As David Stern talked on the telephone on Tuesday, there resonated a ripple of relief over the revelations of John Amaechi. All that the commissioner needed was a knucklehead to let loose on a non-star's sexuality, and he would've spent his sport's biggest party week defending the sensibilities of his sport.
Somehow, the NBA had sidestepped the opening round of reaction to a backup center stepping out of the shadows. Truth be told, the silliest sound bites were mostly spit out of the mouth of scrubs, low-lighted by the 76ers' Shav Randolph saying he could tolerate a homosexual teammate as long as he didn't bring that "gayness on me."
"I don't make much of a particular twentysomething player or two who have a microphone thrown in their face," Stern said.
In the NBA, the commissioner would say, "The question is: Do you have game?"
As it turned out, there wouldn't be such a clean getaway. Here came Tim Hardaway on Wednesday night, calling into Dan Le Batard's radio show in Miami and letting loose. The old Heat star happened to be in Vegas working on behalf of – and no, you can't make this up – the NBA Cares program.
"You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known," Hardaway blurted. "I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people. I'm homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States."
Once Hardaway got started, there was no stopping him on the issue of a gay teammate in the NBA. He wouldn't stand for it. The way he talked, it sounded like he expected people to be cheering him on.
"First of all, I wouldn't want him on my team. And second of all, if he was on my team, I would, you know, really distance myself from him because, uh, I don't think that is right. I don't think he should be in the locker room while we are in the locker room."
And on and on Hardaway went, until he had talked himself out of ever working in the NBA again, until he made the faint debate of Amaechi into a bigger, if not clumsier, discussion. Hardaway's hate is sad and shameful and maybe the most worthwhile thing that could've surfaced on this issue because we're always better off knowing the truth that simmers within people.
Even if, like this, it is hard to hear.
"Finally," Amaechi said later, "someone who is honest."
Amaechi would go onto say that it's those kind words that create a climate where it's all right for young gay people in schools to get harassed, for those in a lot of walks of life and professions – far from NBA locker rooms – to realize once again that they have no choice but to keep so much of themselves a secret.
Sports had long been a prism in which to study the great societal issues. In a lot of ways, the start of the civil rights movement in America had been pushed along with Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color line. Only now, the revelation of Amaechi – unimpressive player, impressive man – had probably done little to advance the cause of acceptance until Hardaway started talking on the radio. Now everyone gets to think about what Hardaway had to say, about what he feels, and consider how it fits or stands in contrast with their own sensibilities.
As Stern told me the other day: "This is a nation that is quasi focused on various ramifications of the issue, like partner benefits and gay marriage. It's a hot-button issue all around."
Listen, stupidity in sports and society doesn't know the limits of Hardaway's mind. This time, he happened to be the vessel. In the East, there's a college basketball coach who has a reputation for telling recruits that an opposing bachelor coach is gay. He's done it to different coaches, and his warped thinking to the kids is unmistakable: Go play for those guys and run the risk of him trying to get into your shorts.
Of course, there are gay college basketball coaches, and only an idiot would believe that leaves his players vulnerable to some kind of inappropriate advances. Homosexuality doesn't translate into predatory behavior anymore than heterosexuality does. And this coach is supposed to be an educator, a molder of men. As long as there are coaches conducting themselves that way, there promises to be another generation of Hardaways spit up through the system.
So here comes a weekend on the Vegas strip where the NBA and its players get to take a good long, look at themselves. Around every corner, temptations await. Maybe there wasn't much to think about on the way into the All-Star weekend party, but on some level, Tim Hardaway did everyone a favor and changed that.
He hates gays, and thus proclaimed, "Let it be known."
So, who's with him in the NBA?
Deep down, most of us probably aren't prepared to hear the answer.