TrueHoop: Gay in the NBA

Openly gay player not so distracting

March, 21, 2014
Abbott By Henry Abbott
Jason Collins
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
In Brooklyn, Jason Collins is making history evidently without harming the team.

NBA front office people, even the ones who swore they were socially progressive, fretted -- in various unattributed conversations -- that if they signed an openly gay player like Jason Collins it might be good for humanity, but bad for the team.

Why? Because the issue of the gayness would be a distraction.

The real-life research into that assertion is underway in Brooklyn, and the early returns are that there was never anything real to worry about.

Stefan Bondy reports in the New York Daily News that -- while Collins has endured the taunts of one unnamed opposing team "knuckelhead," (in Collins' words)-- it's tough to make the case Collins' public sexuality has harmed the Nets in any way.

Still a fringe rotation player whose main job is delivering fouls, Collins’ No. 98 jersey became the top seller on, even as the media attention has died down to the point that he’ll leave a practice or locker room without an interview request.

Perhaps more than anything, the blending in will be the lasting legacy of Collins’ trailblazing stint which was put off until after the All-Star break, in part because of fears around the league that he’d be a distraction.

The Nets (35-31) certainly don’t seem distracted. They’re 10-3 since signing Collins, winners of 10 straight at Barclays Center ahead of Friday's game there against the Celtics.

“Not just for myself, but I think for everyone. This shows that ‘distraction’ is B.S. That it’s about the team, it’s about the sport,” said Collins, who signed for the rest of the season last week. “I hope this shows all players that you can still have your life off the court and not have to hide anything. And still have your life on the court or on the field or on the ice, I guess, in hockey. That’s a credit to my teammates and the entire Nets organization from ownership to coaching to teammates to everyone.”

Jeremy Lin on Jason Collins: 'A big step'

February, 23, 2014
Adande By J.A. Adande

Two years after Linsanity, the month that took him to dizzying heights never before reached by an Asian American player in the NBA, Jeremy Lin offered his perspective on Jason Collins, the first openly gay player in the four major American professional team sports.

"I think it's definitely a big step," Lin said after the Houston Rockets' morning shootaround before their game at the Phoenix Suns. "The game is evolving. You see a lot of different people breaking barriers in a lot of different ways. This is just another one of those."

Collins signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday. But Collins won't just be playing for the Nets ... or for himself ... or for his family. Collins now carries the hopes of the gay community with him, an additional responsibility that Lin handled as a representative for Asian Americans.

"It was definitely not easy," Lin said. "For me, if I didn't have faith, in terms of my Christianity, I'm not sure how I would have been able to handle it or understand it or process it. For me, I try to think of it as living or stewarding God's platform. That's kind of how I approached it."

Only a handful of reporters faced Lin as he spoke, a big drop off from the media throngs he attracted when he averaged 21 points per game at the height of Linsanity in February 2012. Lin is averaging 13.1 points per game in his second season with the Houston Rockets and recently moved to a reserve following the return of Pat Beverley from injury. Just as Collins will receive more attention than the typical player on a 10-day contract, Lin has found that he can't recede completely into the background.

"When I'm with my friends and family back home, it's as normal as it will ever be," Lin said. "But I think I'm getting used to a lot of the changes."

Jason Collins is ready to play

February, 23, 2014
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Jason CollinsChris Pizzello/Invision/APJason Collins has stayed busy building a full life for himself. Now he's ready for an NBA opportunity.
At a recent Sunday morning service at his church in Los Angeles, Jason Collins swayed along with his fellow congregants to the gospel rock ballads being performed on stage. The church is a remarkably happy place, with a rustic chic design and Arcade Fire playing before the service out on the lawn, right near the coffee bar. It’s an urban believer’s paradise, and Collins appeared right at home.

Collins was going on his 10th month of basketball unemployment. He didn't receive a training camp invite, and as opening night came and went, then the Jan. 10 date when rosters rid themselves of some guaranteed contracts, the reality began to set in that he might not suit up again in the NBA.

The positive response of a handful of superstars and head coaches back in April, which seem like eons ago now, didn't change the fact that the league’s median opinion on Collins’ sexuality was still suspicious. Over the past decade, league executives have innovated many facets of their decision making, but they’re still conservative men at heart in their steadfast desire to maintain their careers. These days, few are really interested in being Walter O’Malley or Branch Rickey.

[+] EnlargeJason Collins
Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty ImagesComing out has taken Jason Collins to all sorts of new places, including to the White House for dinner.
From the exterior, this was a cruel event, but for Collins it was something else entirely. He took refuge in his workouts each morning, and maintained an in-season regimen of conditioning and nutrition. But far more than that, he built a life for himself. Coming out isn't just a personal proclamation. It’s the moment you start to sculpt an identity as a gay person. In many respects, it’s Year Zero -- and for Collins, Zero was shaping up as an awesome year.

He met the world, established new friendships in different social communities around the country, and started dating. Barack and Michelle Obama reached out and pretty soon, Collins found himself at the State of the Union. From the White House to grassroots organizations, people were honoring Collins for his courage, and that's about as validating as an experience can get as a human being.

Though watching the league from afar wasn’t without frustration, Collins was loving life. As the service ended and the worshipers filed to the exits, Collins greeted a slew of people. The support was clearly both humbling and energizing. Out on the street, Collins caught up with a few friends. He was off to Washington on Monday as a guest at a state dinner for French President Francois Hollande and needed to run some errands before the trip east.

Collins will now board a plane with the Brooklyn Nets to join their drive toward the 2014 postseason. The opportunity comes 10 months after his last one, but the hiatus also unintentionally provided him time necessary to build confidence as an openly gay man, which should only help ease his transition back into life as a professional basketball player. Because no matter how warm the love, life during those first few months out of the closet can be dizzying. Your personal growth spurt occurs at warp speed, and that’s especially true if you’re an American symbol. Through it all, you build up stamina and a sense of self -- the kind of strength a person needs if he encounters conflict, skepticism or abuse.

