What we're learning from Jason Collins

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Jason Collins shined a bright light on an issue few in the NBA spoke openly about. Is that enough?

Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day. The vast majority of people who declare their sexual identity do so one of the other 364 days on the calendar, but symbolism has always had an important role in the pursuit of equality.

The NBA saw a major milestone this past year, as veteran center Jason Collins disclosed he was gay in a personal essay published on April 29 in Sports Illustrated. As we approach opening night, Collins isn’t on an NBA roster. If he remains an unsigned free agent, will his announcement go down as merely symbolic, or will it have a more lasting, meaningful effect?

Today offers us an opportunity to explore that question.

Not long before Jason Collins came out to the world, I sat with an NBA head coach in an empty gym after his team’s practice. In the few years I’ve been talking with players, coaches or execs as a gay journalist about the implications of an openly gay player, the gravitation has been toward those I perceived would be most accepting and comfortable. When we want to classify these guys, we often call them enlightened and smart, even if what we really mean is that they share our cultural sensibilities.

This coach doesn’t fall into that group. He’s razor-sharp and intellectually curious -- and he happens to be devoted to the idea that a specific collection of texts should serve as our moral authority. If I wanted a true pulse on the collective sentiment of those in the basketball world about the climate for a gay player, it was time to start conversations with people who subscribed to different creeds, people like this head coach.

Over the course of our chat, which covered topics ranging from theology to how values are instilled in human beings, this coach offered up a prediction: An active NBA player would come out pretty soon. The public reaction to the announcement would be positive. A few high-profile players and coaches would voice overwhelming support for the player, and the media would celebrate the moment.

But back in the locker room, the majority of the league’s rostered players would still be uncomfortable with the idea of sharing close space with a gay teammate, according to the coach. When the cameras and digital recorders are turned off, the attitudes of the median player in the NBA were closer to those of the coach, not mine.

This vision was prescient to a great extent. On the Monday Collins made his announcement in Sports Illustrated, some big names expressed encouragement and respect. Elder statesmen like Paul Pierce, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Shane Battier and Chauncey Billups backed Collins in media scrums and on Twitter. The press congratulated Collins and noted the hospitable reception for Collins in the public sphere.

Conventional wisdom quickly coalesced around the idea that Collins' identity as a gay man wouldn’t hurt him in free agency, especially with his reputation for being a model teammate. At his most recent stop in Washington, Collins made a big impression on the younger guys in the Wizards’ youth movement. At Collins’ suggestion, the kids stopped eating fast food in the locker room and learned how to work through a circuit in the weight room like professional athletes.

Collins is a guy who as recently as two years ago proved he can make life difficult for an opposing center. Older big men often fall out of the league as they get older because they put on a few extra pounds and lose stamina. Not Collins, who is in impeccable shape, which makes sense because he works out at least three hours a day as a matter of routine.

“Conditioning won’t be a factor in a team’s decision,” Collins says. “I’m making sure that my health won’t be a liability.”

Optimists embraced the notion that if a couple of teams had issues with Collins, there would be a counterbalance from a couple of owners and execs who liked the idea of being a Walter O’Malley or a Branch Rickey.

“All it takes is one team,” Collins says. “One owner, one team. We’ll see what happens.”

Whatever assets Collins brings to a team, they haven’t been enough to persuade an NBA team to retain his services. The question of who will sign Collins has been revised to, “Will anyone?”

“I don’t know the answer,” Golden State Warriors president and chief operating officer Rick Welts says. Welts came out in the spring of 2011, the first executive in the NBA to do so publicly. “I’m rooting for a good outcome for Jason whether he plays another game or not. I hope he will and that after a while we can forget about everything other than than the fact the he's a player who can give you quality minutes off the bench and is a terrific teammate."

Welts’ combination of optimism and apprehension is shared by many others around the league who are rooting for Collins, but recognize the forces working against him. They list any number of factors, some unique to his identity as the only openly gay free agent, others products of circumstance.

As the league gets stretchier -- with some teams employing as few as four conventional big men -- fewer NBA jobs remain for a center whose primary on-court asset is interior defense. Many teams prefer to take fliers on younger prospects whose contracts can be discarded on Jan. 10, when the vets’ phones start to ring. For their part, the Warriors have stockpiled centers. They have Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, Ognjen Kuzmic, Jermaine O’Neal and Dewayne Dedmon all under contract.

“The reality for our team is that we are really deep at the center position -- there’s not a roster spot available,” Welts says.

