Jason Collins is not the first openly gay player in NBA history. Not yet.
Every team in the league was back on the practice floor Tuesday, but Collins finds himself at home in Los Angeles, working out feverishly on his own and waiting for a call that realistically won't come until after the regular season starts.
If at all.
There are simply no guarantees when it comes to Collins' NBA future, no matter how many of us out there wanted to believe that the 34-year-old would be back in the league come fall after announcing to the world that he's gay on the pages of Sports Illustrated in late April. The unpleasant truth about Collins' job prospects is that several teams don't think he can make a telling on-court contribution any more ... and felt that way long before his announcement
Your follow-up questions are obvious and understandable: Is Collins really still a free agent because of his advancing age and declining skills? Or is it actually because NBA franchises aren't nearly as ready to employ an openly gay center as they say they are?
Even as a lifelong cynic and serial pessimist, I do believe it's the former. Like it or not, Collins hasn't been a legit rotation player in this league for a good six seasons. If Collins never plays another NBA minute, there will be loud and widespread cries that the league at large rejected him on the basis of his sexuality. But who can unreservedly make that declaration when Collins has been a 13th/14th/15th man for the last half-decade?
What we can try to do, at this early stage, is tell you why Collins isn't in anyone's training camp and pinpoint a few conceivable landing spots if his phone rings. In a month or two, maybe unforeseen injuries will create a market for Collins that doesn't currently exist. Perhaps the landscape will change by, say, January, when some end-of-the-roster players tend to be released before their contracts are fully guaranteed and 10-day contracts become available. And there are, for the record, still a few optimists in circulation: Two general managers, one from each conference, told ESPN.com this week that they expect Collins to land with a new team after the trade deadline in February at the latest when the playoff push begins in earnest.
Three reasons why Collins is not yet on an NBA roster as training camps open leaguewide:
1. Teams don't want to deal with the inevitable and intense media crush that comes with signing Collins during camp.
There will be "a lot of eyeballs" on Collins when he does finally "get the opportunity," to borrow his words from a recent interview with longtime NBA writer Shaun Powell, but any potential employer would undoubtedly prefer coping with that media sideshow after the regular season is underway, when there are plenty of other newsy team matters going on to keep press gnats occupied. Having Collins on the roster from Day 1 turns media day into Jason Collins day and creates an undeniable distraction in October at a time when obsessive coaches don't want to think about anything other than reinforcing the ins and outs of their offensive and defensive systems. (Or simply implementing those systems, in the case of the NBA's whopping 13 new coaches.)
2. Collins' skill set has never been in less demand.
This is a much, much bigger issue. Apart from the mentoring he can offer younger centers -- which is what led Detroit to consider signing Collins in August -- Collins is only a situational contributor at this point in his career. He's still a quality post defender, but the reality is that there are fewer post scorers in the game than we've ever seen. So it's likely going to take a team like Detroit that covets a mentor to young big men, or that feels it needs an extra defensive specialist in its frontcourt rotation for the postseason to give Collins an option. Los Angeles Galaxy winger Robbie Rogers, who in May became the first openly gay athlete in North American team sports, is 26 years old and only two years removed from scoring a goal against Mexico for the U.S. national team. In order to lure Rogers out of early retirement and acquire his Major League Soccer rights, the Galaxy traded league MVP candidate Mike Magee to the Chicago Fire. Collins has never had that sort of stature as an NBA player and hasn't averaged more than 15 minutes per game since the 2007-08 season.
3. Teams don't want to face the fallout of having to cut him before the season starts.
Another biggie. It would be naive in the extreme to suggest that Collins can expect 100 percent support from teammates if/when he does earn one more NBA shot, since there are bound to be players who aren't welcoming even if they never voice it publicly. It's likewise unrealistic to suggest that front offices aren't wary of the distraction factor, inside and outside the locker room, when it comes to potentially signing Collins. Yet you can be sure that teams want to avoid the prospect of bringing Collins to camp and then feeling the need to release him at month's end to get the roster down to the league maximum of 15 players for opening night. If you have Collins in camp, whether he makes the team or not, uncomfortable accusations about the decision being made on a political rather than basketball basis are bound to greet either outcome. If you sign him after the season starts to fill a clear opening on the roster, such chatter is at least somewhat muffled.
Three potential landing spots for Collins once the season is underway:
Collins was a member of the Wizards for only the final two months of last season, but he quickly became a revered figure in a locker room filled with young players. The assumption, then, is that Collins would thus be welcomed back instantly in that locker room if the Wiz -- who have already lost starting center Emeka Okafor indefinitely to a neck injury -- ring him up and ask him to return. The greater obstacle is the fact that Washington has 15 guaranteed contracts and would have to scrap one to make room for him. Would the Wiz really do that for a spot-minute center? You'll recall that Detroit, in August, ultimately opted to sign Josh Harrellson after opening talks with Collins about a mentor role to young bigs Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.
Collins' twin brother Jarron now works as a Clippers scout. And one of Jason Collins' biggest fans in the league, Doc Rivers, is the Clippers' new coach and lead personnel decision-maker. Yet the clear signals emanating from the Clippers to date suggest that they have questions about how much Collins can still contribute after 12 seasons, given that they brought back Ryan Hollins and likewise deemed Lou Amundson more worthy of a camp invite. Based on the rumblings emanating from L.A. all summer, there would appear to be a better chance Lamar Odom resurfaces here than Collins, despite the SoCal native's ties to the franchise and the area.
The Nets have no current opening or need for Collins, but I'm told they haven't ruled out revisiting the matter later in the season depending on the state of their frontcourt. Collins has long-standing ties to rookie coach Jason Kidd and lead assistant Lawrence Frank from their days together in the early 2000s, when the Nets were a perennial Eastern Conference contender, and is also well-liked by Brooklyn newcomers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce after their time together last season in Boston. Mikhail Prokhorov, furthermore, is the one owner on the NBA map who scoffs at the luxury tax and could stomach eating one of his 15 guaranteed contracts to sign Collins and bump that $87 million tax bill even higher.