Jason Collins, Openly Gay and Still Unsigned, Waits and Wonders

LOS ANGELES — Since making the
announcement last spring that he is a
gay professional basketball player,
Jason Collins has been widely praised,
received much support and made many
new friends. But with training camp
for a new season under way, he has
been waiting for a call from an N.B.A.
team. Any N.B.A. team.
When Collins, 34, a 7-foot center, wrote
his coming-out cover story for Sports
Illustrated — “my declaration,” he said
— he proudly spoke of having been
called a pro’s pro for his team-first,
lunch-pail style. Never a star, he has
nonetheless had a career spanning 12
years and 6 teams after four years at
Stanford, where he played with his
twin, Jarron.
“That’s how I still consider myself,” he
said Wednesday in his first interview
since N.B.A. training camps opened
last month without his participation.
“Sure, I’ve picked up another title. But I
feel that’s always who I’m going to be
— that person who sets a good example,
who represents the sport and is an asset
to my team and a role model for other
players.”
The question Collins has to ponder is
why he has not been signed as a free
agent. Is it because he is at best a
marginal player with modest career
statistics (3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds
a game) nearing the end of his career,
one who would cost more than a
younger player based on the league’s
collectively bargained pay scale? Or is
there something more sinister at work
related to the new role he would play?
Collins did not dismiss the latter notion
or address it.
“You don’t want to speculate — I don’t
go there,” he said while picking at a
bowl of greens in a cafe in the
Brentwood section of Los Angeles, near
where he lives. But while conceding he
would be at the lower end of a team’s
depth chart at this stage of his career,
he admitted being perplexed because, he
said, “I feel there are players in the
league right now that, quite frankly,
I’m better than.”
As teams firmed up their rosters in late
summer, Collins’s agent, Arn Tellem,
received inquiries from at least three
teams in the market for a reserve big
man who understood positional
defense. One of them, the Detroit
Pistons, settled on Josh Harrellson, a
third-year player who cost the Pistons
more than $500,000 less than the
nearly $1.4 million Collins would have
earned — the minimum salary for a
player with his experience.
Several league executives said the
number of teams interested in Collins
had shrunk because of new penalties
for teams exceeding the luxury tax
threshold.
Brooklyn was thought to be a potential
landing site because Collins spent
roughly half his career with the Nets
when they played in New Jersey, where
he was a trusted teammate of Jason
Kidd, now the team’s coach. But with
the Nets’ soaring payroll, Collins would
have cost the team almost four times
his salary in taxes.
Collins acknowledged that signing
younger players would be more
prudent financially, but he asked how
experience could be discounted in such
a competitive sport.
“In my mind it shouldn’t be about
that,” he said, referring to minimizing
costs. “The N.B.A. is for the best
players, not for the most affordable
players. There isn’t a professional
athlete that doesn’t want to play 12, 13
years. What I did when I was younger
was look up to the guys like Dikembe
Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning who
played over a decade. What did they do
to last that long? A lot of it is keeping
your body in shape, keeping your mind
sharp, staying hungry. You should
always want guys around like that to
set that example, in my mind.”
David Stern, the N.B.A.’s
commissioner, and Adam Silver, who
will replace Stern in February, would
not comment on Collins, other than to
say that the league had been in close
contact with Tellem and that they were
satisfied that teams were making only
basketball-related decisions. But one
team’s general manager, speaking on
the condition of anonymity, said that
“some teams just might not want to
deal with it because of the media
implications.”
The issue of what might be a challenge
for an individual team versus what is
best for the league’s overall image
figured to be a thorny one for the
N.B.A. from the moment Collins
publicly declared his intention to be the
first openly gay man playing a major
American team sport. (Robbie Rogers
of Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles
Galaxy has since filled the breach.)
The N.B.A. has long prided itself on
being as socially progressive as it is
diverse, and many supporters of gay
rights — along with many high-profile
players — cheered Collins’s
announcement.