Collins’ identity and confidence will come in handy because the spotlight is about to turn even brighter. He’ll be moving to a perfect market for his endeavor, but New York is also a media circus. Those executives who cited the media glare as a legitimate deterrent were misguided, but they weren't incorrect about its existence. Collins’ integration into the league will probably be somewhat disruptive. There will likely be awkward and obtrusive moments for some of his teammates. More and more pro athletes are ready to accept a gay teammate, but not every 24-year-old NBA player has the confidence, vocabulary or cultural sensibility to speak confidently about homosexuality.

Collins’ identity and confidence will come in handy because the spotlight is about to turn even brighter.

The morning after Joakim Noah yelled, “F--- you, f----t” at a fan in Miami during the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, the Bulls held their media availability at the team’s hotel. The big names on the roster were each surrounded by a scrum, and Noah's epithet was a hot topic. Luol Deng was asked his impression, and the vet nervously tiptoed through his response as if he was navigating a minefield. Here was a young guy who’d seen a lot in life. He’d crossed cultures, defied probabilities, been under the microscope of one of the nation’s highest-profile college programs and spent his career in a top-three media market. But “f----t,” gays in the locker room and homosexuality in general were entirely different matters.

Three years later, the Nets figure to be a lot more comfortable. Paul Pierce is a former teammate of Collins and was his most vocal supporter in the league on April 29, when Collins came out. Kevin Garnett can be unpredictable, but his obsessive devotion to team chemistry will appeal to his better nature. Jason Kidd, yet another former teammate, was a catalyst in the decision to bring the 35-year-old Collins in. With those three men facilitating the assimilation process in Brooklyn, the rest of the roster should fall in line.

It’s been a rough couple of seasons for the Nets, and despite their recent surge in the Eastern Conference standings, they haven’t done much right since Barclays Center opened. But today, they're the league leaders. In the NBA market most vulnerable to media distractions, they dismissed the media distraction canard. Instead, they’re embracing the idea that change doesn't come without disruption, and that tests of character are worth confronting.

Collins has already passed that test, and as commendable as his announcement was last spring, watching him handle the situation with grace, cultivate a life and identity, maintain his conditioning and serve as an ambassador has been affirming.

Now he gets to compete, which is the whole point.

Michael Sam and the education of sports

February, 10, 2014
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Getty Images
Jason Collins and Michael Sam have taught us that, on gay issues, education matters.

If an NFL team drafts defensive end Michael Sam of the Missouri Tigers, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, he will settle a longstanding gay sports bar debate: Will the first openly gay player in one of the "Big 4" North American professional team sports be an active player who came out, or a draftee who made his identity as a gay man public before entering the league? Sam came out Sunday on “Outside the Lines” and in The New York Times, and most gurus have the first-team All-American projected to go in approximately the fourth round of May's NFL draft.

Without any degree of certainty, I’ve leaned toward “draftee” based on my experiences covering the NBA. An email correspondence last season with a closeted gay NBA player, who remains in the closet, sent me in that direction. Pro sports is a brutally competitive industry where obsession over job security is just another occupational hazard. Once most athletes get a taste of the bigs, they’re not inclined to do something voluntary to put that job in jeopardy.

There’s still a chance that Jason Collins gets a call from a team looking for some frontcourt defense headed into the stretch run and postseason, but with each passing day the probabilities become less favorable. Whether Collins ever suits up for another NBA game doesn’t diminish what he did for the conversation. Teams sat in training rooms and on team planes and talked out the issue of homosexuality. Collins gave NBA players who could grapple with the idea of a professional gay basketball player abstractly a reference point. Collins blazed a trail across all sports.

There are compelling details in the New York Times piece of Sam’s coming out to his teammates last August. Take a look at the Missouri football roster: small-town Texas, the Ozarks, the southern Plains. Though some players on the team needed time to process, Sam and his closest friends on the team say that the process was virtually seamless. He was still Sam, a first-team All-American talent and a vocal leader with a loud voice. And a gay dude.

The younger the person, the less likely he or she is to consider a person’s sexual identity relevant, or to consider it at all, really. When Collins came out, NBA players I’ve spoken to say that age was a reliable predictor of sentiment.

Sam told The New York Times: “Some people actually just couldn’t believe I was actually gay. But I never had a problem with my teammates. Some of my coaches were worried, but there was never an issue.”

With the possibility of a few outlying opinions, the kids were fine despite any apprehension from the elders: 131 players and more than two dozen coaches and administrators managed not to leak the story for nearly six months. That’s not a minor miracle -- it’s proof that Sam’s sexual identity was entirely incidental to the team’s larger ambitions.

This didn’t happen by accident -- education matters. Last spring, the You Can Play Project, which educates amateur programs and professional franchises on how to create an environment where gay athletes are accepted and can flourish, led seminars for teams at Mizzou.

“Mizzou used our model to put together their own diversity discussions, as we frequently encourage schools to do,” said Patrick Burke, co-founder of You Can Play. “They talked to all their athletes about how performance is what matters, and how homophobic language and a negative culture can hinder an athlete's performance. Obviously, Michael took that discussion to heart, and I imagine it helped inspire three of his teammates to appear in the Mizzou ‘You Can Play’ video. Michael’s experience at Mizzou simply emphasizes the effectiveness of starting open conversations, which is our only goal at You Can Play. Ignorance and confusion can be fixed with education, and education is what we do best.”

Progress in this area has been exponential, but not every kid who plays football is going to arrive on a college campus with a fully formed understanding of who gay people are and what they’re about. That’s what college is for, and credit the University of Missouri and Pat Ivey, the school’s associate athletic director for athletic performance, for embracing its mission as an institution of higher learning -- and credit You Can Play for providing the curriculum.

When NBA coaches, executives and agents are asked why Collins didn’t receive a training camp invite last fall or hasn't caught on with a team midseason, they cite the anticipated “distraction,” both in the media and the locker room, coupled with Collins' age. A few execs said that the risk of rankling a superstar or futzing with chemistry wasn’t worth the trouble.

How did Missouri respond to Sam’s announcement to the team that he was gay? By ripping off a 12-2 season, winning the Cotton Bowl and finishing No. 5 in the final Associated Press poll -- one of their two best seasons since 1960. One can safely assume that whatever disruption Sam’s announcement generated in-house, it never made its way onto the field. Those who might have initially been uncomfortable showering next to a gay man or felt that he violated certain religious tenets either got over it, or deferred to the collective goodwill of the team.

