The market for aging, modestly skilled centers is not exactly robust in the National Basketball Association. That was true more than two months ago, when Jason Collins was celebrated as the first openly gay male athlete still active in a major American team sport. And it is true now.
It was at the end of April that Collins, his season with the Washington Wizards having ended, first disclosed that he was gay, seemingly shattering a barrier in professional sports.
Now, a week into the NBA’s summer signing period, he remains without a new team, and it could be weeks or even several months before he knows what his future holds. As he waits, he finds himself in a historic position as the first openly gay free agent seeking another contract. It is a moment being watched closely for its perceived sociological significance, although Collins himself is determined to keep his focus on basketball.
“I look at it, honestly, like any other free agency in the past several years, where I know I have to stay patient,” said the 34-year-old Collins, who played in only 38 games last season, averaging 10 minutes as a defensive-minded center for the Boston Celtics and later Washington Wizards. “And I know that at this point in my career, you remain hopeful that there’s a job and an opportunity waiting for you once teams start to fill out their rosters.”
Actually, as free agency went into effect July 1, Collins found himself engaged in the same obsessive pastime as nearly every other NBA player, coach, executive and fan: wondering what Dwight Howard would do.
The waiting game
Howard, a notoriously indecisive star, was weighing offers from five teams in an anxiety-inducing drama that stifled the free-agent market for days and kept lower-tier players like Collins waiting for Howard to make up his mind.
A short time later, Howard announced his intention to leave the Los Angeles Lakers and sign with the Houston Rockets, jolting the rest of the market to life.
Unlike Howard, Collins is not a coveted superstar or, at this stage of his career, even a coveted rotation player. His age works against him. He has not been a full-time starter in six years. His skills, modest even at his peak, are in decline. Indeed, his prospects were uneven before he disclosed his sexuality in a cover story in Sports Illustrated.
As such, neither Collins nor his longtime agent, Arn Tellem, know what to expect this summer.
Despite his limitations on the court, Collins is widely respected for his intelligence, loyalty and work ethic – plus a wicked sense of humor. Those skills make him the sort of prototypical locker-room leader that teams often seek in a 14th or 15th man. Such players practice hard, dispense wisdom to younger teammates and help keep everyone on track. And in a pinch, they can contribute on the court.
These lower-tier spots on a roster are generally not filled until late July or August, after the superstars, the second-tier stars and the top role players have all found new homes. Collins knows the drill well. Boston did not sign him until July 31 last year. In 2009, it took until Sept. 2 before the Atlanta Hawks gave him a one-year deal.
Regardless, Tellem said he was “cautiously optimistic” that Collins would be on a roster by opening night. He has represented both Jason and his twin brother, Jarron, since the two entered the league in 2001 and they all refer to each other as family.
“Obviously, I feel the pressure to do my very best for him, which I always do,” Tellem said. “But even more so now.”
From Collins’ standpoint, the disclosure of his sexuality was an act of personal fulfillment first but he says he appreciates the broader significance of this moment. When he signs his next contract – assuming there will eventually be one – it will be hailed as another step forward for society, a sign that gays can find acceptance even in the macho culture of an NBA locker room. If he goes unsigned, no matter the reason – and those reasons could never fully be known – it could be interpreted as a setback for gays in general.
“It would be a disappointment,” said Jim Buzinski, a co-founder of Outsports, a website devoted to gays and sports, “because we’re all waiting for it, to see him on the court, to go up against LeBron or Kobe or pick your favorite NBA superstar. He’s done it before as a closeted man. We want to see him do it as an openly gay man.”
If Collins never gets to do that, Buzinski added, his status as the first active male athlete to come out would fall away – “like a wedding that’s canceled at the last minute.”
To an extent, soccer’s Robbie Rogers, who disclosed that he was gay in February, has moved ahead of Collins by coming out of a brief retirement to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer. Collins and Rogers have met through mutual friends, and Collins said he was drawing inspiration from seeing Rogers return, gradually, to a sense of normalcy on the playing field.
“It was a big hoopla for a week or two, if that,” Collins said of Rogers’ re-emergence. “And then it’s all about soccer after that.” He said he hoped the same thing would happen with him, although MLS does not in any way resonate in this country the way that the NBA does.
Something to prove
But just like Collins and Tellem, NBA officials and team executives can’t be sure how this will all unfold.
There could be teams who will shy away from signing Collins out of a fear of locker-room tension or the possibility of alienating some fans. Some might simply be wary of the hype that would accompany Collins’ arrival on the team, the added demands from the news media and the potential for a distraction.
Conversely, some teams might see an opportunity to demonstrate their open-mindedness or even as a chance to connect with gay fans, while also adding a tough-minded veteran.
For now, Collins is spending time with family and working out daily near his home in West Los Angeles, waiting to resume his career. The implications of it all he will interpret at some later date, when the hypotheticals have given way to concrete facts. He will either be signed, or he will not.
“It won’t weigh on me,” Collins said. “I’ve been blessed. I’ve played 12 years in this league. Not a lot of professional athletes, not a lot of basketball players, can say that they’ve played for over a decade. But at the same point, I still feel like, just like a lot of other professional athletes, that I still can contribute to a team and I still have something left to go out and prove.”