By Michelle Garcia
Originally published on Advocate.com February 28 2014 7:00 AM ET
Even Jason Collins is waiting for Jason Collins to be a nonstory.
As he and the Brooklyn Nets prepared for practice at UCLA Tuesday, journalists waiting outside the gym could be overheard wondering how many different ways Collins could be asked about being the first gay NBA player.
Once the gym doors opened, media swarmed to the 7-foot-tall center, who awaited the onslaught of questions about fitting in on the team, hateful tweets, the length of his contract, proving himself to the team and to fans, and the applause he received when making his first appearance on the court during his game Sunday against the Los Angeles Lakers.
But what Collins is there to do, he says, is not to simply be the gay guy on the team.
"Basketball is my priority right now," he told reporters. "It's about [learning] the plays, it's about the calls, and getting comfortable with what the Nets do on the court."
As he said to The Advocate at that practice on Tuesday, he's there to do what he's always done during his 12 seasons on various NBA teams.
"My role on this team is to be what my role has always been: that's to go out there, be physical, get my teammates open, and make it difficult on the other team," he said, before lacing up his sneakers and hitting practice shots at one of the nearby hoops.
And yet, his new teammate, Deron Williams, snapped a photo of Collins, swarmed by reporters at a practice day — certainly a unique sight.
Since Collins, a free agent, was signed by the Brooklyn Nets just a few days ago, all eyes have been on the squad. Collins seems to have found the right team, anchored by former Nets star Jason Kidd, who is now the coach,
Of Collins, forward Paul Pierce said the Nets have "embraced him," and Williams said he was "happy he's on our team," while also saying that, in the end, it wasn't a big deal because Collins "can help us win." After the Sunday game against the Lakers, Joe Johnson said everything was simply "normal. Not any different."
Andrei Kirilenko waved away questions about sharing a locker room with Collins. "[We don't have any situation in the locker room," he said. "We just treat him as a normal player."
Kidd flat-out told reporters that Collins wasn't a distraction — the media was.
"We’re basketball players, and we’re here to do one thing — and that’s to find a way to win," he said, according to The New York Times. "You guys are the distraction. You guys are. It doesn’t bother us."
Collins with reporters at a practice session at UCLA Tuesday
It's an interesting contrast to repeated grumblings that the likely NFL rookie Michael Sam could become a distraction to his team because of all of the media attention that would be drummed up by having the first openly gay player in professional football.
Not only did this team rally around to support Collins the moment he donned his black-and-white Brooklyn jersey — when he took a spill on the court during the second quarter against the Lakers, three of his teammates ran over to help him up — but they also seem to be protective of him. The quick sense of camaraderie is palpable in observing the Nets over just a few days, surely helped by the fact that the 35-year-old is a seasoned veteran. He's played with Kidd, Pierce, Johnson, and Kevin Garnett in the past, while his twin brother, Jarron Collins, has played with Williams and Kirilenko on the Utah Jazz. Collins is no rookie. He's been around the block, and as he said Tuesday, he's got nothing to prove at this point.
"Most of the guys here know what I can do, and the key thing is just being in shape," he said.
If anything, it goes to show that Collins is on the right team. The Brooklyn Nets weren't stuck with him; they wanted him. Robbie Rogers had a similar experience when he came out and immediately retired from professional soccer, only to be recruited back into playing by the L.A. Galaxy, a team that has welcomed him warmly. When Sam does get drafted this spring, the team will be ready to welcome him, already knowing the big news. The "distraction" that every NFL pundit speaks of will eventually die down, as long as Sam is chosen by a team that wants him, just as Collins has been.
The NBA, and its players and coaches, get the significance of having Collins on the team. This is a league where meetings with GLAAD were a regular occurence not too long ago. Here in 2014, players understand the gravity, but in the end, it seems we're all striving for a world in which having a gay player on a professional team is the opposite of a big deal.
For Collins, the day-to-day dealings with playing professionally while gay are incidental.
“I have no idea [when the media attention will stop]," he said Tuesday. "That’s kind of up to you guys, that’s not up to me. And with regards to the media, there’s only so many ways you can write the story. There’s only so many ways you can talk about the off-the-court stuff until the focus really is on basketball and how the team is doing.”
But he knows that the overall weight of his career is no small thing. He wore number 98 when he played for the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics in 2012 and 2013. The number was in memory of slain gay college student Matthew Shepard, who was brutally murdered in Wyoming in 1998. It's a tradition that he's brought to the Nets. One that's already made it the best-selling jersey on NBA.com at the moment, even before he officially was able to don it during his second game for the Nets, with the Portland Trail Blazers Wednesday.
Following the Nets' first game with Collins, a 108-102 win over the Lakers, the team went north to Portland. There Collins was greeted with the same response that fans would give any other athlete from the opposing team as he entered the court — nothing.
Progress, in a sense, for the first openly gay player in the NBA.