“It's a workplace. If you've ever been in a Division I or pro locker room, it's a business place,” Sam told ESPN. “You want to act professional.”

Coming out occupies a central place in the life of gay people, which is why it’s ironic that so many of us are striving to drive it into extinction as a major life event. For his part, Sam will never come out to an NFL locker room, front office or fan base because he’s already done the work. He’ll show up as a complete person to training camp this summer. The media will flock to the story at first, and there will undoubtedly be some initial reservations in the locker room and the stands. But by virtue of arriving at camp as an “openly proud gay man,” as Sam identified himself on “Outside the Lines” on Sunday, there’s nothing to process, certainly not for Sam. He’ll have to wait for a few stragglers to catch up, but other than presiding over the teaching moments -- and there will be plenty of those because 20-something men traffic in all kinds of Category 1 and 2 homophobia -- the entirety of Sam’s work will be work. He’ll either anchor a defensive line or he won’t.

It’s impossible to know how much Michael Sam’s status as an elite player factored into his team’s overwhelming acceptance. An NBA head coach recently told me that the nine months since Jason Collins’ announcement in Sports Illustrated have taught us that the first openly gay active NBA player would need to be an All-Star. To his point, would a backup kicker have found the process of coming out at an SEC football program as painless as Sam did? Doubtful, which means there’s still work to do.

But as much as Sam’s credentials and standing as a team leader greased the wheels, they also meant Sam had something to lose. One can imagine a cynical adviser pleading with Sam to wait until after the NFL draft to avoid any risk. If Sam received such counsel, he clearly ignored it. As a result, he’s guaranteed to be drafted by an organization that will welcome a gay player.

Fortitude will find reward, which is the very mission of sports.

The Nuggets take a bold step forward

January, 23, 2014
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

NBA players' contracts require them to make a certain number of community appearances on behalf of their teams. They’ll pay visits to hospitals or schools and show up at charity functions or galas. Outside of what they do for their teams, most players will get hit up by nonprofits or organizations who want them to lend their faces, names and free time to the cause. Most of the requests are well-intentioned, but players generally don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do. Nobody will force them to say yes. And if they say no, they still have a laundry list of good works performed on behalf of team and league they can cite.

That’s why the Denver Nuggets’ You Can Play spot featuring Kenneth Faried, Randy Foye and Quincy Miller is meaningful. You Can Play’s mission is to promote an inclusive environment on playing fields and in the locker rooms for gay athletes. You Can Play has forged formal partnerships with NHL, MLS and NCAA teams. A number of pro athletes such as Klay Thompson have participated in YCP videos, but the Nuggets become the first NBA team to have multiple players featured in support of the project.

As agendas go, YCP’s is radically moderate. It wants a world where gay athletes can suit up and play without fear of harassment, physical harm or having their talents passed over because of who they are.

That last item is a big one. Being on the receiving end of an epithet is an indignity, but what really terrifies a competitive gay athlete is not just the threat of physical or verbal abuse, but the prospect of never getting a rightful opportunity to perform and succeed. This discussion isn’t about being nice; it’s about being fair.

Thanks to You Can Play and many others, great progress is being made at the collegiate and high school level, but it’s been a tough season in the NBA. Jason Collins moved the conversation forward when he came out last April. Around the NBA, players have reported that his announcement inspired the most honest conversations to date about homosexuality in basketball. But the aspiration was for something much larger: bringing hypotheticals to real life.

By now, many of us wanted to be talking about how integrating a gay ballplayer into an NBA locker room was made easier, how morale was compromised at first because change is by its very nature disruptive, how that discomfort ultimately receded thanks to strong leadership and an appeal to our better selves. With Collins not on an active NBA roster, we’re not talking about those things. We can debate what role his identity as a gay man plays in that reality, but NBA executives and agents have stated that it’s a factor larger than zero.

That means that there’s work to do -- and the Nuggets, Faried, Foye and Miller are doing it. In the absence of an out gay player in uniform, the onus returns to individual teams and players to lead on the issue. Nothing in the body of the NBA charter or these Nuggets players’ contracts stipulated that they needed to, but they did.

What we're learning from Jason Collins

October, 11, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Getty Images
Jason Collins shined a bright light on an issue few in the NBA spoke openly about. Is that enough?

Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day. The vast majority of people who declare their sexual identity do so one of the other 364 days on the calendar, but symbolism has always had an important role in the pursuit of equality.

The NBA saw a major milestone this past year, as veteran center Jason Collins disclosed he was gay in a personal essay published on April 29 in Sports Illustrated. As we approach opening night, Collins isn’t on an NBA roster. If he remains an unsigned free agent, will his announcement go down as merely symbolic, or will it have a more lasting, meaningful effect?

Today offers us an opportunity to explore that question.


Not long before Jason Collins came out to the world, I sat with an NBA head coach in an empty gym after his team’s practice. In the few years I’ve been talking with players, coaches or execs as a gay journalist about the implications of an openly gay player, the gravitation has been toward those I perceived would be most accepting and comfortable. When we want to classify these guys, we often call them enlightened and smart, even if what we really mean is that they share our cultural sensibilities.

This coach doesn’t fall into that group. He’s razor-sharp and intellectually curious -- and he happens to be devoted to the idea that a specific collection of texts should serve as our moral authority. If I wanted a true pulse on the collective sentiment of those in the basketball world about the climate for a gay player, it was time to start conversations with people who subscribed to different creeds, people like this head coach.

Over the course of our chat, which covered topics ranging from theology to how values are instilled in human beings, this coach offered up a prediction: An active NBA player would come out pretty soon. The public reaction to the announcement would be positive. A few high-profile players and coaches would voice overwhelming support for the player, and the media would celebrate the moment.

But back in the locker room, the majority of the league’s rostered players would still be uncomfortable with the idea of sharing close space with a gay teammate, according to the coach. When the cameras and digital recorders are turned off, the attitudes of the median player in the NBA were closer to those of the coach, not mine.

This vision was prescient to a great extent. On the Monday Collins made his announcement in Sports Illustrated, some big names expressed encouragement and respect. Elder statesmen like Paul Pierce, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Shane Battier and Chauncey Billups backed Collins in media scrums and on Twitter. The press congratulated Collins and noted the hospitable reception for Collins in the public sphere.

