In the same year I attended a Nets playoff game. The Nets were playing the Heat and Collins was assigned to Shaquille O’Neal, by far the NBA’s most dominant center at the time. I then learned of the true role of Jason Collins. Collins played good, strong defense; something that I had never noticed in the past. That night, his “biggest fan” was there. He was wearing a custom-made Jason Collins jersey and cheered for him every play of the game.
It was then that I began to not only notice, but also appreciate the little things that he did. Collins, or “Set Shot Willie” as former Nets announcer Mark Jackson affectionately referred to him, was a stand up guy. He was never overly vocal, never in-your-face, and never tried to start anything. Everyone knew and respected him for who he was as both a person and a player. As Collins left the Nets, I too strayed away from the team. Yet, much like his flashier and more dynamic counterparts Jason Kidd and Vince Carter, he will forever hold a special place in my heart.
When Jason came out several days ago, the entire sports world buzzed. I could attempt to summarize or restate how he felt. However, I feel that those words are best left to Collins himself. The article he did for Sports Illustrated really was fantastic. It will be released on May 6th and everyone, regardless of their interest or opinion in sports, should check it out. This moment that Jason has created is much larger than perhaps it theoretically should be; yet for what the world is like today, it truly is monumental. Collins is now the first active athlete in the four major US professional sports (MLB, NBA, NHL, and NFL) to publicly be out as homosexual. And in a fashion so characteristic of himself, he executed it perfectly.
Here now is the force that has broken the barrier of perceived “masculinity” and heteronormativity in the world of sports. For the first time in his NBA career, Collins is truly the center of attention. When John Amaechi came out several years ago, it was also momentous. Yet Amaechi was done. He was no longer competing. He no longer would have to endure taunts from fans, from players even. Collins stands as a lone warrior of sorts. There may be chants from fans, second glances in the locker rooms. But for every ounce of negative awareness that this garners from people, there will be just as much positivity. There will be support, there will be progress, there will be an eventual build to “who cares, let’s just play basketball.” And isn’t that what it should be really? Kids growing up seeing these players and these ideals reflected in and around their lives. This is true progress.
So what now? Jason Collins will keep playing. He is a true NBA journeyman, trudging along while entering his 13th season with career averages of 3.3 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. He, in true Jason Collins fashion, has made his statement at the most opportune time. A few months ago, in Boston, Collins did not want to interrupt the flow of the season and create a distraction around his team. He kept quiet for years, only to calmly state his case to the world when he needed to do so. Perhaps maybe others will too. There have been thousands upon thousands of athletes who felt the same as Jason throughout their entire lives. As he described it, “It’s like waking up and seeing a blue sky every day, but telling yourself it’s red.” Now anyone, regardless of what sport, what profession, or what path they choose for their lives can be free to live their lives and open up. Is this transformation in our society today not incredible? That is what Jason describes the support he has garnered as, “just incredible”. Perhaps this signals the coming of a future generation. Collins’ coming out has indeed helped to transform sexuality in the realm of sports. Yet, it is the reaction to this coming out that helps solidify true progress. Now when future generations grow, they can watch their favorite players and listen to what they have to say. If their favorite players support gay rights or are openly gay themselves, children can re-evaluate or reaffirm their beliefs. Sports themselves can progress. And after all of this, was there really anyone better to create this moment than Jason Collins? He’s no star, no character. To many, he’s just another nameless player, a backup Center with bad knees on a mediocre team. To me, he’ll still be “Twin” or “Set Shot Willie”. But to himself, he can finally be Jason Collins.