It was April 29 of last year when Jason Collins came out as gay on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and it seemed certain then that Collins, who had finished the 2013 season and was entering free agency, would make history as the first openly gay man to play in one of the four major American sports leagues.
Five months later, that certainty has turned to worry that professional sports might have come so close, only to have to play the waiting game again. The NBA season began, unofficially, with media days on Monday. Training camp opens today for all 30 teams. None of their rosters include Jason Collins.
It’s still possible that Collins will find a team, that a training camp injury or other circumstances will alert a team to a need Collins can fill, that he’ll sign a 10-day contract temporarily or a year-long deal that buys him one more year. But with camp open and Collins absent, we have no choice but to confront the possibility that the season will go on without Jason Collins and that the wait for an openly gay player will continue.
Does that mean the NBA isn’t as ready as we thought it was, that even though a survey of executives said they thought Collins would find a spot, that his sexuality is keeping any of them from giving one to him? That’s possible, but unlikely. Collins received widespread support from players, coaches, executives, and the league office when he came out last year, and owners like Mark Cuban hailed his coming out as a breakthrough for the league. More likely is that Collins simply isn’t good enough to merit a job in the NBA, at least right now, or that Collins, an aging role player, would be in this same position had that Sports Illustrated article never published, if he were a straight basketball player or had he waited until retirement to come out.
For all the celebration in April, the possibility of Collins not finding a team was always real, not because the league remains a bastion of homophobia but because Collins isn’t exactly a superstar. He averaged just 10 minutes of playing time in 38 games split between Boston and Washington last year, and he is a journeyman who turns 35 in December and hasn’t averaged more than 2 points per game since 2008 or 3 rebounds per game since 2006. Far from a superstar, he doesn’t even do anything all that well, and his one discernible quality — his ability to come off the bench and bang with big centers who are skilled in the post — has gone out of vogue in a league dominated by mobile, athletic big men and Gumby-armed shot-blockers. Collins, unfortunately, is neither.
But even if Collins misses out on merit, it will hurt, if only because he had already seemed to shift the mentality of the NBA. When Roy Hibbert uttered “no homo” in a playoff press conference, the affected party was no longer faceless — it was one of them, a guy players knew and related to. Hibbert quickly apologized and reached out to Collins too. We got a taste then of what an NBA with an openly gay player might look and feel like, a sampling of a professional sports world that finally seemed ready to embrace equality.
If the season goes on without Collins, that taste, the small signs of progress that came with it, and a reminder of how close we were may be all we get for now. It might be easy to fall back on the belief that the NBA still isn’t ready for a gay player, but I still think it is, and painting the NBA as homophobic and blaming Collins’ sexuality for his lack of a roster spot carries consequences that will only make it harder for other gay players to come out too. If Jason Collins doesn’t find a team, it won’t be a confirmation of our worst fears about the NBA. Instead, it’ll be a painful reminder that we’ll have to keep waiting for proof that our best hopes about a new era in professional sports are real.