The New Jersey Nets trainer used to walk down the hall to Lawrence Frank's office and tell him those knees of Jason Collins' were too badly beaten up, that the coach should prepare for the possibility of Collins sitting out.
"There were so many times where we would say that there's no way [Collins] could play, but he always did," Frank told Yahoo! Sports on Monday. "And he always gave you everything he had, every time."
As it turns out, Jason Collins played with pain and suffered in silence. This was part of the reason that such admiration washed over Frank for Collins' proclamation as the first active gay player in pro sports history. For bigger reasons, everyone else will appreciate Collins the way his old coach did, the way his old teammates did: He's a man's man and a pro's pro.
Those who know Collins were surprised on Monday – and then they weren't at all. They know Collins is a man of intelligence and character, and has had forever an understanding of how to make his way in the NBA and the world.
For a player whom he literally couldn't run an offensive play for – "No coach ever has, nor ever will," Frank laughed – those seven seasons together as an assistant and head coach shaped the way Frank framed professionalism and understanding of self in the NBA.
Collins was tough and resilient, smart and selfless. He made his living defending Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard, disrupting them with equal parts physicality and shrewdness. For a time, Collins was in the top three in the NBA for taking charging calls.
This time, he takes the biggest charge of all: Collins has come out as professional sports' first openly gay active player.
"Jason has lasted in the league, because he's always understood exactly who he is," Frank says.
Maybe soon, Collins will tell the truth on everything: He's no 7-footer. He probably isn't 6-10. Yet, Collins needed every edge, and 7-feet always sounded more menacing in the media guide. He has no discernible offensive skill and less athleticism. Because he's smart, tough and, yes, tall, he still had a job with the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards this season.
"He missed on our game plan about as often as Jason Kidd missed an open man on the break," Frank says. "Which was basically never."
[Twitter reaction: Kobe Bryant, others voice support for Jason Collins | Watch]
Before Bobby Marks was the assistant general manager of the Brooklyn Nets, he was a young front-office employee charged with assisting New Jersey Nets players with everything that comes off the floor: finding apartments and houses, tickets, whatever. So here had come the first-round pick out of Stanford in 2001, and Collins never had to come out as gay to be unforgettable and unique in the jock culture of the NBA.
"He was different than everyone else," Marks told Yahoo! Sports. "He was our tough guy, and he'd go out and set hard screens all night, knock a couple people down. And then, the next morning, you'd see him and all you would talk about were world events.
"Because of who he is – his parents, his family, his character – he will be able to handle whatever comes with this mantle. I always remember: Back in '04, Jason laid out Timmy Thomas of the Knicks early in that playoff series. Just crushed him. Then, he had to walk into Madison Square Garden as the villain for Games 3 and 4.
"They went after him real good, and he never flinched."
Of course, this is different. This isn't about the jeers in the arena, but the whispers and nods on the sidewalk. Yet also understand there isn't a major pro sport team that'll support Collins the way the NBA will. Not baseball. Not football. It's easy for everyone to come out supporting Collins in statements and Twitter posts, but the test will be when he goes to get another job next season, when there are private moments in the locker room.
With the shortage of bench big men, with the shape he's kept himself in, Collins will get a contract before next season. His signing will require a news conference, some interviews along the way, and that'll be that. In most instances, basketball is far more enlightened and long has been. NBA commissioner David Stern deserves credit for it, because he's demanded it.
In the NBA and outside, I've known of other gay athletes and the way the silence tears them up, the way the culture and industry has long forced them to be someone else. It's torture, and reading Collins' moving, eloquent essay in Sports Illustrated on Monday morning suggests this revelation will give him peace.
From the people who matter – his family and friends, teammates and team officials, and the gay and lesbian community – Collins will have a forever legacy in pro sports. He isn't a star coming out in his prime, but a fringe player coming out near his career's end. Above everything else, Collins is a start. He's the beginning. He makes it easier for the next star to tell the truth, if that turns out to be important for him.
Maybe most of all, he makes it easier for young people everywhere suffering in silence – in the locker room, the band, the chess club, wherever – to find encouragement, perhaps validation. Courage begets courage.
[Watch 'Dan Patrick Show': Why now for Jason Collins?]
As he was running errands on Monday, Frank – freshly fired as the Detroit Pistons coach – found Collins' declaration to be downright inspiring. The running joke on his Pistons coaching staff had been his longing and appreciation for Collins. Frank hadn't been with Collins for five years, and yet he was forever telling stories of him, forever linking Collins with Jason Kidd and Kevin Garnett as the favorite players he had ever coached.
"They used to laugh at me sometimes, but [Collins] is special," Frank says. "He's who you wanted in a teammate, who you wanted in your locker room."
The news on Monday doesn't change those truths for an NBA team, perhaps maybe only strengthens them. This is a league that rewards the tough-minded and tough-playing with winning. Collins has never stood tougher, never stronger. Beyond old coaches and teammates, everyone gets to hear about Jason Collins now, gets to understand a legacy that'll go beyond a proud, if pedestrian playing career.
"You could always count on Jason to have everyone's back, to never let his teammates down," Frank says. "All his life, he's stood up."
Never taller than now, whatever he says about 7-feet tall.
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