Conventional wisdom quickly coalesced around the idea that Collins' identity as a gay man wouldn’t hurt him in free agency, especially with his reputation for being a model teammate. At his most recent stop in Washington, Collins made a big impression on the younger guys in the Wizards’ youth movement. At Collins’ suggestion, the kids stopped eating fast food in the locker room and learned how to work through a circuit in the weight room like professional athletes.

Collins is a guy who as recently as two years ago proved he can make life difficult for an opposing center. Older big men often fall out of the league as they get older because they put on a few extra pounds and lose stamina. Not Collins, who is in impeccable shape, which makes sense because he works out at least three hours a day as a matter of routine.

“Conditioning won’t be a factor in a team’s decision,” Collins says. “I’m making sure that my health won’t be a liability.”

Optimists embraced the notion that if a couple of teams had issues with Collins, there would be a counterbalance from a couple of owners and execs who liked the idea of being a Walter O’Malley or a Branch Rickey.

“All it takes is one team,” Collins says. “One owner, one team. We’ll see what happens.”

Whatever assets Collins brings to a team, they haven’t been enough to persuade an NBA team to retain his services. The question of who will sign Collins has been revised to, “Will anyone?”

“I don’t know the answer,” Golden State Warriors president and chief operating officer Rick Welts says. Welts came out in the spring of 2011, the first executive in the NBA to do so publicly. “I’m rooting for a good outcome for Jason whether he plays another game or not. I hope he will and that after a while we can forget about everything other than than the fact the he's a player who can give you quality minutes off the bench and is a terrific teammate."

Welts’ combination of optimism and apprehension is shared by many others around the league who are rooting for Collins, but recognize the forces working against him. They list any number of factors, some unique to his identity as the only openly gay free agent, others products of circumstance.

As the league gets stretchier -- with some teams employing as few as four conventional big men -- fewer NBA jobs remain for a center whose primary on-court asset is interior defense. Many teams prefer to take fliers on younger prospects whose contracts can be discarded on Jan. 10, when the vets’ phones start to ring. For their part, the Warriors have stockpiled centers. They have Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, Ognjen Kuzmic, Jermaine O’Neal and Dewayne Dedmon all under contract.

“The reality for our team is that we are really deep at the center position -- there’s not a roster spot available,” Welts says.

League trends aside, nearly a dozen execs say privately that the media glare that would come with a Collins signing just isn’t worth the distraction to most teams. Locker rooms are fragile places already and not always receptive to change, and though NBA players as a whole are extremely professional with the media, it’s not their favorite half hour of the day. The easier it is, the better. If he were a rotation player or better, the thinking goes, the cost/benefit analysis might produce a different outcome.

In other words, the market for Collins would be bigger if he weren’t openly gay.

Is disqualifying a gay player not because of his sexual identity but because he’ll attract attention to the team a distinction without a difference? By definition, isn’t that discrimination, if not with a capital D, then a small one? Is the goal of an organization to conform to the traditional realities of the league or to engage in thought leadership?

I asked Collins if the additional media attention was a legitimate reason for a team to pass on him.

“No, because the media question in this day and age would last a week, maybe two?” Collins says. “There are only so many ways to write a story, then it’s on to the next situation and eventually the focus will shift back to basketball. I’m just one player on a team, and my story is not going to last more than a news cycle or two.”

Beyond the scrutiny that might come with Collins’ presence, anxiety and distaste for the idea of a gay teammate still exists among many NBA players. A few veterans say that in the immediate wake of Collins’ announcement, opinions varied widely during conversations in the locker room. Some players were incredulous that anyone would have an issue suiting up next to a gay guy, while others said they were repulsed by gay men.

Some things haven’t really changed about the climate around the league. Few want to have a frank conversation about the issue on the record. This isn’t the kind of thing to be addressed in a scrum after practice, or while a guy is going through his pregame rituals at his locker. Like PEDs, homosexuality is still on the list of radioactive topics. Communications departments would kindly like a heads up if you plan to broach the subject because one tangled quote can find itself under the media microscope. In fact, the media cycle immediately following the Collins story is one of the only instances when players have been free game on the theme.

So now the goalposts have moved. Collins is a long shot to make a roster before opening night, which was the original benchmark. There’s guarded optimism among those around the league that he can hook on with a team midseason as roster spots open up, but with Collins unsigned, we have to start contemplating what it means if he never plays another game. If that happens, was anything accomplished? Does the personal manifesto on April 29 still pack the same punch? Does it count?

"Of course it counts,” Welts says. "Because at the time Jason came out, the hope was that he would have more to his NBA career. He put himself out there with a full résumé of who he is as a person.”

Welts appreciates that intent matters. The league hasn’t fully integrated a gay man into the workplace, not yet. The incremental nature of progress can be a total buzzkill, but if you look closely enough, there’s comfort in more than just symbolism.

The conversations that produced a wide array of opinions following Collins’ announcement are a new thing in the NBA. Grant Hill recounted a spontaneous discussion among the Los Angeles Clippers after they heard the news. Hill has been an outspoken supporter of creating a receptive environment for gay players, and while he didn’t agree with every opinion in the room, he did take away something larger from the moment.

“It was the first time I can ever remember a whole team sitting around talking about the issue,” Hill says. “It’s something you might have talked about in a private conversation with one or two other people, but never as a big group. [That day], guys who didn’t agree were talking about why it made them uncomfortable, and some guys said they thought it was foolish to feel that way. It was an open conversation. It was honest.”

A belief system can’t be altered until it’s examined, and a conversation can’t be sustained before it’s started. The day inside ClipperLand, the collective examination and teamwide conversation moved at least one mind. Potential leaders on the issue emerged, whether those who did the leading realize it yet. Some players who had never previously had a frame of reference, neither a person nor a line of thought, now have Jason Collins and the substance of that group conversation to consider. Even though Collins wasn’t in the locker room -- even if he’s never in another locker room -- he moved the needle.

I asked Collins to choose between staying in the closet, but milking another three years out of his pro career and a scenario in which he never plays another NBA game as the man who came out on April 29.

