Jason Collins signing should be about basketball — that’s all

Written By BY RICK TELANDER rtelander@suntimes.com | @ricktelander Posted: 03/04/2014, 11:55am
Array Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins enters a news conference prior to an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, in Los Angeles. Collins is set to become the NBA's first active openly gay player. He signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets earlier Sunday and was to be in uniform for their game in Los Angeles against the Lakers. The 35-year-old center revealed at the end of last season he is gay, but he was a free agent and had remained unsigned. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Openly gay big man Jason Collins just signed a 10-day contract with the Nets, and thereby made history, of a sort.

You see, the veteran 7-foot, 255-pound Collins already played 6½ years for the Nets, from 2001 to 2007. And he played 5½ more years for the Grizzlies, Timberwolves, Hawks, Celtics and Wizards.

But all that was as a ‘‘straight’’ man. Or an undercover gay man. Or a somewhat-out-but-only-to-close-friends gay man. Or a . . .

I don’t know, it gets kind of silly, doesn’t it?

Collins always has been a basketball player. Not a great scorer, not a great rebounder. But a very tough defender, smart floor leader, hard worker and excellent teammate. And 7-footers don’t grow on trees.

That’s what the Nets said when they signed him Sunday after working him out to see if he was still in shape because he hadn’t played for anyone since announcing his homosexuality last spring.

“The decision to sign Jason was a basketball decision,” went Nets general manager Billy King’s statement.

The Nets needed a big man to replace starting center Brook Lopez, out for the season with a foot injury. Ergo, Collins.

It’s that simple. In one sense.

In another, it’s one of the most complicated, politically volatile, socially important moves in American sports history. Indeed, it rivals that other famous Brooklyn sports move from 67 years ago — Jackie Robinson breaking in with the baseball Dodgers.

The Nets could’ve found somebody else to sign instead of the 35-year-old Collins, and who would have complained? After all, Collins had been passed over by all 30 NBA teams for the last 10 months.

You have to wonder how any of this can matter to those who are simply watching Collins on the court. What, you think he’ll be wearing a scarlet ‘‘G’’ on his chest?

He’s not going to dominate any game he’s in. He’ll be rusty, maybe creaky. By NBA standards, he’s a geezer. But he’ll be in the mix. He’ll be a guy. A gay guy.

If somebody didn’t say to an observer, ‘‘Hey, look! That’s the first openly homosexual player in major sports history,’’ who would notice? Jackie Robinson, on the other hand, you could notice.

We’re still coming to grips with the fact that gay people are everywhere among us, and they’re not going away. Remember those T-shirts and placards from early Chicago Gay Pride parades: ‘‘WE’RE QUEER AND WE’RE HERE!”? Yep, that simple.

So, in a sense, Jason Collins playing the game he has played since he was a kid growing up with straight, identical twin brother Jarron — himself retired after 10 years in the NBA — is novel only in the way Jason identifies himself.

A few of you may recall that I ‘‘came out’’ as gay in a column awhile back, basically saying: Prove that I’m not. Silly, I suppose.

But the point I was trying to make is that a sexual preference or a lifestyle is not something that can be proved by someone else or which you must display to all, as opposed to, say, being 7 feet tall. Try hiding that.

Kudos to the Nets for understanding.

Yes, there are players — evangelical Christians and Muslims among them — who might point to religious teachings as the basis for their contempt for homosexuals, mandated, as it were, by God. Those players — and non-playing citizens, too — are going to have to subjugate their views to the law both of the land and common sense.

It won’t be hard.

I think it would be a terrific idea if Jason Collins had a closed-door meeting with his new teammates and simply explained how normal he is, how he’s going to use the shower to get clean like everybody else, nothing more or less, how his sexual orientation has nothing to do with anything at all except stuff that is irrelevant to playing basketball the right way.

They say prejudice springs from insulation from other, different people. Minorities of any kind in the workplace, in school, in the arts, in neighborhoods, in sports change mind-sets of the fearful and intolerant majority.

So this is a good day. For all of us. Seriously, who isn’t a minority of some sort, even if it’s just the way you comb your hair, garnish your pizza?

Jason Collins is ready for this.

I’d like to think we are, too.

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