NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — The coming-out part is over. Now Jason Collins needs a job.
Collins’ stunning announcement that he was a gay athlete in a major sport won overwhelming support from other players, coaches and executives — even a phone call from the president.
But it also came after the season ended for the 7-foot center and his Washington Wizards.
“I’m just going to be myself. I think that’s what’s most important, that I live my honest, genuine life,” Collins told the New York Times on Tuesday. “You make a decision to try to make yourself happy in life.”
The 34-year-old journeyman becomes a free agent on July 1 — meaning that he will first have to sign with an NBA team and wait until next season to see if teammates, coaches, opponents and fans will treat him any differently.
“I think the real response will be once he gets a job,” said Brooklyn Nets veteran Jerry Stackhouse, who has called Collins a friend for years.
“It’s not like he’s under contract next year and guaranteed to go back to a team. I think once that happens, then public opinion or whatever or players’ opinion will start to loom a little larger then. But right now we’ve got the summer to kind of digest what has happened, and I’m pulling for him.”
Perhaps only when he starts seeing offers from teams will he get an idea of what coming out will mean for his career. He only played in 38 games last season — his 12th year in the NBA — with averages of 1.1 points, 1.6 rebounds and 10.1 minutes per game for Boston and Washington.
“I’m sure that teams will look at my basketball, look at what I have to offer,” Collins told the Times. “My role in the NBA is as a backup center, and I know that I’ll be ready at any moment. Seeing the Tweets (on Monday) from my teammates, the Wizards, going all the way back to my teammates from the Nets, to Jason Kidd: they talk about what a great teammate I am.”
He may not be an All-Star, but he has built a career by being a big, smart, physical player who can come off the bench and help defend some of the few remaining dominant centers the league like the Lakers’ Dwight Howard, Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez and Marc Gasol of Memphis.
And 7-footers in basketball are like left-handed pitchers in baseball — hard to find and can hang around forever if they stay in shape.
“My teammates look at me sort of like Yoda a little bit,” Collins said. “The old veteran. The old guy who can still get it done. I impart my knowledge. I’ve earned that right as a 12-year NBA veteran.”
His basketball skills were praised by President Barack Obama at a White House news conference Tuesday, a day after he telephoned Collins to offer his support.
According to Obama, Collins was “a role model” who was unafraid to come out as gay and to say, “I’m still 7-foot-tall and can bang with Shaq and, you know, deliver a hard foul.”
Collins’ potential for future employment appears to be strong.
“Jason’s the kind of guy who might only play against five of the 30 teams in the league,” TNT analyst and former Phoenix Suns executive Steve Kerr said. “But you need him in those five games, those five matchups. He’s definitely worth adding to your roster.”
Rebounding, defending, setting screens, those will likely be the least of his concerns. He knows how to do that. But being openly gay in the NBA — that’s never been done before.
“Just treat him normal,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said. “He’s a human being. It’s not like he has two heads or anything. He’s the same dude. You say ‘What’s up?’ like everything is normal.”
Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, a vocal advocate for gay rights, has said the first openly gay athlete likely won’t have as much to worry about with his teammates in his own locker room as he will with the media that will no doubt give him more attention than he’s ever seen.
“The media stuff would be tougher,” Kluwe said when speaking about the prospects of an openly gay football player. “At the end of the day, that would be a larger potential distraction as far as taking away your focus from football, because in the locker room you get to know guys. It would probably be uncomfortable for about a week or so as guys wrap their heads around it. At the end of the day we’re out there to play football and win games. If someone helps you win games, it doesn’t matter.”
Golden State Warriors President and COO Rick Welts, the highest-ranking executive in men’s professional team sports to publicly acknowledge he is gay, said he thinks there will be a place in the league for Collins.
“He absolutely will receive more opportunities,” Welts said. “A lot more doors will open for Jason than are going to close because of what he did (Monday).”
Welts has been out since 2011.
“I can’t think of single circumstance that has happened to me,” he said. “This team, this organization, this city, the whole community has really embraced me. The reason I did it is because hopefully it will make it easier for somebody who has gone through it and experienced it will come out.”
It’s one thing for players to support Collins now. It’s another when he joins them for training camp in October — or when athletes in other sports also come out.
“There’s probably going to be teammates that don’t handle it right, and that’s what you have to worry about, too,” Kansas City Royals slugger Billy Butler said. “I don’t think you have to worry about Jason. You have to worry about other people handle it toward him. Jason’s already handled his part. I think his biggest problem was having to live in the closet. Everybody else has to live how to deal with it, to be flat-out honest.”
Even if teams decide that Collins cannot help them on the court any longer, Stackhouse suggested he deserves a spot anyway.
“Maybe he might not be the best fit for their basketball team but it’s a fit for where we need to go as a league,” Stackhouse said. “So if there’s ever a chance for the commissioner, who is leaving in February, to step in and maybe push a button, then I think that would be a good opportunity to do it.”
Kerr doesn’t think NBA Commissioner David Stern will have to step in.
“When the free-agent season starts to wind down and teams realize they’re going to need a big guy on the roster,” Kerr said, “I think Jason will get phone calls.”
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