Collins debuts as first openly gay NBA player

Collins debuts as first openly gay NBA player
February 24, 2014, 2:00 pm
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I had dinner with Jason Collins last week.
Actually, I had dinner next to Jason Collins. We were at an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles. I was with my girlfriend. He was at an adjacent table with three other gay men. Of course, I didn’t ask if they were gay, but believe me, they were gay. And believe me when I tell you how happy Collins looked. Happy and relaxed. Just sitting at dinner with a group of friends. Drinking, talking and laughing. It’s hard to explain the exact vibe that he was giving off, but even the next day at lunch, my girlfriend and I were buzzing off the impression that he left. It was just so good to see him so happy. To see anyone so happy. But especially Collins. Just knowing what he’d been through. Not only in the last 10 months, but over his entire life.
At the time, I had no idea I’d be seeing him again so soon.

* * * * *

“All have sinned.”
That was the message posted on a neon sign outside of Staples Center on Sunday night. Next to that, was a second sign: “Repent and believe in Jesus.” And then a third sign: “Faith in Jesus Saves.”
A muffled recording played loudly from a speaker underneath the signs.
“If anyone’s name is not written in the book . . .”
And as I walked by, on my way in to see the Lakers host the Brooklyn Nets, an intense, middle-aged white man handed me a business card —
“Are you guys here because of Jason Collins?” I asked.
“What do you think?” he said, in a somewhat sarcastic tone that left me very unsure of the answer.
“We’re here for Jesus Christ.”

