TrueHoop: Kevin Arnovitz

Free agency winners and losers

July, 16, 2014
Jul 16
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Kevin Arnovitz and Zach Lowe run through some of the winners and losers of the free agency period, and discuss why so many people are gleeful about Houston's misfortunes.

Checking in with Jabari Parker

July, 16, 2014
Jul 16
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Jabari Parker drops by TrueHoop TV to chat about the city of Milwaukee, his Mount Rushmore of role players and why his alma mater of Duke is the team everyone loves to hate.

All you can eat with The Greek Freak

July, 16, 2014
Jul 16
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Milwaukee Bucks' prodigy Giannis Antetokounmpo hits an all-you-can-eat buffet in Las Vegas and chats about being trash-talked by Carmelo, acing his driving test and how poverty has impacted his life.

Kyle Anderson, a Spur all the way

July, 15, 2014
Jul 15
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
The San Antonio Spurs' Kyle Anderson on being Spursy, going from New York to Los Angeles and his love for the Colombian national team.


LeBron's power play

July, 15, 2014
Jul 15
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Kevin Arnovitz asks David Thorpe and Ethan Sherwood Strauss whether LeBron James' return to Cleveland was an act of altruism or a power play.

Summer League standouts

July, 14, 2014
Jul 14
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Kevin Arnovitz chats with David Thorpe and Ethan Sherwood Strauss about the standouts so far at 2014 Las Vegas Summer League.

Future of Jazz sounds good

July, 14, 2014
Jul 14
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Utah Jazz rookies Dante Exum and Rodney Hood dish on their new roles, throwing out first pitches, frying catfish and what's weird about America.


The work speaks for itself

June, 15, 2014
Jun 15
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Gregg Popovich says you don’t deserve anything -- you just go play. That’s honorable, but it seems fundamentally just that the San Antonio Spurs won a fifth NBA championship Sunday night.

Another title for the Spurs confirms a bunch of optimistic beliefs about the the way the world should work: process matters more than politics; people should be valued for what they can do rather than what they can’t; a meritocracy can thrive if it values the right things.

Devotion to the process doesn’t always yield the desired results. In basketball, this is called heartbreak, and for the Spurs, Game 6 of June 2013 was a case study. Yes, there were a couple of self-inflicted miscues -- Tim Duncan comes up short in the paint, Kawhi Leonard misses a free throw, Manu Ginobili can’t snare a rebound -- but the Spurs didn’t deserve that.

Then again, you don’t deserve anything. You just go play. And the Spurs lead the world in just going and playing.

[+] EnlargeDuncan
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesAfter a nightmare end to the past season, Tim Duncan didn't need a Game 6 to win championship No. 5.
Praise such as this for the Spurs always sounds a little quaint. The ideas themselves feel precious or even stuffy, almost too obedient to authority. “Commitment to process” sounds like homework. Basketball and fame are supposed to be raucous and disorderly. What’s the point of being a rock star if you can’t act like one?

But very, very few institutions actually function like the Spurs because it’s insanely hard to get dozens of people to buy into the same vision. Those that do, such as the Spurs, are the true, honest-to-goodness nonconformists. All that well-timed stuff they run and the fundamentals and pounding the rock and never getting too high or too low and coming back unfazed after losing a lead 5.2 seconds from a banner and reclamation projects such as Boris Diaw and rodeo road trips that build character and Pop’s wizardry and knowing which mid-first-round pick would grow into the Wing-You-Need-In-Today’s-NBA and last-possession plays that actually resemble real basketball sets and almost never making bonehead personnel decisions and generally treating everyone in the office like an adult and having incredible command of the NBA’s bargain bin -- none of that is normal.

In exchange for their buying in, players earn trust, whether they arrived in San Antonio as a first overall draft pick or on a bus from the D-League. With the game on the line, Popovich will design an opportunity to get that former D-Leaguer an open shot, even when most coaches would just ride their Hall of Famer against a double-team. R.C. Buford appraises talent not by the standards of current trends or conventional wisdom but by a steadfast belief in process and innovation. Duncan might not speak to a young teammate for a calendar year, but don’t mistake aloofness for indifference; he’s just sizing you up before he dives in.

The most gifted players have every right to leverage their talents into power and have a voice in where and with whom they want to work. Duncan claimed that authority and chose to spend his capital on establishing a culture. He wants pro basketball to be about the work and to sell itself on the strength of the game’s actual appeal rather than the atmospherics or drama. That’s Duncan believing in the craft of basketball.

