By SCOTT CHIUSANO
The Brooklyn Nets may still be two games under .500 in an Eastern conference that, despite winning the All-Star game, is laughable compared to the West. They may have only won by four on Sunday against a Lakers team that looks like a lost puppy without Kobe Bryant, and they may have gotten absolutely murdered by the Trailblazers. They may have traded for a guard whose biggest issue right now is how much lobster macaroni and cheese he had for dinner (Marcus Thorton, in case you were wondering.) Nevertheless, it was a good week to be a Brooklyn fan.
When newly-acquired center Jason Collins stepped onto the court at Staples Arena on Sunday night, he became the first openly gay athlete to appear in a game for one of North America’s four major sports leagues. There is a picture of him sitting by the scorer’s table, waiting to check in. He is holding his mouth guard in one hand and staring intently onto the court. There is no indication in his facial expression that Collins is thinking about what he is about to do. In the picture, he is focused on the action, trying to find out where he will fit in for his team. That is the same thing he has done the last 713 times he has checked into an NBA basketball game.
Collins played 11 minutes on Sunday. He had one shot attempt, two rebounds, one turnover and five personal fouls. And then it was over. It took only 11 minutes to change the history of NBA basketball, and yet the league has existed for 68 years with homosexual players masked in a shadow of anonymity. Finally, that shadow has been lifted.
After the game, most of the Nets players were noncommittal about the game’s meaning.
“It just wasn’t a big deal,” Deron Williams said. “It was a basketball player coming to a team that could help us win.”
Williams is right in a sense; it should not have been a big deal. In a perfect world, the media would have been focused on how Collins was going to help the Nets beat the Lakers; his sexual orientation would never even have been mentioned.
It has been just over 50 years since the Celtics put the first-ever all-Black starting lineup onto the court in the NBA. Forward Willie Naulls started in place of the injured Tommy Heinsohn, and just like that, another racial barrier was shattered. Unlike Jackie Robinson 17 years before, though, this one did not make a lot of noise. In fact, the press did not even cover it, and head coach Red Auerbach said he was not aware of the breakthrough he himself had orchestrated until a writer mentioned it to him a few weeks later.
A few weeks later? 1964 was arguably the climax of the Civil Rights movement. This was all taking place a little over a year after the March on Washington, and only a few months after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. It would have been a perfect opportunity for a nationally newsworthy story, but the newspapers somehow glossed over it. What has changed in media in the last 50 years that we are so much more willing to cover, and sometimes beat half to death, stories like these?
One answer is simply access. Social media and athletes’ willingness to connect themselves to social media has given us an inside look into their lives that was unavailable 50 years ago. There is more medium for discussion about breakthroughs like this one, and more opportunity for people to voice their opinions into open forums. This means that the media is forced to give extensive coverage to these stories, in order to make sure that there are facts available as well. Fear of backlash after reporting on an all-Black starting five would have been more of an issue for media outlets in the 1960s, simply because of the political implications.
So we do have to praise the media for its progressive coverage of people like Collins and Michael Sam. At the same time, though, we need to eventually start letting Jason Collins be a basketball player again. He may never be a great one, but for as long as he is with the Nets, he needs to be talked about as the gritty, aggressive, hacking NBA center he is. Players like Williams are allowing this to happen — which is of course a credit to him and others — but Collins is also helping his own cause with his poise and his candid, unsentimental responses to reporter’s questions.
“I don’t have time to really think about history,” Collins said before Sunday’s game. And he probably wasn’t lying. All in the matter of a day, Collins had signed a 10-day contract, flown to LA and been introduced to the style of play of a team — albeit with a new name — that he had once been a starter for 10 years before. There wasn’t much time to think.
Two days after Collins made his debut for the Nets, Roy Simmons — an NFL player who came out as gay after he retired — died at the age of 57. In his obituary in the New York Times, there was a quote from one of his former teammates, Butch Woolfolk, who in 2003 said to a reporter: “You can be a wife beater, do drugs, get in a car wreck and the team will take care of you. But if you’re gay, it’s like the military: Don’t ask, don’t tell.” It is truly satisfying to see how far we have come since the 1980’s, when Simmons had to play with such a large part of himself kept secret.
After Sunday’s game, Collins was swarmed by the media again. “I think in the news cycle that we have, with this story, there’s only so many questions you guys can ask,” he said.
Collins is right. There are no more questions to ask, and there is no longer a reason to ask them. Collins has opened up a door — for the second time in a matter of months — for more gay athletes to come in the future. Managers, coaches, teammates and the press, will no longer have to blink an eye.