What's in a name on the wall

PHOENIX -- It had to be somewhere on this wall in the corridors of US Airways Center, the wall with the deep purple background and the name of everyone who has played for the Phoenix Suns painted in white letters. The one I was looking for eluded my memory, but I knew I would recognize it when I saw it. And there it was: Georgi Glouchkov.

There was a time when that name was a big deal. In 1985, back when the Cold War remained frigid and the Berlin Wall was still intact, the Bulgarian-born Glouchkov became the first NBA player from an Eastern Bloc country when he joined the Suns. Eventually, last names ending in "ov" or "ic" became common throughout the NBA.

On Sunday night, Russian Andrei Kirilenko played for the team owned by Russian Mikhail Prokhorov, and that wasn't the story. The news was the Brooklyn Nets signed Jason Collins, and Collins stepped onto an NBA court for the first time since he announced he was gay last year.

Collins is on a 10-day contract. The stats were minimal: zero points, two rebounds and one steal. The "SportsCenter" clips stretched the definition of “highlights” to the extreme, featuring shots of Collins helping out on defense or tapping a rebound out to a teammate.

It’s a shame the ordinary had to be so extraordinary, especially in 2014. But here's why it mattered so much: On the same day Collins played against the Lakers in Los Angeles, the front page of the Arizona Republic was filled with stories about a controversial state bill that would allow denial of service on the grounds of religious beliefs. That means if a restaurant owner wanted to deny Collins and his partner service because they're gay, he or she could. Opponents of the bill believe it would legalize discrimination against homosexuals.

The closed-mindedness isn't limited to Arizona. Californians, for example, donated $27.7 million (with another $11.3 million coming from out of state) to support passage of a 2008 proposition that would ban same-sex marriages.

That's a bit of the context to frame Collins’ 11 minutes on the court Sunday night. What constitutes news is always a matter of where things stand at that time. The hope is that some day Jason Collins will be like Georgi Glouchkov, just another name on another team’s wall, reduced to ordinary status by progress and the passage of time.