Tony Parker quickly signed up when he arrived in the NBA. He spent the first phase of his career working to earn trust and has rewarded his investors ever since. So did Ginobili, a charismatic stylist as a player but completely uninterested in personal branding. Leonard, often miscast as a creation of the Spurs culture who might have wallowed elsewhere, wasn’t sculpted by the team in its image so much as he found a suitable place to work his magic.

What the Spurs create on the floor is a testimony to all this. Both the offense and defense operate on a collective trust and the principle that if you inspire people to use their instincts, they’re capable of being both smart and creative. That's what gets the junkies so giddy. So when Ginobili slings a pass to a cutter off a ball fake, or Green fools a defender with misdirection, or Duncan slips a screen on a whim, or Diaw drops a no-look interior pass to Splitter that fools everyone, or Parker improvises, or Leonard cuts into open space, or Pop draws up a gutsy play call for a last possession, it’s the product of a happy marriage between order and self-expression.

Almost every owner likes the idea of being a “servant leader” -- in the parlance of business speak, someone who shares power for the sake of the cause -- but Peter Holt has pledged his trust to the people who work for him. How many owners willingly sit in the background and cede total authority to their coaches and lead execs for the better part of two decades?

Most coaches and basketball operations people work to keep their jobs, and their decision-making suffers because of it. They fall into the trap of convention, afraid to assume risk because the consequences are too steep. Popovich, Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, Buford, Spurs players and staff resolve problems differently.

That combination the Spurs have achieved is what most of us want out of professional life. We want to do something we love. We want the freedom to experiment and to know that if we’re true to the process, we won’t be deemed a failure, regardless of the result. We want to work alongside people who root for us to be really good. We want to know that if we have to wind the clock 12 full months after being so very, very close, everyone will exhale, regroup and stay with it.

Like Duncan, we want it to be about the work.

Why Phil Lord loves the Clippers

June, 3, 2014
Jun 3
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Kevin Arnovitz chats with "22 Jump Street" director Philip Lord about his Clippers fandom, the madness of the past month and whether the team should change its name and look.


Crunch time, the Spurs way

May, 30, 2014
May 30
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Why are the Spurs so good in crunch time? They get everyone in on the act.


Get rid of the NBA draft

May, 21, 2014
May 21
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Kevin Arnovitz and Amin Elhassan want to do away with the NBA draft.

The next wave of head-coaching prospects

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Job security is a touchy subject in a league where coaches and executives are hired to be fired and the average player’s career is less than five years. But the dismissal of nearly half the NBA's head coaches last season was enough to send a shock wave through the league. A luminary like George Karl or a 56-game winner like Lionel Hollins could be cut loose in exchange for a younger, less expensive option. If guys like Karl and Hollins weren't safe, what did it mean for the future of the profession?

Denver and Memphis were just two of nine teams that started the 2013-14 season with first-time NBA head coaches. The composition of the Class of 2013 was diverse. There was a lifer assistant, a player who had been in uniform just weeks prior, another former player who had spent a couple of seasons as an assistant, the first big-name college coach to take an NBA gig in years, a winner of five minor league championships as a head coach, a couple of Spurs U. alums, a fiery defensive specialist and a Phil Jackson acolyte.

This season, the coaching search has already officially begun for three teams -- the New York Knicks, Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz. That list probably includes the Detroit Pistons and will likely grow longer as we move closer to the summer.

Several themes surfaced in conversations with team execs, coaches and league insiders about how teams size up a candidate who has never previously served as an NBA head coach:

Fewer obvious names
Those asked to reel off names who excited them struggled to come up with more than a couple. The same question last spring found no such hesitation. “The pond is a little bit fished out,” says one NBA general manager. “There aren't as many logical hires like there have been. Everybody’s more of a reach.”

Tell me who my owner is
League execs insist there is no consideration more important in hiring a head coach than whether he conforms to the sensibility of ownership -- not personal background, whiteboard skills, media relations, city or even pedigree. “If you’re asking me to put together a list [of head-coach candidates], first you have to tell me what the owner’s business philosophy is," a longtime NBA executive says. General managers have come to realize that the only thing worse than not getting their preferred choice installed as head coach is spending the season apologizing to their owner for that choice.

