Grange: Collins leads way for gay athletes

April 29, 2013, 5:35 PM

There are all kinds of adjectives you can attach to Jason Collins, the 12-year NBA veteran who has been part of winning teams nearly his entire career, but a player who by definition always flew under radar; rarely noticed.

He was a glue guy. He was a defensive specialist. He lent the kind of physical presence that allowed stars to go about the business of being stars, making life easier for the likes of Vince Carter, Jason Kidd and Rajon Rondo, among many others.

His statistical claim to fame is he once led the NBA in fouls.

But Collins changed all of that with one brief line on Monday, the last adjective altering sports forever.

“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”

That was the first sentence of a first-person cover story for Sports Illustrated written by Collins, who played for the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards this past season, the fifth and sixth stops in his career.

The declaration makes Collins, a rugged, seven-foot, 260-pound centre, the first openly gay male athlete in major North American professional sports and now forever more famous for anything he’s ever done on a basketball court.

But if being in the spotlight was rare for Collins there may have been some symmetry between what he did for a living and the brave step he took Monday.

“His job was to push people out of their comfort zone,” said Toronto Raptors executive vice president of basketball operations Ed Stefanski.

Stefanski, who as an executive with the New Jersey Nets traded for Collins on draft night in 2001 as part of a deal (which also landed Richard Jefferson) that helped the Nets make consecutive NBA Finals appearances, could only say good things about Collins, even if he averaged only 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds for his career.

“He’s a wonderful person and teammate, a great sense of humour. His basketball IQ was off the charts,” said Stefanski. “I didn’t have a clue he was gay before today, but it doesn’t matter, I love the kid.”

On the basketball court, “pushing people out of their comfort zone” meant shoving big men off the box; knocking cutters off their path and fouling hard and often.

Toronto fans may remember Collins best as the help defender who made Chris Bosh nearly irrelevant during the Nets’ upset of the Raptors in the first round of the 2006-07 playoffs.

Bosh shot just 39.6 per cent from the floor for the series and was truly shocked at how physical the game was in the playoffs, a lesson he learned the hard way thanks to Collins.

Pushing people out of their comfort zone is a pretty good metaphor for what Collins did Monday.

What’s interesting is that the number of people who might be uncomfortable about a male athlete’s sexual orientation seems to be shrinking by the week.

It has taken a while to get to this point — after all, tennis icon Martina Navratilova was arguably the most famous female athlete in the world when she came out in 1981.

But the ground has been being groomed for an announcement of this kind for the better part of a decade.

Given the testosterone-driven nature of men’s professional sports, sexual orientation is one area where sports has lagged behind broader social mores.

In 2007, former NBA player John Amaechi — a teammate of Collins’ twin brother in Utah — came out in his autobiography.

And while the reaction was generally positive, there were exceptions.

“With teammates you have to be trustworthy, and if you’re gay and you’re not admitting that you are, then you are not trustworthy,” LeBron James said at the time. “So that’s like the No. 1 thing as teammates — we all trust each other. You’ve heard of the in-room, locker room code. What happens in the locker room stays in there. It’s a trust factor, honestly. A big trust factor.”

“As long as you don’t bring your gayness on me, I’m fine,” said then Philadelphia 76ers forward Shavlick Randolph.

And Tim Hardaway who said in a radio interview: “I don’t like to be around gay people. I’m homophobic. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be in the world for that or in the United States for it. So yeah, I don’t like it.”

Looking at those comments just six short years ago they seem like they come from a previous century.

People are people, so we can trust that someone, somewhere — beyond the usual suspects — is going to say or do something to embarrass themselves in the wake of Collins’ declaration.

But in the space of just over a decade, the conversation has changed so dramatically that the expectation is that within the next six years an athlete being gay will be as newsworthy as their nationality — an interesting biographical detail, but no more than that.

That’s the hope of organizations like You Can Play, the movement launched just over a year ago by Patrick Burke to wipe out the kind of casual homophobia that still lingers in dressing rooms across all levels of sports.

Certainly the support for Collins came swiftly and without equivocation.

“Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others,” Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant tweeted out to his 2.4-million followers, followed by the words “courage” and “support.”

Similarly Steve Nash, Baron Davis and Raptors forward Rudy Gay were among the many NBA players and others who voiced their support.

“Happy for my former teammate Jason Collins. A true American. “home of the free because of the brave”” Gay tweeted Monday.

But this being professional sports, nothing is ever exactly that simple.

Until Collins came out, the feeling was that it would take a prominent player — in whatever sport — to be the first one to take the step because he would be better positioned to withstand whatever scrutiny came with it, presumably.

Collins presents a small challenge, potentially. He acknowledges he’s a pragmatist and waited this long to come out because he was concerned what impact it would have earlier in his career when there were more paycheques ahead of him than behind him and the environment less tolerant.

An unrestricted free agent whose career has never been about numbers — “If it was about his numbers, he never would have had a career,” said Stefanski — he’s now a 12-year veteran looking for a job who also just happens to be gay.

The next step for the sports community may come when a brave NBA general manager picks up the phone and offers Jason Collins a contract or an invitation to training camp, regardless of the distraction that would come with it.

And then — hopefully — it will be about what it should always be about: If Collins can play, he can play.

And if not, it will be because he can’t do his job anymore, and for no other reason.

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