Since making the announcement last spring that he is a gay professional basketball player, Jason Collins has been widely praised, received much support and made many new friends. But with training camp for a new season under way, he has been waiting for a call from an NBA team. Any NBA team.
When Collins, 34, a seven-foot centre, wrote his coming-out cover story for Sports Illustrated – “My declaration,” he said – he proudly spoke of having been called a pro’s pro for his team-first, lunch-pail style. Never a star, his career has nonetheless spanned 12 years and six teams after four years at Stanford University, where he played with his twin, Jarron.
“That’s how I still consider myself,” he said in an interview last Wednesday, his first since NBA training camps opened without his participation. “Sure, I’ve picked up another title. But I feel that’s always who I’m going to be – that person who sets a good example, who represents the sport and is an asset to my team and a role model for other players.”
The question Collins has to ponder is why he has not been signed as a free agent. Is it because he is at best a marginal player with modest career statistics (3.6 points, 3.8 rebounds a game) nearing the end of his career, one who would cost more than a younger player based on the league’s collectively bargained pay scale? Or is there something more sinister at work related to the new role he would play?
Collins did not dismiss the latter notion or address it.
“You don’t want to speculate – I don’t go there,” he said, while picking at a bowl of greens in a cafe in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, near where he lives.
However, while conceding he would at this stage of his career be at the lower end of a team’s depth chart, he admitted being perplexed because, he said: “I feel there are players in the league right now that, quite frankly, I’m better than.”
As teams firmed up their rosters in late summer, Collins’s agent, Arn Tellem, received inquiries from at least three teams in the market for a reserve big man who understands positional defence. One of them, the Detroit Pistons, settled on Josh Harrellson, a third-year player who cost the Pistons more than $500,000 (U.S.) less than the nearly $1.4-million Collins would have earned via the minimum salary for a player with his experience.
Several league executives contacted for this article said the number of teams interested in Collins had gotten smaller because of the newly implemented penalties for teams exceeding the luxury-tax threshold.
Collins acknowledged signing younger players would be more prudent financially, but asked how experience could be discounted in such a competitive sport.
“In my mind it shouldn’t be about that,” he said, meaning cutting cost corners.
“The NBA is for the best players, not for the most affordable players. There isn’t a professional athlete that doesn’t want to play 12, 13 years. What I did when I was younger was look up to the guys like Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning who played over a decade. What did they do to last that long? A lot of it is keeping your body in shape, keeping your mind sharp, staying hungry. You should always want guys around like that to set that example, in my mind,” Collins added.
David Stern, the NBA commissioner, and Adam Silver, who will replace Stern in February, would not comment on Collins other than to say the league has been in close contact with Tellem and they were satisfied that teams were making only basketball-related decisions.
But one team’s general manager, speaking on condition of anonymity, said “some teams just might not want to deal with it because of the media implications.”
The issue of what might be a challenge for an individual team versus what is best for the league’s overall image figured to be a thorny one for the NBA from the moment Collins publicly declared his intention to be the first openly gay man playing a major U.S. team sport. (Robbie Rogers of Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy has since filled the breach.)
The NBA has long prided itself on being as socially progressive as it is diverse, and many supporters of gay rights – along with many high-profile players – cheered Collins’s announcement.
Richard Lapchick, a human-rights activist and sports industry watchdog, said at the time: “I do think it’s important for him to be in the league as a visible symbol. If he makes this courageous stand but then disappears from the locker room, it would not do it justice.”
However, the combination of Collins’s age and the financial complexities are impossible to ignore.
Recently, Lapchick said: “In all my work on hiring practices, I always argue to bring a diverse pool into the interview process and then hire the best person. I am rooting hard for Jason to play this year, but I want him to make it on his own – for his sake and for the sake of the issue.”
Another gay athletes’ advocate, Hudson Taylor, executive director of Athlete Ally, wrote in an e-mail: “The decision to sign him rests with individual team owners. One of them has to step up.”
Doc Rivers, who coached Collins for part of last season in Boston and is now coach and chief basketball executive of the Los Angeles Clippers, said he would have no problem being the one.
“Let me put it this way, if one of my bigs goes down and he’s not signed, I’m signing him,” Rivers said.
“I’m not signing him because he’s gay. I’m not signing him because it’s a story and it brings us attention. I’m signing him because he has a value to help us win. I do have the advantage that I coached him and I know what type of guy he is, how tough he is,” he added.
Over the gruelling NBA season, players are invariably injured. Smart, experienced big men are not easy to replace. Collins nodded at the mention of Kenyon Martin, a brawny veteran who was unsigned for much of last season before playing a significant role last spring for the New York Knicks.
“This is not an unprecedented situation, as far as being a veteran and not joining a team until later in the season,” he said. “So there are a lot of ways that this can play out.”
Asked if he would consider playing abroad, he said, firmly: “I’m an NBA player. I want to play in the NBA. I just have to stay in this mode of handling this test, of having patience. You know, I have faced worse in my life.”