Will salaries bounce back?
There's a fair amount of debate about whether the trend toward smaller paychecks for head coaches has real staying power. Some believe that, with a few notable exceptions, the $5 million per season deal is an endangered species. “If you’re not close to a title, why pay?" says one general manager. Others feel that the new breed of NBA owner is easily lured by celebrity. The thinking goes that nobody buys an NBA team to hang out and share a bottle of wine with a low-cost alternative. The owner wants to be regaled with tales of the NBA by a name-brand legend -- and that costs money.

Spurs University
A call from Gregg Popovich to a team in the market for a head coach can be a decisive factor in a search. "Pop will reach out at the drop of a hat,” a league insider says. “But it’s not the call that does it. He speaks in a voice that a lot of people don’t always hear. He doesn't just praise them for their work, but who they are as people." The Spurs have always had credibility as an incubator of executive and sideline talent, but people around the league say the influence has grown even greater in the past year. “It’s gotten cult-like. ... Not that they don’t deserve it,” says a team executive.

So who’s ready to be a first-time coach?

We performed the exercise about a year ago, when Miami assistant David Fizdale and Memphis assistant Dave Joerger topped the list. Joerger is now coaching the Grizzlies in the first round of the 2014 postseason, while Fizdale continues to be mentioned as among the sharpest assistants in the league, one who will interview again this summer if he chooses to. TNT analyst Steve Kerr has been cited as a head coach in the making, possibly in New York. Though he was effectively ruled out by Flip Saunders on Wednesday for the Minnesota job, Iowa State coach and former Timberwolves player and executive Fred Hoiberg has become a popular name.

In addition to Fizdale, Hoiberg and Kerr -- each named frequently again this spring -- here are seven candidates who are viewed as capable successful NBA head coaches. These aren't necessarily those most likely to get an opportunity, just the guys who have the capacity to make it work if they do:

Ed Pinckney, Chicago Bulls assistant coach

Though they’d deign to admit it, some former players feel head coaches can farm out much of the grind that accompanies the position in the NBA. That wouldn't be the case for Pinckney, who has quickly established a reputation as an inexhaustible worker bee.

As an assistant for Tom Thibodeau, Pinckney has flourished under a serious coach who fetishizes preparation. At the same time, Pinckney has friends all over the game from a lifetime of building up goodwill in basketball as a pro's pro and a teacher.

“Guys would love to play for him,” an assistant NBA coach says. “Anyone who has been around him knows how hard he works and how much he cares. His players would go through walls for him and have a good time doing it.”

The Grizzlies brass was deeply impressed by Pinckney when it invited him in twice last summer during a search that ended with longtime assistant Joerger being elevated to the first chair. With his fluency in Thibodeau's defense, pleasant disposition and intuitive understanding of what it means to be a big man in the NBA, Pinckney is a smart bet to see the inside of a conference room again this summer.

Quin Snyder, Atlanta Hawks assistant coach

It seems like eons ago, but there was a time when Snyder was basketball’s boy king. After appearing in two back-to-back Final Fours as Duke’s starting point guard, Snyder earned a JD/MBA from Duke, served as an NBA assistant to Larry Brown and was named associate head coach for the Blue Devils by Mike Krzyzewski -- all by the age of 31.

Snyder fell from grace after nearly seven tumultuous seasons at Missouri, marred by rumors, allegations and investigations. The experience humbled Snyder, who went from being the most impressive basketball mind of his generation to a cautionary tale. One year after Mizzou, Snyder landed with the Austin Toros before the D-League (then still the NBDL) had any cachet.

“He was basketball royalty on the fast track,” says a front-office executive. “The next thing you know, he’s in the bus leagues.”

Snyder’s supporters and critics both speak of a man with an incomparable general and basketball intellect. By all accounts, Snyder has applied his intelligence to rebuild himself as a coach over the past eight years. He stayed in Austin for three seasons, gaining exposure to the Spurs’ organizational culture. He accepted a role as a player development director in Philadelphia and found a mentor in Ettore Messina, who opened up new windows to the game in Europe. Alongside Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta, Snyder continues to expand his knowledge base with a coach who’s particularly good at conveying ideas to players.

The sense around the league is that if handed a roster of seasoned, cerebral ballplayers who could relate to his analytical instincts, Snyder could thrive as an NBA coach.