“Definitely the latter,” Collins says. “You can’t underestimate how good it feels to control your own story, being able to tell your own truth is, to live an authentic life versus having that stress, that worry, that fear of ‘Is today going to be the day that someone figures it out?’ It opens up so many other doors in life, meeting new people, friendships, being a part of a community that celebrates acceptance and tolerance.”

This season, the NBA has a chance to become one of those communities. The transition was never going to be quick and easy, and if Collins doesn’t find another employer in the NBA, it could conceivably be a couple of more years. Closeted players might interpret the outcome as evidence that coming out is professional suicide, though one owner can reverse that impression.

Doing so might disrupt the locker room and make a few guys uncomfortable, but that’s what change does. We adapt because adaptability is a condition of being a living thing, even if you have to feel the potential for change before you can fully achieve it.

Tolerance is great, conviction is better

October, 11, 2013
Abbott By Henry Abbott
Isiah Thomas
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
When he coached the Knicks, Isiah Thomas said he'd "make damn sure" a gay player would be welcome.

Five years ago, when retired NBA player John Amaechi came out of the closet, just about the whole NBA was asked to imagine life with a gay player. Some, like Tim Hardaway and Jerry Sloan, struggled to say anything supportive. Most NBA figures offered vague quotes about tolerance and respect -- along the lines of we'll accept a player like that, but it may come with complications.

Google and I have been hard-pressed, however, to find anyone other than Isiah Thomas -- then the Knicks coach -- who was ready to speed the NBA to the place it's headed, which is a day when all this is behind us:
"We won't have a problem with it," he assured beat writers. "I can't speak for somebody else's locker room, but if it's in mine, we won't have a problem. I'll make damn sure there's no problem."

He'll make damn sure there's no problem.

Is there any other correct position for a leader to take?

Homosexuality in the workplace might not strike some straight people as an issue deeply rooted in the globe's long, ongoing struggle for human rights, but it's there. A lot of political things people fight about are theory (what is the right tax rate for the rich?) or action (what do we do with this guy who's growing marijuana?). Those things can get fuzzy.

In a totally different category are issues of identity. Not theory, not action. People. It's about getting to be who you are. Homosexuality is not a theory, it is not an action -- it's human beings. It's John Amaechi. It's Jason Collins. Do they get to be who they are? Here? In this job?

On those identity issues, what's right isn't squishy at all. It's crystal clear. You get to be you. You get to exist and pursue happiness and pay the bills and maybe even fall in love. And while that might make some people uncomfortable, anyone who tells you don't get to be you has it coming. Caring people, Isiah, and generally the law, are ready to tell them to knock it off.

We better make damn sure so.

If he's signed to an NBA team, Collins is not likely to make the team much better. It could be that there are straight basketball reasons he remains unemployed.

It could also be that there are straight reasons.

As in, how the league viewed him last season, when he was the same player, and had a job.

Kevin Arnovitz, one of the NBA’s first out sports writers, has had dozens of conversations with coaches, GMs, players and the like about homosexuality in the NBA in recent years. And one of the things he’s hearing is that Collins is on the bubble of NBA employment and some teams that would consider him on the merits of his play are concerned his identity might attract a little extra media attention through the season. That's an actual snag.

In other words, any minor challenge is challenge enough to quit trying to make the NBA a little more welcoming to the gay players who have always been on NBA teams, most of whom are still in the closet. I’m not surprised that a team or two lacks conviction. I am surprised the league is 0-for-30.

I’m reminded of David Stern’s comments in 2011, before Collins came out of the closet. He said both that “it was going to be hard” for a player to come out and that he himself “didn’t want to become a social crusader on this issue.”

Isiah's damn sure there won't be a problem. Stern's damn sure there is a problem. See the problem?

Anyone can see there is some ground to cover before there's perfect acceptance of out NBA players. But is it really such a big challenge for a league that has a big engine to change things and has successfully navigated everything from racial integration to global recession? A dab of conviction from anybody who matters -- the league’s leading executives, coaches, star players and the like -- is all it would take.

These obstacles are speed bumps, really. But as each appears in the road, those driving the NBA let the car coast to a stop, unable to push forward.

Is Isiah really the only one who knows how to put his foot on the gas?

Jason Collins to take Barclays floor for VMA

August, 24, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
It's not as if the NBA is a stranger to gay tunes. Fans across the league go nuts when arenas blare "Y.M.C.A." by the Village People. They contort themselves into the title letters, oblivious to the song's place in the pantheon of gay anthems.

On Sunday night at MTV's Video Music Awards, out gay NBA center Jason Collins will introduce yet another gay anthem at an NBA arena when Macklemore & Ryan Lewis perform their big, earnest summer single "Same Love" at Brooklyn's Barclays Center.

Collins disclosed his identity as a gay man on Apr. 29 in an article in Sports Illustrated two weeks after he concluded the season with the Washington Wizards. The 12-year NBA veteran has had a busy summer in Los Angeles working out in preparation for the upcoming season and as an ambassador for the gay community at various public events.

For years, many anticipated that the first openly gay athlete in a professional team sport would have significant crossover cultural appeal. Back in February 2007, Mark Cuban predicted that the first out gay player would have a bevy of endorsement and marketing opportunities. Collins, a Nike athlete, has been tapped by the sportswear giant for their #BeTrue campaign targeting gays and lesbians. In June, he marched in Boston's Pride parade wearing a #BeTrue t-shirt two days after throwing out the first pitch at Fenway Park to a nice reception.

Will Collins, who reportedly met with the Detroit Pistons a few weeks ago, receive a contract offer for the 2013-14 season? An informal survey of league executives at Las Vegas Summer League suggests that Collins, who remains a free agent, stands a good chance to be in uniform on opening night this fall as teams flesh out their rosters with 12th, 13th and 14th men in the weeks leading up to training camp.

"He's a September player," one front office exec said. "He's a positive locker room influence and still plays big. The league likes him."


Spoken word: Mark Jackson

May, 16, 2013
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
Mark Jackson
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty ImagesThe Warriors coach is one of the NBA's most fascinating speakers.
Mark Jackson leans into his words as if they’re skinny, 1990s point guards trying to stop him. He shoves them around. Boasts are bellowed. Mind games are played. Sermons are delivered.

