The Brooklyn Nets were flirting with history last Wednesday when they decided to hold a private workout for Jason Collins, who stunned the sports world last summer when he announced that he was gay.
They made history on Sunday when they signed Collins to a 10-day contract. By signing Collins to a contract, the Nets become the first major professional sports team in North America to have an openly gay athlete on its roster.
"The decision to sign Jason was a basketball decision," said Billy King, the Nets General Manager in a statement released by the team on Sunday. "We needed to increase our depth inside, and with his experience and size, we felt he was the right choice for a 10-day contract."
King was trying side-step the issue of having a gay player on his team, but he was right. The Nets did indeed make a basketball decision and one that they may have been uniquely qualified to make. Collins is a former Nets player, who was on the team for six and a half years. Collins, 35, was available for the Nets against the Lakers on Sunday night.
When the Orlando Magic bought out the contract of Glen “Big Baby’’ Davis on Friday, allowing him to become a free agent once he cleared waivers on Sunday, the Nets were faced with another option to fill their need for interior help in the post. But Davis opted to sign with the LA Clippers after he cleared waivers on Sunday opening the door for the Nets to sign Collins.
The recent announcement by Missouri linebacker Michael Sam that he is gay has again recharged the dialogue about gay athletes in professional sports. Sam is participating in the NFL Combine in Indianapolis this week. How he does there in the physical strength, speed and agility test will determine where he will be selected in the NFL Draft on April.
As far as professional sports and gay athletes in the locker room are concerned, the Brooklyn Nets have boiled the issue down to its bare essence. If a player can help a team win, then he has a spot on the roster his sexual orientation notwithstanding. No one will question Collins’ skill or ability to play in the NBA. He’s already proven it, particularly with the Nets.
Collins played in 510 games, including 404 starts, with the Nets from 2001-08. Collins averaged 4.4 points and 4.5 rebounds in 24.5 minutes per game. He also appeared in 75 playoff games with the Nets with playoff averages of 3.3 points and 3.8 rebounds in 21.4 minutes per game. He helped the Nets reach back-to-back NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003. Collins is tied for third in Nets history in games played (510), ranks eighth in minutes played (12,493), ninth in offensive rebounds (782) and is tied for 10th in total rebounds (2,304).
The Nets are within reach of the top spot in the Atlantic Division, trailing the Toronto Raptors by four games. They are looking down the road to the playoffs. If they make the playoffs they will need help fending off physically imposing teams like Indiana and Chicago. Collins, a 35-year-old, 7-foot center, should be able to help them in a limited role.
The 12-year veteran of the NBA hasn’t played in the league since he was with the Washington Wizard in April 2013. He made his announcement that he was gay last summer. Since revealing his sexual orientation Collins hasn’t received any offers from any of the 30 NBA teams until the Nets asked him to work out for them in Los Angeles last week, according to ESPN.com.
Collins is a former teammate of Nets Coach Jason Kidd. So Kidd knows how Collins will fit with the Nets team chemistry and how he will fit into the team’s locker room.
As King was weighing the decision of Davis or Collins before Brooklyn played Golden State on Saturday, Nets forward Kevin Garnett spoke to the media at the morning shootaround. Garnett was a teammate of both Davis and Collins when the Boston Celtics won an NBA championship in 2008.
"I played with J.C, too ... very similar to Baby,’’ Garnett said. “Probably doesn't have the distance in some of the skill level, but great competitor, plays team basketball, is for the team, great guy, great character."
Garnett said Collins’ announcement that he is gay won’t be a problem for the players in the Nets locker room.
"I think it's important that anybody who has the capabilities and skill level (gets) a chance to (do) something he's great at," Garnett said. "I think it would be bias, and in a sense, racist, if you (were) to keep that opportunity from a person."