Adrian Griffin, Chicago Bulls assistant coach

Odd as it seems to pair a couple of Thibodeau bench assistants on a diverse list of seven prospective head coaches, Pinckney and Griffin both attracted heavy mention, usually independent of each other.

Griffin is not yet 40 -- 39 until July, he's more than 11 years younger than Pinckney -- which means there are a bunch of people in the game who have watched him grow up from youth camps to his stint now as a lead assistant to Thibodeau. Those who have say that, since high school, Griffin has displayed a polished maturity that screams NBA head coach.

He had barely filed his retirement papers in 2008 when Scott Skiles and the Milwaukee Bucks offered him a job as an assistant. After two seasons with the Bucks, Griffin joined Thibodeau, with whom he’s developed a close relationship. After coaching the Bulls’ summer-league squad, Griffin stuck around Las Vegas to pitch in at Team USA’s minicamp.

“You combine that kind of professionalism with that kind of mentorship and you’re going to have a good chance to succeed,” a general manager says.

The result is a coaching prospect who was characterized by one league insider as “a player-friendly Tom Thibodeau.”

Kevin Ollie, University of Connecticut head coach

With a few waivers granted for region or diploma, much of the NBA was rooting for UConn the night of the 2014 NCAA title game.

Ollie was one of the league’s citizen leaders during his 13 seasons as a player, a remarkable length of time for someone with such marginal talent. He was the guy a team keeps around as a graduate assistant and a calming force in the locker room. Now Ollie is a head basketball coach with an NCAA championship to his credit and is a legitimate candidate for openings this spring and summer.

In a league populated by some real sourpusses, there's surprisingly little debate over Ollie's readiness. To the extent there is skepticism of Ollie, it resides in a predisposition against college basketball as good terroir for NBA head coaches.

“He’s gotten along with guys at every level -- college, pro, players, coaches,” says an NBA general manager. “He has high character, knows his stuff, and he’s actually won. Does that mean he’ll succeed in the league? Maybe, maybe not. But what more do you need to see?”

A page at Basketball-Reference may not have as much currency as it used to for head-coaching candidates, but a playing career and a proven track record as a coach is a pretty potent combination.

Tony Bennett, University of Virginia head coach

Brad Stevens maintains a high approval rating around the NBA, but the league wants to see a few more case studies before it designates college basketball as safe for fishing. Wherever one may fall on the question of how translatable college coaching is to the pro game, there’s near unanimity that part of the problem has been the NBA’s attraction to NCAA cults of personality.

“We’re not going to see the sociopathic, I’m-in-charge control freaks,” a team executive says of the next wave of NCAA coaches in the NBA. “It’s going to be the guy who doesn't make it about him, understands basketball philosophy and understands how to build a basketball culture.”

A profile of Bennett fits this general description. At Virginia, Bennett has built a defense-oriented program that wins with less superstar talent than its counterparts in the ACC. He’s a composed sideline presence who looks the part and during the '90s had a sufficient-sized cup of coffee in the NBA. Though some worry that Bennett's half-court style defies current trends in the NBA, there's little doubt he has the acumen to pull it off.

“He loves the craft of coaching as a discipline,” the exec says. “And like Brad, he knows it’s about the players.”

Many around the league like Billy Donovan and Hoiberg as the next two NCAA coaches off the board. If the next college hire goes well and Stevens maintains a positive culture in Boston, then expect to start hearing more about Bennett.

David Vanterpool, Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach

It’s rare in the NBA for someone on the fast track toward management to get off and join a much longer line to become an NBA coach. Yet that’s what Vanterpool did when he left the Thunder front office to join Terry Stotts’ staff in Portland.

Vanterpool was a quick study and likely a future executive in the league, but it tormented him to know there was high-grade basketball development going on in his midst, only it wasn't happening in his department.

“He has a way with players,” a front-office executive says. “He was a tough overseas player who worked at his game.”

Vanterpool both played and coached for Messina in Moscow, an affiliation that means something in an increasingly international league. The two-year stint in the Oklahoma City front office is also the kind of interdisciplinary experience valued by shops like San Antonio. Add to all that a penchant for independent thought, a willingness to admit what you don’t know and a reputation as a solid, agreeable person and a young team could have a head coach to grow up with.

Jim Boylen, San Antonio Spurs assistant coach

Thanks to the success of Steve Clifford in Charlotte, the nomadic, 50-ish, affable, well-respected grinder has come into fashion. And if you’re looking for a prototype, Boylen might be it.

