Did you feel it?
When Jason Collins checked into the game for the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday night, did you feel the seismic tremors? Human sacrifice? Dogs and cats living together? Mass hysteria?
To quote the late, great Harold Ramis, did all life as you know it stop instantaneously and every molecule in your body explode at the speed of light? Total plutonic reversal?
For decades, we had been told that an openly gay professional athlete would cause untold complications for those he would play with and against. Those fears were expressed once again earlier this month, when NFL prospect Michael Sam announced he was gay and saw his draft stock plummet.
But when Collins took the court in Los Angeles, the game wasn’t halted to make way for the gay pride parade marching through Staples Center. None of the worst fears — whatever they might be — of those opponents to an openly gay male athlete in a major North American sport came to fruition, aside from the presence of the openly gay athlete himself. It was all so … normal.
And that is the thing that might shock people over the next 10 days, as Collins serves out his contract with the Nets. There will be a media blitz, for certain, and he’ll get deserved ovations everywhere he plays, as he did Sunday in L.A. Pretty soon, though, Collins’ presences will stop being an event. He’ll no longer get pregame press conferences. He’ll commit a hard foul on a star player on the road and get booed. He’ll be just another NBA roster-filler, like he has been for a dozen-plus pro seasons.
If you don’t believe that, you haven’t been paying attention. Already, the manner of Collins’ arrival was remarkably unremarkable. Mired in free agency since he announced his sexuality last April, Collins signed a late-season contract with a playoff contender whose frontcourt depth was racked by injuries — just as most objective observers predicted. His signing was delayed while the Nets pondered two better options, Jordan Hill and Glen Davis, before settling on Collins as their third choice — just as teams normally would with a 35-year-old role player. On the court, Collins contributed zero points, two rebounds and five personal fouls in 11 minutes — just the type of stat line he’s recorded for the last 12 years.
For all Sam’s pitch-perfect handling of his own coming-out party, there was one aspect in which the NFL prospect was mistaken. Sam called Collins an “activist,” differentiating Collins from himself as “just a football player.” That’s not quite right. Collins is just a basketball player, one who just happened to be the first to step forward and, as a result, became an activist through his very presence. The same has happened with Sam.
But Collins won’t make a civil rights speech before every game. He won’t rally or wave any flags at midcourt for the next week and a half. He won’t be introduced as a “gay center out of Stanford.” He won’t disrupt the locker room by doing … whatever it was some folks were afraid an openly gay teammate would.
We have been warned for so long that the world wasn’t ready for an openly gay athlete, and now that it’s happened, forgive us for wondering, “We weren’t ready for this?” We weren’t ready for a 7-foot person playing basketball? Because that’s all Collins is. He set screens on Sunday. He hacked opponents. If you overlooked the fact that there was a barrier breaker on the court, the Nets-Lakers tilt almost looked like a regular basketball game. To underscore just how normal the game was, the Lakers lost, which is about as normal as it gets this season.
By stepping on the court, Collins changes everything and nothing at the same time. Society should be able to handle this OK. It’s tough to see what anyone was ever so scared of in the first place.