A lot happens when Jackson is on the mike. Between the platitudes and clichés, here are some Jackson pronouncements from this year's playoff run:

"They tried to send hit men on Steph.”

Jackson said this after a Game 5 loss to the Nuggets wherein Stephen Curry was roughed up a bit off the ball.

I would call this a savvy public display of hypocrisy. It’s hard for the guy who coaches Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green to call out the opposition for roughing people up. It's ridiculous on its face.

At the same time, it was smart of Jackson to alert refs to off-ball action.

The natural tendency, even for referees, is to focus on the ball. With this declaration, Jackson took a laser pointer and attached the light to Kenneth Faried’s jersey. The Warriors coach called Faried out specifically for hitting Curry’s ankle. In Game 6, Faried picks up his third foul on a “trip” of Harrison Barnes. Except, Barnes appeared to trip over his own feet on the replay. We’ll never know if Jackson’s complaints helped swing the foul that caused Faried to get benched in Game 6, but I have my suspicions.

"I've taken pride in not ever criticizing referees -- for two years. And then reading the statement by the NBA, I'm extremely thankful I am not fined for criticizing referees."

Jackson is a swaggering braggart. (After beating the Lakers, he declared his team better and even added, “They are in the rearview mirror.”) But it's complicated.

This brashness is at odds with an almost priggish devotion to his own sense of propriety. He never curses, at least in public. There’s no more rap music in a Warriors locker room, which could now double as a library reading room.

Jackson advocates a particular decorum around officials. He got his first and only technical foul by literally asking for it. Seriously, Jackson didn’t like the calls so he politely asked the ref to give him a technical as a demonstration to his players.

So it’s no surprise that, after making the hit men comments, Jackson takes pride that he didn’t violate his own code. Aspects of Denver’s play were criticized, but the refs were never questioned, at least explicitly. I have no firm grasp as to why Jackson adheres to these codes, but the structure may give him comfort.

“I’m a guy that believes, again, that God has his hands on this team.”

The God issue is sensitive, especially when you consider that the Bay Area isn’t exactly the Bible Belt. As you’ve probably noticed over these playoffs, Jackson is publicly quite religious. Regardless of Jackson's right to sermonize, I will hazard that these statements are sometimes taken too literally. I don’t believe that Jackson believes God delivers the wind gust that causes Manu Ginobili’s air ball because God loves the Warriors. It feels more like a statement about how the team communes with whatever Jackson thinks God to be and how he thinks this is a good process.

Warning: I’m not religious in the slightest, and I’ve never had an extended theological discussion with Jackson. I’ve just noticed that Jackson is big on the power of positive thinking.

"Those guys are just getting to the hospital. The baby has been born already."

This was in response to Curry’s 22-point third quarter explosion in Game 4 against Denver. In the amusing quote, Jackson isn’t just talking about how Curry's play; he’s talking about how ignored his greatness was when obscured by injuries, Monta Ellis’ ball-hoggery, losses and a non-Lakers Pacific time slot.

It has a certain resonance with a Bay Area populace that is equal parts proud of the region and insecure over how it doesn’t get enough attention. The Bay is beautiful and important, but it isn’t Los Angeles in terms of national and international cachet. East Coast bias isn’t real to the media-steeped L.A. sports market. In the Bay, fans can bristle over how their teams miss out on national coverage. It’s a big market with a big chip on its shoulder. Oh, you just discovered Curry? He’s been great for a while! And we have EXCELLENT food and wine out here! L.A. stinks!

"We live in a country that allows you to be whoever you want to be. As a Christian man, I serve a God that allows you free will to be whoever you want to be. As a Christian man, I have beliefs of what's right and what's wrong. That being said, I know Jason Collins. I know his family. And certainly [I'm] praying for them at this time."

This was such a tense moment at Warriors practice. A local reporter asked noted Christian Jackson for his thoughts on Jason Collins coming out. As Jackson started, nobody really knew where this quote was headed.

The words are vague and, frankly, cryptic. Most around the sports world were congratulating Collins, rolling out the welcome mat. Whatever Jackson was saying was at odds with that. But his words also weren’t specifically hateful or rejecting. He later spoke well of both Collins and his family.

What is this prayer about then? Salvation? Happiness? Protection?

In that same news conference, Jackson spoke of praying during every national anthem.

My take? Jackson probably should have gone a different direction with his comments, but I also believe he was processing right in front of us. Jackson didn’t give any indication of having known of Collins’ sexual orientation, despite his friendly relationship with Jason and his family. By all appearances, the news was fresh to him.

Perhaps this is how tolerance happens. Those who wrongly think they live a world apart from gay people suddenly find that they already know and quite like a gay person. The once myopic are forced to grapple, forced to process. It’s easy to not see the humanity in someone you initially view as an “other.” But if you already see the humanity in a person before he declares himself to hail from an “other” category? It’s too late; you’ve already bonded with that person. You already know better than to dismiss his personhood. That kind of wake-up call can broaden perspectives and bring people together.

All of this might have absolutely nothing to do with Jackson. Again, he was vague. But the uncomfortable moment made me aware of how people around the NBA were processing and incorporating what they just learned about their brave friend Jason Collins.

Also worth noting on this tricky subject: While players the league over have spoken on the record about Collins coming out, as far as I'm aware that's not true of a single Warrior.

"In my opinion, they're the greatest shooting backcourt in the history of the game."

Remember how I said that Jackson is a swaggering braggart? He made these comments about Curry and Klay Thompson. Based on 3-point shooting, he has an excellent case. He likes to pump his guys up, perhaps hoping that they adopt his optimistic paradigm. It’s easier to become a star if you think it possible first.

Talk like this rubs some people the wrong way, but I love it. Most coaches are so afraid to say anything good about their players. It’s refreshing to see someone skirt the line of hyperbole in the other direction.

"That's stupid. ... I'm doing it for fun."
Jackson was asked why he kept submitting paperwork listing Carl Landry as a starter against the Nuggets when Harrison Barnes was actually the starting power forward.

He dismissed the notion it was superstition. The coach just thought it amusing to repeatedly deliver an inaccurate lineup card.