Boylen, not to be confused with former Bulls and Bucks head coach Jim Boylan, sat alongside Rudy Tomjanovich for over a decade and was a lead assistant to Tom Izzo. After four rough seasons at the University of Utah -- “The guy hates recruiting, what can you say?” says a Boylen sympathizer -- he landed with Frank Vogel in Indiana, where he restored his rep as a guy who truly loves to get on the floor and work with players and isn't afraid to get his hands dirty with game preparation.

“He’s been the best guy on almost every staff he’s ever been on,” an NBA general manager says last week prior to Ty Corbin’s departure from Utah. “And the fact that Pop hired him gives him the ultimate stamp of approval.”

An owner looking for sex appeal won’t want to see a glossy image of Boylen on the cover of a season-ticket appeal packet. But there’s a strong consensus that Boylen is an extremely capable lifer who rarely has trouble connecting with players or peers.

Anthony Davis is ready to take flight

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis on his breakout sophomore season, why he doesn't have a best friend and why he doesn't eat seafood.


Q&A: Anthony Davis on life in the NBA

March, 21, 2014
Mar 21
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Anthony DavisLayne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Pelicans' rising superstar, Anthony Davis, has it all ... well, except for a best friend and a Snuggie.
Have you been watching Anthony Davis? He’s crushing it. He ranks fourth in the league in Player Efficiency Rating, and this is a stat that doesn’t even account for the defensive side of the ball where The Brow has emerged as the top shot-blocker in the league.

Davis is a somewhat reticent 21-year-old who doesn’t see himself as the rah-rah guy in the huddle. He says the physicality of the NBA is the biggest different between the college and pro games -- and is carb-loading to bulk up. We reached him in Atlanta, where the Pelicans face off against the Hawks on Friday night.

First off, how are you feeling? How’s that upper respiratory thing? Sounds nasty.

Davis: I feel good. It was a quick thing. I’m ready to get back out there.

Are you a power forward? Does it matter?

I’m a basketball player, but yeah, if you want to put a position on there, I’m a power forward.

What happens when Ryan Anderson is out there? Do you become a 5 on the whiteboard? And is that something you’re cool with?

I’m cool with it. We do different things, but it doesn’t matter what we’re called. It opens up the court and that’s good. Like I said, I’m a basketball player, and I’m still going to guard the rim whoever is out there. It doesn’t matter if I’m a power forward or a center. My job doesn’t change.

I know smart people who believe you’re the third-best player in the league already, behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Can you even allow yourself to think like that?

Nah, you can’t think about that. Maybe down the road, but right now I just have to get better. It’s about winning, doing the job, helping my team get better.

What’s it like to guard LeBron? How do you approach that?

Keep your hands up. He’s going to be aggressive, but you have to be aggressive as a defender. It’s still defense, so that doesn’t change at all. But he can hurt you in a lot of different ways. You have to go out there and do your job -- nothing changes defensively.

What’s your best skill?

Blocking shots. Cleaning up the glass, whatever it is. Changing shots, getting to the ball. Those are probably my best skills right now.

What’s the hardest thing to pick up about the pro game when you come into the league?

The pace, and how physical it is. When you come in, the guys you’re playing against have been in the league for like 16 years! I thought it was going to be a lot easier than what it is. You have to try to get stronger right away. You have to hold your own when you’re in the post. You have to get better right away.

A lot of guys, when you ask this question say, the defensive schemes.

I don’t really think so. Defense doesn’t change. Offensively, it changes a lot. The floor opens up a lot. One-on-one you have guys who can do so much more, who can make tough shots. As far as schemes, I don’t think that’s a big thing, at least not for me.

Whose brain do you like to pick about basketball?

My coach -- Coach Monty [Williams]. He knows so much. Coach [Gregg Popovich] was his mentor and did a lot for him. He’s the best coach ever. I definitely pick [Willams’] brain about a lot of things. He provides me with great feedback, and I want to be better. I want to be an elite player someday.

Are you going to be the guy who’s vocal in the huddle, who does the rah-rah thing?

I’m not quiet, but I’m not that guy. Anthony Morrow is the perfect rah-rah guy. He gets everybody up. I’m more talk to the guys before the game, get everyone ready, but as far as keeping everyone amped up for 48 minutes, I wouldn’t say that’s me.

What’s the most challenging thing about managing millions of dollars as a young player?

