congregants to the gospel rock ballads being performed on stage. The church is a remarkably happy place, with a rustic chic design and Arcade Fire playing before the service out on the lawn, right near the coffee bar. It’s an urban believer’s paradise, and Collins appeared right at home.
Collins was going on his 10th month of basketball unemployment. He didn't receive a training camp invite, and as opening night came and went, then the Jan. 10 date when rosters rid themselves of some guaranteed contracts, the reality began to set in that he might not suit up again in the NBA.
The positive response of a handful of superstars and head coaches back in April, which seem like eons ago now, didn't change the fact that the league’s median opinion on Collins’ sexuality was still suspicious. Over the past decade, league executives have innovated many facets of their decision making, but they’re still conservative men at heart in their steadfast desire to maintain their careers. These days, few are really interested in being Walter O’Malley or Branch Rickey.
From the exterior, this was a cruel event, but for Collins it was something else entirely. He took refuge in his workouts each morning, and maintained an in-season regimen of conditioning and nutrition. But far more than that, he built a life for himself. Coming out isn't just a personal proclamation. It’s the moment you start to sculpt an identity as a gay person. In many respects, it’s Year Zero -- and for Collins, Zero was shaping up as an awesome year.
He met the world, established new friendships in different social communities around the country, and started dating. Barack and Michelle Obama reached out and pretty soon, Collins found himself at the State of the Union. From the White House to grassroots organizations, people were honoring Collins for his courage, and that's about as validating as an experience can get as a human being.
Though watching the league from afar wasn’t without frustration, Collins was loving life. As the service ended and the worshipers filed to the exits, Collins greeted a slew of people. The support was clearly both humbling and energizing. Out on the street, Collins caught up with a few friends. He was off to Washington on Monday as a guest at a state dinner for French President Francois Hollande and needed to run some errands before the trip east.
Collins will now board a plane with the Brooklyn Nets to join their drive toward the 2014 postseason. The opportunity comes 10 months after his last one, but the hiatus also unintentionally provided him time necessary to build confidence as an openly gay man, which should only help ease his transition back into life as a professional basketball player. Because no matter how warm the love, life during those first few months out of the closet can be dizzying. Your personal growth spurt occurs at warp speed, and that’s especially true if you’re an American symbol. Through it all, you build up stamina and a sense of self -- the kind of strength a person needs if he encounters conflict, skepticism or abuse.
Collins’ identity and confidence will come in handy because the spotlight is about to turn even brighter. He’ll be moving to a perfect market for his endeavor, but New York is also a media circus. Those executives who cited the media glare as a legitimate deterrent were misguided, but they weren't incorrect about its existence. Collins’ integration into the league will probably be somewhat disruptive. There will likely be awkward and obtrusive moments for some of his teammates. More and more pro athletes are ready to accept a gay teammate, but not every 24-year-old NBA player has the confidence, vocabulary or cultural sensibility to speak confidently about homosexuality.
Collins’ identity and confidence will come in handy because the spotlight is about to turn even brighter.
The morning after Joakim Noah yelled, “F--- you, f----t” at a fan in Miami during the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, the Bulls held their media availability at the team’s hotel. The big names on the roster were each surrounded by a scrum, and Noah's epithet was a hot topic. Luol Deng was asked his impression, and the vet nervously tiptoed through his response as if he was navigating a minefield. Here was a young guy who’d seen a lot in life. He’d crossed cultures, defied probabilities, been under the microscope of one of the nation’s highest-profile college programs and spent his career in a top-three media market. But “f----t,” gays in the locker room and homosexuality in general were entirely different matters.
Three years later, the Nets figure to be a lot more comfortable. Paul Pierce is a former teammate of Collins and was his most vocal supporter in the league on April 29, when Collins came out. Kevin Garnett can be unpredictable, but his obsessive devotion to team chemistry will appeal to his better nature. Jason Kidd, yet another former teammate, was a catalyst in the decision to bring the 35-year-old Collins in. With those three men facilitating the assimilation process in Brooklyn, the rest of the roster should fall in line.
It’s been a rough couple of seasons for the Nets, and despite their recent surge in the Eastern Conference standings, they haven’t done much right since Barclays Center opened. But today, they're the league leaders. In the NBA market most vulnerable to media distractions, they dismissed the media distraction canard. Instead, they’re embracing the idea that change doesn't come without disruption, and that tests of character are worth confronting.
Collins has already passed that test, and as commendable as his announcement was last spring, watching him handle the situation with grace, cultivate a life and identity, maintain his conditioning and serve as an ambassador has been affirming.
Now he gets to compete, which is the whole point.