* * * * *

On the other hand (and no offense to Jesus), I was there for Collins. I happened to be in Los Angeles with nothing to do on a Sunday night, and when the Nets announced that they’d not only signed Collins but that he’d also be in uniform against the Lakers, I jumped at the chance to witness history: The first active and openly gay NBA player. The first active and openly gay athlete in the history of our country’s four major professional sports.
I know that some people are critical and in certain cases almost offended at all the attention that Collins’ return (and Michael Sam’s announcement last week) has received. They don’t understand why it’s a big deal. Why anyone’s sexuality is a big deal. And the truth is that it’s not. Or at least it shouldn’t be. As has been said a million times, the hope and dream is that at some point soon, this won’t be a big deal. But for now, it’s going to take a few big deals and few especially courageous athletes to get us there. Collins is (and will always be) the first. And I wanted to be there to see him do it. To be able to say that I was there. Above all else, to show support. And thanks to Lakers pathetic season, there were plenty of good seats available.
The atmosphere at Staples was about what you’d expect from a lazy Sunday matinee hosted by one of the worst teams in the league. Of course, Kobe Bryant was out for the Lakers. Also, on the second night of a back-to-back, Kevin Garnett was out for the Nets. The arena was buzz-less, about three quarters full at tip off. And over on the Brooklyn bench, Collins looked awkward and even a little uneasy — conversing with teammates, standing in and around huddles, even just sitting there and watching the game. He was the polar opposite of the guy I’d seen at a dinner the week before.
Maybe the moment was getting to him? Then again, maybe he was just a little nervous about being back in the NBA for the first time since last April. Or the fact that he’d yet to even practice with his new team and had only a few hours to learn the plays.
A guy just doesn’t just walk in off the street feeling comfortable and confident in the NBA. Especially not a player of Collins’ age and caliber.
For that reason, there was a question as to whether he would play at all. You know, maybe he needed a little time to get acclimated and — nope! With 10:28 left in the second quarter, Jason Kidd called down to the end of the bench, Collins stood up, took off his warm-ups and, finally, there was the buzz. THE moment. That historic image. I can only speak for myself, but I had butterflies. Nervous and excited. I had chills. I know that Collins isn’t particularly fast to begin with, but it felt like he walked to the scorer’s table in slow motion. For him, the five second walk must have felt like five days.
Finally, the buzzer sounded: “In for Brooklyn . . . No. 46 . . . Jason Collins.”
You’ve seen the reaction by now. It’s all over your TV and the Internet. After entering the game, Collins was treated to a solid ovation, but nothing incredibly substantial. It was much more than any other visiting player received on the night, but didn’t match the applause given to Nick Young — who returned after missing the last two weeks with an injury.
Some people stood and clapped. Some just cheered from their seats. Others did nothing. But nobody booed. At least not loud enough for the rest of the arena to hear. And then —
Well, that was it. The moment was over. That was history.
The whistle blew. The game resumed. The world kept spinning and Jason Collins was back in the NBA. He was the same Jason Collins that we’ve all watched in spurts for more than a decade. A physical defender. A solid rebounder. An illegal screener. An absolute liability on offense.
Oh, and gay.
Four (basketball) minutes later, Collins was subbed out and left looking like a 200-pound weight had been lifted off his shoulders. As he walked off the court and down to the end of the bench, Paul Pierce said something that they both found funny. The two went back and forth joking a few more seconds. Laughing and smiling. Collins was at ease. Like nothing had changed. Not for him. Not for Pierce. Not for anyone on that Nets benched.
When Collins returned to the game in the second half, there was barely any applause at all. He was just one of the guys. Just another teammate. Just another opposing player. It felt like a glimpse into the future. An openly gay athlete co-existing with heterosexual players without the whole world crumbling around them!
But in reality, this wasn’t a glimpse into the future. It was the present. Because of Collins, the future is now.
Right around this time, I got a text from a friend who lives in LA and goes to a bunch of Lakers game. I had asked about the Jesus signs in front of Staples. If they’re usually out there, or if tonight had been something special.
“Yeah. They’re always there. Almost every game.”
And that made me feel stupid. It made me regret challenging the guy with the GET OUT OF HELL FREE card. I don’t know. Maybe I was expecting too much, or in this case, too little from society. Maybe I’ve watched “42” a few too many times on HBO or have spent too much time scanning anonymous, hateful comment sections, and showed up at Staples expecting more vitriol towards Collins. In a messed up way, maybe I was seeking it out.
Either way, it wasn’t there. And ultimately, I was happy to feel stupid. I was happy that the scene outside of Staples was the same as it usually is. That everything was. And that while Collins debut was certainly a big deal, it really wasn’t a big deal. It all went off without drama or the slightest hitch.
That’s not to say that it will always be this easy. The truth was that LA was the perfect city for Collins to make his debut. Not only because it’s his hometown, but because it’s Los Angeles. It’s bigger news in LA when someone’s not gay. Of all the stops along the NBA docket, Los Angeles is right up there (along with Golden State and Portland) among the most accepting communities.
It’s crazy to think that there won’t be an incident at some point. A few incidents at that. Whether it’s in LA or some other less inviting city. Whether the target is Collins or Sam or one of the many future openly gay athletes. It’s going to happen. All it takes is for one ignorant teammate to say something on Twitter or for one drunken fan to think it’s funny to loudly call one of these guys a slur or for one extremist to think it’s his or her duty to publicly attack someone’s sexuality. And at that point, hordes of media piranhas will be ready to dive in and blow the top off that story. They’ll shine a magnifying glass on all that hate and start pushing out special reports asking whether AMERICA IS READY FOR GAY ATHLETES?!
And that’s too bad. Because America is ready. Maybe not everyone. But enough people. The majority. Of course, there are bigots. There will always be bigots. And in this age of news media, they won’t be ignored. But here’s the good news: History is undefeated against bigots. History always proves the bigots wrong. It will be victorious once again.
In the meantime, Jason Collins won’t let the hatred bring him down. He’s living the way he wants — as who he truly is — and he’s happier now than ever. I saw it from one table over at a restaurant last week. I saw from across the arena last night. I heard it in his words, when a reporter asked how his life has changed since coming out:
“Um, wow,” he said. “Change as a person? Life is so much better for me and I don't have to hide who I am and I can just be my normal self. The past ten months has been incredible. A lot of really cool experiences. Making new friends, hearing different people's stories, sharing experiences. It's just been, overall, positive.”
Yes it has been.
And will continue to be.
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine