Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert has made headlines with his play on the court during the NBA playoffs’ Eastern Conference Finals, during which he has manhandled the Miami Heat both offensively and defensively. Saturday night, after the Pacers punished the defending champions and stretched the series to a deciding Game 7, Hibbert made headlines off the court.
Hibbert’s first headline was provocative enough — he called the media a bunch of “motherf—–s” who hadn’t paid enough attention to his play throughout the season. His second veered off the deep end, when he used homophobic slang while describing his defensive play during Game 6. “I really felt that I let [Pacers forward Paul George] down in terms of having his back when LeBron was scoring in the post or getting to the paint, because they stretched me out so much,” Hibbert said. “No homo.”
What had started as a laughable press conference — his assessment of the media, if vulgar, was largely true — turned offensive, and the media reaction on Twitter and television was swift. Hibbert himself wasted little time apologizing. Within hours, he had reached out to Jason Collins, who just a month ago became the first active openly gay NBA player, on Twitter:
@jasoncollins34 hey can I get a follow. Would like to discuss something’s with you.
— Roy Hibbert (@Hoya2aPacer) June 2, 2013
If Collins responded to Hibbert, he did so privately, as he hasn’t made a public comment about the enigmatic center’s comments. Still, the presence of an openly gay NBA player seems already to have started changing the league and the way the media, fans, and even players themselves react to the use of slurs, even if Collins hasn’t yet found a team for the 2013-14 season.
Jason Collins was in the NBA when Kobe Bryant called an official a “fag,” he was there when Tim Hardaway said, “I hate gay people” and proclaimed himself a proud homophobe. In both instances, the reaction was negative: the NBA fined Bryant, while the retired Hardaway was on the wrong end of a media feeding frenzy. Still, the reaction is different: before Jason Collins, the party offended by those slurs was abstract, a player everyone (almost everyone, anyway) knew existed but that was merely a hypothetical. Now, players, fans, and the media have human face that is victimized, a man who has served as a teammate and friend and shattered the idea that homosexuality is a distant idea truly unknown by the stars of our sports.
Both Bryant, who chided Twitter followers using gay slurs earlier this year, and Hardaway, who stood up for Collins when he came out, learned from their mistakes and changed their attitudes. Neither did so as fast as Hibbert, and it seems likely that Collins is the reason why. Collins has put a face to the hurt, one that both represents other players who haven’t yet opened up and makes it evident that words like “no homo” aren’t offensive to a distant, disconnected minority but to friends, teammates, bosses, fans, and colleagues who prove that being “homo” isn’t a disqualifier for being a basketball player or anything else. Jason Collins might not yet have a place to play, but by being open, he’s already making the NBA a better place.