Not 10 seconds into Jason Collins’ pregame news conference inside Staples Center, it was clear he was distinctly uninterested in answering questions about the historic and cultural import of the night. Collins had spent a good part of the day playing catch-up with the Brooklyn Nets’ coverage schemes and play calls, and the self-portrait he sketched sitting behind the low table inside the visitor’s hockey locker room was of a guy on a 10-day contract, and little more.
Collins made mention of his quality of life since he came out publicly last April -- Life is so much better for me -- but for the better part of 10 minutes, Collins spoke in largely clinical terms about learning the Nets’ playbook and his conditioning. He’s well aware that his game subsists on a diet of sturdy screens, pick-and-roll defense, guarding the post and issuing fouls as necessary. That’s stuff that requires mastery and 12 hours isn’t a lot of time to process.
On the surface, Collins’ reluctance to acknowledge the symbolism of the evening seemed not so much disingenuous as a little distorted. But the thing you have to appreciate is that most well-adjusted gay people rarely think about their sexual identity in the confines of their job. Collins understood from the outset that the best way to service the cause was to play quality minutes as a backup big. He wants to prove that the NBA’s first openly gay player is on the court because he still has something left to contribute.
Collins’ pregame message turned out to be prophetic, because when he took the floor with 10:28 remaining in the second quarter, it was all about the basketball.
It was difficult to handicap going in how the Staples Center would react when Collins checked in. The Lakers crowd is composed of a lot of westside money and show biz pros, among the bluest voting audiences in the NBA. These are image-conscious people and it was easy to imagine that they’d shower a hometown guy who’d broken a barrier with a rousing standing ovation.
But those who wanted a sentimental, politically satisfying Aaron Sorkin screenplay instead got a grainy Frederick Wiseman documentary utterly devoid of drama. There was a smattering of supportive applause and a few standers, but many couldn’t be bothered to look up from their phones.
Collins then went to work and it was vintage unvarnished Collins. Nets coach Jason Kidd wanted a backup center who talked on defense, and that’s what Collins proceeded to do, calling out directions from the back line like a veteran big man. He fouled like crazy -- five in 11 minutes of court time. On the offensive end, he appeared rusty and his timing was off. He missed his only shot and fumbled a pass from Deron Williams while rolling to the bucket.
On the positive side of the ledger, Collins also plastered defenders with screens. After the game, he recounted with a broad smile his favorite moment of the night -- witnessing Lakers point guard Jordan Farmar kvetch to the officials that Collins was setting moving picks. For guys like Collins who perform janitorial duties, this is among the highest compliments.
How did it feel for Collins? It felt like I’ve done this thousands of times before. This doesn’t discount an enormous milestone for one of the last realms of American life where a gay man has to think twice about being himself. But if it seemed prosaic, that’s because it was.
And this is how we make sense of it: The context of Collins’ appearance tonight was a huge deal, even if the event wasn’t.