In Sports Illustrated’s cover package announcing that NBA center Jason Collins is gay, one paragraph is particularly telling. And Collins didn’t even write it. Instead, it was penned by Arn Tellem, Collins’ agent. Tellem writes that, upon hearing that Collins wanted to go public with his sexuality:
My only fear was that the announcement might influence his impending free agency. I wondered whether teams might be unwilling to risk potential problems with narrow-minded players. This, despite his reputation as a quintessential team player. “Jason,” I said, “could you possibly delay this until after you sign a new contract and have job security?”
So is it possible that the first active gay American male athlete — in a major pro team sport — might not play a game while he’s out? Collins is a 34-year-old free-agent coming off a season in which he averaged more fouls per game (2.2) than rebounds (1.6) and points (1.1). Traditionally, pro sports teams hate distractions. At worst, as Tellem mentions, Collins may make his teammates uncomfortable. His presence could also create a media circus, a dynamic that is more benign than latent homophobia, but still a locker room annoyance. If Collins isn’t productive enough to make a difference on the court, why should a team bother signing him?
At least one NBA coach, however, is convinced Collins will have a job next year. Lawrence Frank, who coached Collins in New Jersey from 2001-2004 as an assistant, and from 2004-2008 as a head coach, says that a player with Collins’ size (he’s seven-feet tall) and skill-set will always have an NBA gig. “Because he’s a professional veteran,” says Frank, who was fired as coach of the Detroit Pistons a few weeks ago, after coaching that team for two seasons. “Jason’s strengths do not show up in a stat sheet. He is the master of the intangibles. He’s a guy who can play 20 minutes and grab 2 rebounds, and the layman fan will say, ‘man, he has only two rebounds in 20 minutes.’ But they don’t realize that the guy who he’s matched up against has zero offensive rebounds. His frontcourt mate had nine rebounds because Twin [Collins' nickname on the Nets, since he has a twin brother, Jarron, who also played in the NBA] blocked his guy out every single time.
“Or they may say, ‘hey, he played 24 minutes and had one point.’ But they don’t realize all the screens he set to assist his teammates when he was out on the floor. Or the fact that he took three charges in 24 minutes.
“Look, in order to be a successful role player in the NBA, you have to embrace the role,” continues Frank. “A lot of guys think ‘role’ is a negative label, a limiting label. Jason took it as, ‘yeah, I understand who I am. I’m a post defender, I’m a help defender, I won’t make any game plan mistakes. I’m a screener, I’ll be a good passer.’ He’s a guy you’re not looking for 15 points from. And he’s a tough SOB. He’s a tough son of a gun. There were many, many days where are trainers said, ‘there is no way Twin could play tonight.’ And he always stepped in.
“As a coach, you knows he always has your back. As a teammate, you know he always has your back. And that’s rare. Because sometimes, guys fall into one or the other. Jason was the guy who was always about winning.”
But Frank, if anyone, knows that NBA teams don’t need any extra media scrutiny. But he’s convinced Collins would have no negative impact. “It won’t become a distraction,” says Frank. “I’m telling you, in my eyes, this is how it will play out. Whatever team he goes to, there will be an initial story. And then everyone moves on. I’m telling you, it will not be an issue in the locker room. It won’t even move the needle in the locker room. It won’t be a ripple effect. People are going to embrace him because of who is he.”
Frank isn’t just naively sticking up for a former player. The novelty of a gay team-sports athlete will wear off pretty quickly. From a fan’s point of few, Jason Collins will still be the same 7-foot role player that he was this year, and in years past. He’ll either improve, or regress — just like the Jason Collins we thought was straight would have done.
And off-the-court, Collins could help a team increase its reach, to gay and lesbian fans in the community. “An owner may say, ‘here’s a guy who can strengthen our connection to our fan base, and be an ambassador,” says Paul Swangard, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “‘Jason Collins offers value beyond wins and losses, so we might as well take a chance on him with our 13th roster spot.’ I hope that happens.”
Collins is confident it will. After Tellem asked Collins to delay his announcement until he signed a contract:
His response was immediate and unshakable. “My basketball career is important,” he said, “but the time has come to live my life. As supportive as my family has been, I feel terribly alone and isolated.” He also didn’t want to risk being outed. “I want to tell the world myself,” he said. “I have faith that other players will judge me by my past performance and what I bring to a team, and not by this announcement alone.”
Collins may not jump center come next opening night. But he’ll be on an NBA bench, ready to come in and change the game.