Jason Collins may not have an NBA job right now because the league has passed him by. He also may not have a job in the NBA because he is gay. Both are significant factors in his continued unemployment, the longest such personal streak for Collins since he was drafted into the league in 2001. Both reasons are more than a little sad.
Collins, who came out in a Sports Illustrated interview in 2013, has been a fringe rotation member for years. His style of play is somewhat anachronistic in the modern NBA, because with a paucity of low post scorers out there that need defending, a pivotman who expertly guards centers while providing little else in terms of production won’t be nearly as coveted as in decades past. Witness similarly-skilled and younger Boston Celtics center Joel Anthony, just a few years removed from acting as the starting center on an NBA Finalist, a player that hasn’t played double-figure minutes in a single game this season.
With NFL draft prospect Michael Sam revealing his sexuality over the weekend, though, it’s worth digging into why Collins hasn’t been able to secure a roster spot, despite having no trouble grabbing such a role in the years that he kept such a revelation hidden. The same bias and shortsightedness that cowardly off the record NFL general managers have expressed in the hours since the news about Sam hit probably isn’t as big a factor on the NBA side of things.
Witness, to start, this quote from Sports Illustrated:
“Not that they're against gay people. It's more that some players are going to look at you upside down. Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to the Today show. A general manager is going to ask, 'Why are we going to do that to ourselves?'"
Probably because you want to win football games at all cost. It’s the same reason why you send these guys out there to bash their way into irreversible brain damage while working on non-guaranteed contracts, right?
And then this steaming pile of mess, from the same feature:
"I just know with this going on this is going to drop him down," said a veteran NFL scout. "There's no question about it. It's human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote 'break that barrier?'”
That is worth considering, because the last professional sports franchise to “quote-unquote ‘break the barrier’” was only sold for $2 billion recently to a group led by an African-American man that is HIV positive with a son that is openly and proudly out of the closet.
These NFL hacks are clearly dunderheads – once again, as evidenced by their insistence in taking part of a sport that has caused wide spread physical and mental harm to so many of its players – so they can easily be sloughed off.
The NBA GMs that have passed on hiring Collins, though, are a different story. Again, sadly.
When Collins signed a last-minute free agent deal with the Boston Celtics in 2012, it was greeted with more than a few eye rolls. Yes, he came cheap on a low-risk veteran’s minimum contract, but with Dwight Howard then playing in the Western Conference, the defending champion (and C’s-defeaters) Miami Heat working with a smallball lineup, and no real low post scoring threat in Boston’s line of vision, it was chalked up to more of a culture-based hire (with the Celtics fielding scores of aging veterans, contemporaries of Collins) than anything. In a league that trends toward the familiar – witness the Clippers hanging on to Ryan Hollins and Chicago constantly signing and re-signing Mike James – it didn’t seem that egregious.
It did seem out of place with the modern league, though.
Yes, Collins absolutely gave Dwight Howard fits in the 2011 playoffs, but he also only played 48 out of 82 games that year. And even with Howard as a go-to centerpiece in both Los Angeles last season and Houston this year, few teams are really quaking in their sneakers at the thought of Dwight jump-hooking his way toward 40 points over them. And really, there just aren’t that many bigs out there that would necessitate Jason Collins suiting up – as players like Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah, and Marc Gasol chalk up their All-Star nods to versatility on both ends, rarely as a result of low post banging.
The cynics amongst us should wonder, out loud, about the looked-upon novelty that Collins’ presence would create. The guy played in barely every other game as it was last season, so the questions about why Jason wouldn’t play token minutes in his first – “quote-unquote, ‘break the barrier’” – game would abound. The lame excuses that the NFL wonks talked about off record hold up here. It may not be so much about homophobia – every NBA and NFL player has already shared a locker room with a gay teammate – as it is … “why bother?”
The NFL should bother with Michael Sam, because in spite of his tweener game and overachieving style, he has NFL-level talent. Every team that passes on Michael Sam for an inferior player because of his bravery in coming out of the closet would be practicing a form of discrimination. Full stop.
For Collins, sadly, it’s different. If he were a 34-year old fringe guard that could occasionally hit a three-pointer, he would likely have an NBA job at this point. Game is game. Always has been, no matter who you fall in love with off the court.
The issue here is whether or not Jason Collins’ game – a single-minded low post defender in an era that is shifting further and further away from the rim – still fits in with the modern NBA.
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