While I don’t find the joke hilarious, I do believe in the value of stepping back from playoff game terror and chuckling at its absurd quirks. The great coaches occasionally exhibit some detached whimsy. Think Gregg Popovich intentionally fouling Shaq after tipoff or Phil Jackson smiling on the bench for reasons unknown. Mark Jackson’s coaching equivalent to playing with his food could be a good sign. I also believe he was just messing with George Karl to glean a slight advantage.

“Can I be honest with ya? I’m jealous. I wish I could put on a uniform the way you ballin'.”

You could regard this, from TNT's Inside Trax timeout microphone, as Jackson trying to convey that his players should appreciate and seize the moment.

But something in his tone makes me believe the comments are more nostalgic, less practical. From what I’ve heard from players-turned-coaches, there is no high that matches going out on a court and actually shaping the game with your hands. I wonder if Jackson was just thinking aloud as he contemplated life on the bench. I wonder if Jackson actually does feel a pang of jealousy or if he's experiencing a miniature midlife crisis on account of no longer being able to share in this unique experience.

The statement could be less about missing the past than appreciating the present, though. So many players from the Jordan era condescend to the modern NBA. "It was so much tougher then!" is the refrain. Jackson talks up his era on occasion. But in this moment, he's telling his modern team what a privilege it would be to play with it. Jackson has reverence for the past, but not so much that he's degrading what happens now, in front of his eyes. It's easy to roll your eyes at his "greatest shooting backcourt" comments, but such bold declarations might show the Warriors coach to be hyper-present and quite respectful of the talent he presides over. If so, that's pretty cool.

“Can I stop again to tell you I love you? Outstanding.”

“Love” can be a dirty word in the machismo-steeped culture of pro sports. But bless him, Jackson is too emotional to use any other word.

I have no clue how the Warriors take this, but it’s notable that most coaches never say anything like this. Because “their business” is a business. “Love” does not belong in a business, just as Jackson’s religious statements might not belong in corporate America.

But sports are strange because, to be a business, people must believe these teams are far more than that. Executives, players, coaches, everybody involved have to emotionally invest in something other than profit, even if profit is also a motivation. And in this gray zone of life called “sports,” this nexus of tribalism, feeling, glory and money, Jackson lives loudly.

TrueHoop TV: Wade Davis

May, 1, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Former professional football player Wade Davis came out in 2012, a few years after retiring from the game. We spoke on Monday soon after Jason Collins' story was published, and one of Davis' first reaction was, "He's perfect."

Davis stops by TrueHoop TV to explain what makes Collins a strong candidate to perform the hard work of being North American team pro sports' first openly gay male athlete.

Jason Collins is not Brittney Griner

May, 1, 2013
Abbott By Henry Abbott
So odd to me, that people wonder why Jason Collins' coming out made bigger waves than Brittney Griner's.

Well, gather 'round, because I'm about to explain.
  1. How many WNBA players are out? As of 2005, Michele Van Gorp, Sue Wicks and Sheryl Swoopes. That was eight years ago.
  2. That the WNBA doesn't make news like the NBA is elemental. It is a lower profile sport.
  3. We don't know precisely the obstacles Collins faced in coming out. But we do know that in NBA, MLB, NFL and NHL history no other active player has overcome them before, despite thousands of athletes over more than a century.
  4. Jason Collins is a man.

Whoa. What? Huh? That last point?

If I thought it would work, here's where I'd drop 5,000 words of queer theory on you. Or you can take my word for it that gay men and women have long faced subtly different obstacles in gaining mainstream embrace. For men, a particular issue has been that society's powerbrokers -- disproportionately heterosexual men -- have long acted scared of gay men, and particularly of being sexually assaulted by them.

That quickens the pulse of the people who set the agenda, particularly in the male-dominated sphere of pro sports. For many sports fans that gave Collins' announcement a "wow" factor -- likely subconscious -- that Griner's cool announcement lacked.

This is why we hear so much about group showering whenever gay athletes are discussed. The shower is where a lot of heterosexual men hate to be reminded gay men exist, even if they can handle that reality perfectly well in other settings.

Compared to women or gay men, heterosexual men lack practice coping with sexualization, and are easily alarmed.

So chalk that up as the first fear: That the open existence of homosexual men makes some heterosexual men feel unsafe. This prompts fear. Fear and hatred have always walked hand in hand. Hatred, of course, is the key obstacle Collins will face.

Would you believe there's another fear in play that's even trickier to write about? The second is that admiring professional athletes' bodies -- no small part of what sports fans have long done daily -- just got weird for the ardently heterosexual male. Jason Collins is asking fans to tour their own psyches in a challenging new way.

And here's where I really think you ought to read what one of America's most decorated writers (be warned, it's PG-13 or beyond), Sherman Alexie, has to say about about how we see gay athletes, in The Stranger.
So who are the best-looking men in the USA? The answer, obviously, is professional athletes. I mean, Jesus, Google-Image Adrian Peterson. Study how cut, shredded, and jacked he is.

Cut. Shredded. Jacked. Those are violent straight-boy adjectives that mean "beautiful." But we straight boys aren't supposed to think of other men as beautiful. We're supposed to think of the most physically gifted men as warrior soldiers, as dangerous demigods.

And there's the rub: When we're talking about professional athletes, we are mostly talking about males passionately admiring the physical attributes and abilities of other males. It might not be homosexual, but it certainly is homoerotic.

So when Jason Collins, an NBA basketball player, announced this week that he was gay and became the first active athlete in the four major professional American sports leagues to come out of the closet, I was proud of him. And I was aroused, politically speaking.

He's the Jackie Robinson of homosexual basketball big men.

He's seven feet and 250 pounds of man-loving man.

And he's an aging center in the last days of his professional career who might not be signed by a team next season.

Homophobic basketball fans will disparage his skills, somehow equating his NBA benchwarmer status with his sexuality. But let's not forget that Collins is still one of the best 1,000 basketball players in the world. He has always been better than his modest statistics would indicate, and his teams have been dramatically more efficient with him on the court. He is better at hoops than 99.9 percent of you are at anything you do. He might not be a demigod, but he's certainly a semi-demigod. Moreover, his basketball colleagues universally praise him as a physically and mentally tough player. In his prime, he ably battled that behemoth known as Shaquille O'Neal. Most of all, Collins is widely regarded as one of the finest gentlemen to ever play the game. Generous, wise, and supportive, he's a natural leader. And he has a degree from Stanford University.

