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Friday, October 11, 2013
Tolerance is great, conviction is better

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?