BOSTON — He no longer holds pregame press conferences at a podium. The crowds of reporters are still there, but smaller. About a quarter of the questions are actually about basketball, for a change.
Jason Collins is gradually becoming just another NBA player again, which is fine by him. He will always be admired as a barrier-breaker for becoming the first openly gay active male athlete in a major North American sport, but there isn’t as much hubbub anymore. In fact, the hype died down fairly quickly, just as Collins and numerous others predicted it would.
“It’s less now,” Collins said at the Brooklyn Nets’ shootaround at TD Garden on Friday morning. “There’s only like three or four of you guys this morning. It started out huge. I think there’s only so many ways you can write the story about the off-the-court stuff.”
Who would have thought that Paul Pierce’s second trip back to Boston would compete for attention with Collins’ return? While a small scrum gathered around Pierce, an equal-sized — yet far from massive — group surrounded Collins across the parquet.
In a way, Collins is getting a taste of what it’s been like for Pierce to deal with the media his entire career. He travels from city to city, answering the same rough set of questions every day, so every reporter can write pretty much the same set of stories. But he gets it. Pierce has always been the leader of his team, just as Collins is now a leader for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
Collins came out in a Sports Illustrated article last April, after the end of the season and after he had been traded away from the Celtics in February. But the seeds of his announcement were planted in Boston. He chose No. 98 for his Celtics jersey as a tribute to Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was tortured to death in 1998, though he jokingly told reporters at the time that the number choice was to force spiteful referees to signal “98” at the scorer’s table after calling fouls on him. Before his announcement, Collins spoke to Pierce and former Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who supported him both privately and publicly.
Like his interactions with Pierce and Rivers, the reaction Collins has received on the road, whether from fans or opponents, has been overwhelmingly positive. Rather than be a target for scorn, he has been a source of admiration for people of every sexuality.
Not that Collins doesn’t still have a different kind of target on him. Always foul-prone during his 13-year NBA career, Collins is once again hacking up a storm, averaging almost nine fouls per 36 minutes in six games with the Nets. Officials haven’t let up on Collins just because he happens to be a little more famous now.
“I wake up and probably have three fouls already,” Collins joked. “I check into the game, the ref cleans his whistle off to get ready: ‘OK, 98’s coming in!’ I’m one of those players that’s physical, that’s going to use my fouls.”
“Hey,” he added, shrugging. “You can’t take them with you.”