In other words, he's a highly attractive dude.


TrueHoop TV: What Jason Collins is facing

April, 30, 2013
Abbott By Henry Abbott
Archive's Kevin Arnovitz has been out of the closet, and going to work at NBA stadiums (and yes, in locker rooms) for years.

In his experience, how can Jason Collins, now that he's out, really expect to be treated?

OTL on Jason Collins

April, 29, 2013
Abbott By Henry Abbott
In response to several Twitter requests, here's Outside the Lines on Jason Collins, featuring TrueHoop's Kevin Arnovitz:

Jason Collins and the pride of identity

April, 29, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Bruce Bennett/NBAE/Getty ImagesWere we "ready" for Jason Collins? In the end, it didn't really matter.

"No one wants to live in fear. I've always been scared of saying the wrong thing. I don't sleep well. I never have. But each time I tell another person, I feel stronger and sleep a little more soundly. It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret. I've endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time."

-- Jason Collins in Sports Illustrated

Everything has changed, yet it all seems so self-evident when you break it down. In which workplace, family, school or community would we not want someone to feel like the best version of himself and committed to his well-being? What benefit is derived from imposing what Metta World Peace aptly referred to as “unnecessary stress” on another person? How is basketball, sports, or the larger world better when we have people like Jason Collins enduring misery, sleeping poorly and expending precious energy guarding secrets? We shouldn’t wait for everyone to be ready before we create the environment for a guy like Collins to thrive -- we should get ready.

This is why the “readiness” canard never rang true to me. The world is never completely ready for change, and there are some in the NBA today expressing ambivalence about Collins’ announcement. Those voices won’t be the last. The next time Collins sets a screen in front of 18,000 people, it’s a fair bet that a couple of them will be angry. There will be players who grumble privately that Collins’ admission makes life a little more awkward for them.

There’s going to be a serious temptation in the next few days to dwell on the commentary of those who are least comfortable with Collins’ decision, but let’s not. We should offer clarity where it’s lacking and perspective where there isn’t any, but this has always been a conversation that’s strongest when it’s forward-looking, not reactive. Present resistance isn’t nearly as profound as future potential. Pretty soon, just about everyone will get over it because that’s what progress is -- the collective act of getting over it.

I still can’t figure out if Collins' coming out is a “where were you when it happened” moment. When I first learned about Collins I was banging out some thoughts and impressions about the Clippers-Grizzlies first-round playoff series for a column. Before Game 4 in Memphis, I witnessed an amusing scene in the Grizzlies locker room, which was empty except for Zach Randolph and Tony Allen sitting at their lockers. Allen was playfully lecturing Z-Bo about the nuances of help defense and the job of the big man in a defensive rotation. Z-Bo smiled, knowing everything Allen was saying was correct. Then, shaking his head, he said, “The big man can never win.”

It was one of those snapshots when players reveal not only something about their approach to the craft but also a bit of who they are as people. Those are the moments you live for when you cover a sport, when the characters become fuller and the images become brighter -- when athletes become real people.

That’s all this conversation about openly gay athletes has ever been about it, our collective willingness to afford them the dignity of self-expression. A human being simply can’t live in fear of his or her own identity. Anyone who has could tell you how torturous it is. Jason Collins understood that, and that realization fueled his decision to come out as an openly gay man on Monday.

Collins called coming out “the right thing.” Some of that is a political imperative, but more than anything, Collins made a quality-of-life decision, just as did Golden State executive Rick Welts and anyone else who’s opted, as Collins wrote, to be whole. That means taking all of the different fragments in life -- work, family, friends, passions, maybe school or worship -- and bringing them together and becoming a complete person.

Sports was one of the last places in American public life where that was impossible, but Collins has righted that.

Will Jason Collins be in NBA next season?

April, 29, 2013
Stein By Marc Stein
Of the first 14 teams reached by in an anonymous survey, six said they expect to see Jason Collins in the NBA next season in the wake of his revelation Monday that he is gay.

The other eight teams that expressed some measure of doubt all cited Collins' age and corresponding questions about his ability to make a productive on-court contribution as the overriding reason he wouldn't be able to find a job for his 13th season, not because of fallout from the announcement.

Although one Eastern Conference executive acknowledged that it's inevitable that Collins' newfound status as the first active player in North American team sports to come out as gay "would have to be discussed" internally by any team considering him, those eight teams expressing a degree of skepticism about Collins' hopes of finding future employment were unanimous in saying the decision would be overwhelmingly tied to his playing ability.

"The reality," said one Western Conference executive, "is that he's been an end-of-the-roster kind of player for the last couple years."

Sources close to the situation said that the Washington Wizards, who acquired Collins in February in a trade with Boston, don't have the 7-footer as a free-agent priority as they head into the offseason but have interest in bringing him back depending on how their 2013-14 roster unfolds.

Three teams consulted in's anonymous survey strongly expressed the belief that Collins will be able to secure a one-year contract in 2013-14 despite the fact that he has been relegated to end-of-the-bench duty for the past five seasons and hasn't averaged more than 15 minutes per game since 2007-08.

An executive from one of those three teams said: "[Collins] is such a good person and teammate. I still think organizations will like having him around for situational play and leadership."

Said an executive from another organization: "I think there's a 100 percent chance he'll be back in the league ... because he can still play."

Yet another front-office executive added that because Collins keeps himself in better shape physically now than he did in his 20s, coupled with the idea that this summer's projected crop for free-agent centers isn't the deepest, it will help his cause tremendously.

The Celtics, according to NBA front-office sources, tried everything they could in February to keep Collins from being included in the trade they made to bring Jordan Crawford to Boston on deadline day. Washington wanted Collins, but Boston tried to include Chris Wilcox instead, only to be foiled by Wilcox's ability to block the deal thanks to the one-year contract he possess and his upcoming free-agent status.

As for the eight teams casting doubt on Collins' chances, their concerns were almost unanimous.

Said one veteran general manager: "I don't think he was going to be in the league next season no matter what. I don't think [sexual orientation] is the issue. I think 'Can he still play?' is the issue."

"The chances are slim," another team executive said. "Only because of skill."