Richard Lapchick, a human-rights
activist and sports industry watchdog,
said at the time: “I do think it’s
important for him to be in the league as
a visible symbol. If he makes this
courageous stand but then disappears
from the locker room, it would not do
it justice.”
But the combination of Collins’s age
and the financial complexities are
impossible to ignore. Recently,
Lapchick said: “In all my work on
hiring practices, I always argue to
bring a diverse pool into the interview
process and then hire the best person. I
am rooting hard for Jason to play this
year, but I want him to make it on his
own — for his sake and for the sake of
the issue.”
Another advocate for gay athletes,
Hudson Taylor, the executive director
of Athlete Ally, wrote in an e-mail:
“The decision to sign him rests with
individual team owners. One of them
has to step up.”
Doc Rivers, who coached Collins for
part of last season in Boston and is
now the coach and chief basketball
executive of the Los Angeles Clippers,
said he would have no problem being
the one.
“Let me put it this way: if one of my
bigs goes down and he’s not signed, I’m
signing him,” Rivers said. “I’m not
signing him because he’s gay. I’m not
signing him because it’s a story and it
brings us attention. I’m signing him
because he has a value to help us win. I
do have the advantage that I coached
him, and I know what type of guy he is,
how tough he is.”
Over the grueling N.B.A. season,
players are invariably injured. Smart,
experienced big men are not easy to
replace. Collins nodded at the mention
of Kenyon Martin, a brawny veteran
who was unsigned for much of last
season before playing a significant role
last spring for the Knicks.
“This is not an unprecedented situation,
as far as being a veteran and not
joining a team until later in the
season,” Collins said. “So there are a lot
of ways that this can play out.”
In the meantime, Collins works out six
days a week, taking Sundays off. He
runs on hills, treadmills and tracks. He
does yoga. He shoots around. He enjoys
living in Los Angeles, where he grew up
and where Jarron works for the
Clippers. With Bill Bean, a former
baseball player who is gay, Collins
threw out the first pitch at a Dodgers
game in late September.
In conversation, he laughs easily but
steadfastly says he is ready for
whatever slings, arrows and elbows the
game might throw at him.
He welcomes the many people who
approach him — far more than before
his announcement, he said — to wish
him well and share their own coming-
out stories.
Some of his new acquaintances are
those he has long and secretly admired,
like tennis’s Martina Navratilova, a
champion of L.G.B.T. rights.
Communicating by e-mail, she has told
him he should understand that his
actions will have lasting impacts on
people he may never meet.
This week, he met David Kopay, a
former N.F.L. player and one of the
first professional athletes to come out.
He has befriended Rogers, whom he has
watched play for the Galaxy. And he
believes that even if he never plays
another N.B.A. game, he will have had
a lasting impact on the league’s social
conscience.
Collins noted that when Indiana center
Roy Hibbert made a homophobic
remark to the news media last spring,
he was immediately fined $75,000. “It
was language that in the past might
have gone unnoticed,” Collins said.
“Now everyone knows.”
He added: “With regard to social
progress, I know what David Stern and
Adam Silver want as far as changing
the culture of sport. I think they know
that everyone looks to the N.B.A., and
they’ve done an excellent job.”
Now all Collins wants is a job that
allows him to suit up again, to blend his
new normal with an old routine.
Having declared who exactly he is, he
just wants to be who he was.
“I love puzzles, challenges, the feeling
that you get when you have an obstacle
and go through adversity, finding the
strength to go on,” he said. “As an
athlete, that all makes sense to me. I do
have that feeling now that I’m not
alone in this and I have that mind-set,
you know, of ‘bring it on.’ ”
Asked if he would consider playing
abroad, he said, firmly: “I’m an N.B.A.
player. I want to play in the N.B.A. I
just have to stay in this mode of
handling this test, of having patience.
You know, I have faced worse in my
life.”