I don’t really spend money like that at all. You’ve got to know to save. It’s easier if you’ve got the right people to help, financial people that you trust. I think that’s the thing -- have good people around you.

I imagine that everyone comes out of the woodwork to ask you for stuff.

All the time. For crazy things. You definitely have to learn to start saying no. You’re going to lose a lot of friends. You just have to live with it. And they keep coming back. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with helping people. They usually go to my mom or my dad. Nobody really asks me for anything. They might talk to me about something and I tell them to talk to my parents.

Should the NBA have an age limit for rookies?

If a guy is ready to come into the league, if they think they can play, by all means they should. Age shouldn’t matter. Kobe came in at 18 and became one of the best players. I don’t think age really matters at all.

How do you take care of your body? What do you eat -- or what do you not eat?

I don’t eat seafood, but I eat everything else really. I’m trying to put on weight, so I eat a lot of pasta. A lot of vegetables. And anything to help put on weight.

Who’s your best friend in the league?

I don’t have a best friend.

Are there guys in the league you’re tight with?

I’m not really tight with anybody. I mean, the guys on the team, but I’ve only been in the league for a couple of years. Maybe the guys from Kentucky, but that’s really it.

Did I read somewhere that you used to fly with a Snuggie?

I did at one time.

So the Snuggie is gone?

The Snuggie is gone.

Collins' extraordinary day, ordinary game

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Not 10 seconds into Jason Collins’ pregame news conference inside Staples Center, it was clear he was distinctly uninterested in answering questions about the historic and cultural import of the night. Collins had spent a good part of the day playing catch-up with the Brooklyn Nets’ coverage schemes and play calls, and the self-portrait he sketched sitting behind the low table inside the visitor’s hockey locker room was of a guy on a 10-day contract, and little more.

Collins made mention of his quality of life since he came out publicly last April -- Life is so much better for me -- but for the better part of 10 minutes, Collins spoke in largely clinical terms about learning the Nets’ playbook and his conditioning. He’s well aware that his game subsists on a diet of sturdy screens, pick-and-roll defense, guarding the post and issuing fouls as necessary. That’s stuff that requires mastery and 12 hours isn’t a lot of time to process.
[+] EnlargeJason Collins
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesKeeping Chris Kaman off the boards? All is back to normal in one sense for Jason Collins.

On the surface, Collins’ reluctance to acknowledge the symbolism of the evening seemed not so much disingenuous as a little distorted. But the thing you have to appreciate is that most well-adjusted gay people rarely think about their sexual identity in the confines of their job. Collins understood from the outset that the best way to service the cause was to play quality minutes as a backup big. He wants to prove that the NBA’s first openly gay player is on the court because he still has something left to contribute.

Collins’ pregame message turned out to be prophetic, because when he took the floor with 10:28 remaining in the second quarter, it was all about the basketball.

It was difficult to handicap going in how the Staples Center would react when Collins checked in. The Lakers crowd is composed of a lot of westside money and show biz pros, among the bluest voting audiences in the NBA. These are image-conscious people and it was easy to imagine that they’d shower a hometown guy who’d broken a barrier with a rousing standing ovation.

But those who wanted a sentimental, politically satisfying Aaron Sorkin screenplay instead got a grainy Frederick Wiseman documentary utterly devoid of drama. There was a smattering of supportive applause and a few standers, but many couldn’t be bothered to look up from their phones.

Collins then went to work and it was vintage unvarnished Collins. Nets coach Jason Kidd wanted a backup center who talked on defense, and that’s what Collins proceeded to do, calling out directions from the back line like a veteran big man. He fouled like crazy -- five in 11 minutes of court time. On the offensive end, he appeared rusty and his timing was off. He missed his only shot and fumbled a pass from Deron Williams while rolling to the bucket.

On the positive side of the ledger, Collins also plastered defenders with screens. After the game, he recounted with a broad smile his favorite moment of the night -- witnessing Lakers point guard Jordan Farmar kvetch to the officials that Collins was setting moving picks. For guys like Collins who perform janitorial duties, this is among the highest compliments.

How did it feel for Collins? It felt like I’ve done this thousands of times before. This doesn’t discount an enormous milestone for one of the last realms of American life where a gay man has to think twice about being himself. But if it seemed prosaic, that’s because it was.

And this is how we make sense of it: The context of Collins’ appearance tonight was a huge deal, even if the event wasn’t.