League trends aside, nearly a dozen execs say privately that the media glare that would come with a Collins signing just isn’t worth the distraction to most teams. Locker rooms are fragile places already and not always receptive to change, and though NBA players as a whole are extremely professional with the media, it’s not their favorite half hour of the day. The easier it is, the better. If he were a rotation player or better, the thinking goes, the cost/benefit analysis might produce a different outcome.

In other words, the market for Collins would be bigger if he weren’t openly gay.

Is disqualifying a gay player not because of his sexual identity but because he’ll attract attention to the team a distinction without a difference? By definition, isn’t that discrimination, if not with a capital D, then a small one? Is the goal of an organization to conform to the traditional realities of the league or to engage in thought leadership?

I asked Collins if the additional media attention was a legitimate reason for a team to pass on him.

“No, because the media question in this day and age would last a week, maybe two?” Collins says. “There are only so many ways to write a story, then it’s on to the next situation and eventually the focus will shift back to basketball. I’m just one player on a team, and my story is not going to last more than a news cycle or two.”

Beyond the scrutiny that might come with Collins’ presence, anxiety and distaste for the idea of a gay teammate still exists among many NBA players. A few veterans say that in the immediate wake of Collins’ announcement, opinions varied widely during conversations in the locker room. Some players were incredulous that anyone would have an issue suiting up next to a gay guy, while others said they were repulsed by gay men.

Some things haven’t really changed about the climate around the league. Few want to have a frank conversation about the issue on the record. This isn’t the kind of thing to be addressed in a scrum after practice, or while a guy is going through his pregame rituals at his locker. Like PEDs, homosexuality is still on the list of radioactive topics. Communications departments would kindly like a heads up if you plan to broach the subject because one tangled quote can find itself under the media microscope. In fact, the media cycle immediately following the Collins story is one of the only instances when players have been free game on the theme.

So now the goalposts have moved. Collins is a long shot to make a roster before opening night, which was the original benchmark. There’s guarded optimism among those around the league that he can hook on with a team midseason as roster spots open up, but with Collins unsigned, we have to start contemplating what it means if he never plays another game. If that happens, was anything accomplished? Does the personal manifesto on April 29 still pack the same punch? Does it count?

"Of course it counts,” Welts says. "Because at the time Jason came out, the hope was that he would have more to his NBA career. He put himself out there with a full résumé of who he is as a person.”

Welts appreciates that intent matters. The league hasn’t fully integrated a gay man into the workplace, not yet. The incremental nature of progress can be a total buzzkill, but if you look closely enough, there’s comfort in more than just symbolism.

The conversations that produced a wide array of opinions following Collins’ announcement are a new thing in the NBA. Grant Hill recounted a spontaneous discussion among the Los Angeles Clippers after they heard the news. Hill has been an outspoken supporter of creating a receptive environment for gay players, and while he didn’t agree with every opinion in the room, he did take away something larger from the moment.

“It was the first time I can ever remember a whole team sitting around talking about the issue,” Hill says. “It’s something you might have talked about in a private conversation with one or two other people, but never as a big group. [That day], guys who didn’t agree were talking about why it made them uncomfortable, and some guys said they thought it was foolish to feel that way. It was an open conversation. It was honest.”

A belief system can’t be altered until it’s examined, and a conversation can’t be sustained before it’s started. The day inside ClipperLand, the collective examination and teamwide conversation moved at least one mind. Potential leaders on the issue emerged, whether those who did the leading realize it yet. Some players who had never previously had a frame of reference, neither a person nor a line of thought, now have Jason Collins and the substance of that group conversation to consider. Even though Collins wasn’t in the locker room -- even if he’s never in another locker room -- he moved the needle.

I asked Collins to choose between staying in the closet, but milking another three years out of his pro career and a scenario in which he never plays another NBA game as the man who came out on April 29.

“Definitely the latter,” Collins says. “You can’t underestimate how good it feels to control your own story, being able to tell your own truth is, to live an authentic life versus having that stress, that worry, that fear of ‘Is today going to be the day that someone figures it out?’ It opens up so many other doors in life, meeting new people, friendships, being a part of a community that celebrates acceptance and tolerance.”

This season, the NBA has a chance to become one of those communities. The transition was never going to be quick and easy, and if Collins doesn’t find another employer in the NBA, it could conceivably be a couple of more years. Closeted players might interpret the outcome as evidence that coming out is professional suicide, though one owner can reverse that impression.

Doing so might disrupt the locker room and make a few guys uncomfortable, but that’s what change does. We adapt because adaptability is a condition of being a living thing, even if you have to feel the potential for change before you can fully achieve it.