When Jason Collins came out as gay in a Sports Illustrated cover story earlier this year, he was hailed as the first male athlete who played in one of the four major American sports leagues to do so. By then, though, the season was over, and Collins’ contract with the Washington Wizards had expired. Collins had work to do — namely, proving that defensive specialist who averaged 1.1 points a game last year was a necessary buy for any NBA team — to become the first openly gay man to appear in a game in any of those leagues.
An already-short list of potential suitors shortened further this weekend when the Detroit Pistons said they were moving on and would not sign Collins to replace center Slava Kravtsov, who they traded to Milwaukee in July.
It’s natural for LGBT advocates — and Collins, for that matter — to worry every time another team says thanks, but we’ll look elsewhere. Fret not, though, because it’s still a little early to let that worry eat away at hopes that Collins will ultimately return to the NBA, and it’s way too early to bemoan the NBA as less ready for an out player than league, organizational, and player responses made it look like when Collins came out in April.
The process of finding a team was never going to be fast or easy for Collins, not because of his sexuality but because he’s Jason Collins. He is, as previously mentioned, a 34-year-old journeyman center whose value doesn’t show up on a stat sheet. He’s averaged just 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds over his 12-year career, during which he’s played for six teams. His basic stats were even less impressive in 2012-2013, when he averaged 1.1 points and 1.6 rebounds while playing 10 minutes a game for Boston and then Washington.
Collins is, in short, an expendable role player, the type of guy who brings teams a very specific set of talents: he’s not a scorer, a rebounder, or a shot-blocker. On first glance, he doesn’t seem to do much of note. He does, however, provide a big body that is effective at guarding offensive-minded centers for several minutes at a time when a team’s younger, more talented big men need a breather.
None of that is a knock on Collins. NBA teams need players like him to fill specific needs, and he’s been good at the specific need he fills. Players like Jason Collins, though, don’t get signed to new contracts when the NBA’s free agency period opens in July. They often make it through August without a team too (Collins and his agent, Arn Tellem, know this — it’s what they’ve expected all along). A worry-wart could point out that Collins signed with Boston on July 31, 2012. But he also didn’t sign with the Atlanta Hawks until September 2, 2009, and that was three seasons ago. In the NBA’s transaction register from last summer, there are plenty of roster-fillers signing in late August and early September. That’s just how this league works, especially when it comes to a veteran like Collins who, even on a minimum salary, is more expensive than many his younger counterparts.
Are NBA teams worried that the media attention around Collins will create a distraction? Unlikely. When Major League Soccer’s Robbie Rogers returned to the pitch for the L.A. Galaxy after coming out, he made headlines for a few days before the league returned to normal. The NBA may be more popular and a bigger media story than MLS, but just as it did with Rogers, the novelty around having an openly gay player will wear off rather quickly. Any attention a team that signs Collins receives in the interim will only be positive.
NBA training camp opens in about six weeks. If Collins is still without a team then, it may be time for his supporters to start wondering when and if he’ll break onto the court as an openly gay man. There’s a good chance, though, that Collins would be in a similar situation right now even if he hadn’t come out as gay four months ago. So for now it’s better to sit back and let the business of basketball play itself out. Odds are, there’s a team that thinks Jason Collins is good enough to help out and if that’s the case it will sign him, regardless of his sexuality.