Commentary

Collins, Nets again make perfect pair

Collins' career comes full circle with Nets in 11-minute season debut vs. Lakers

Updated: February 24, 2014, 10:29 AM ET
By Ohm Youngmisuk | ESPNNewYork.com

After the Brooklyn Nets made history by signing Jason Collins, Richard Jefferson held off to text congratulations to his old Nets teammate and dear friend.

"No, I know he's probably getting texts from Michelle and Barack Obama," Jefferson deadpanned Sunday on the telephone.

Jefferson didn't need to talk to his longtime friend (they were Pac-10 rivals at Arizona and Stanford) to know the Nets-Collins reunion is perfect for both parties 13 years after they first came together.

There was no better team in the NBA for Collins to become the first openly gay athlete in the United States' four major professional sports to play than the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday night.

[+] EnlargeJason Collins
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillJason Collins grabbed two boards and a steal during 11 minutes off the bench in his Nets debut Sunday.

Collins, surrounded by former teammates Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Joe Johnson, will play for a coach who knows his strengths and weaknesses after playing together with the New Jersey Nets in two consecutive NBA Finals.

Jason Kidd pushed the Collins' signing for purely basketball reasons, knowing full well all the small but meaningful things Collins brings. And that is why Jefferson predicts this union will work seamlessly, even if Collins posts numbers similar to his career averages of 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds.

Collins' game was never one built on athleticism or youth. He had an old man's game when he was 22 years old, so Collins, 35, should be able to give Kidd a serviceable 10-15 minutes and six hard fouls when needed.

"If people are all of the sudden going to be like on the Jason Collins stat watch, it's like, uh people, I don't know if you remember him in the prime of his career, it wasn't very pretty," said Utah's Jefferson, who played 6½ seasons with Collins in New Jersey. "With Jason Collins, on the defensive end, he is always in the right spots. He puts his body on the line, he always take charges. He knows when to hard foul people, he calls out the defensive assignments early in the offense. He is a perimeter player's defensive dream.

"He doesn't care about shooting," Jefferson continued. "All he wants to do is rebound, block shots, play good position defense, hold and grab people. ... He has mastered that art of kind of not being noticed but every guy who plays with him understands."

The Jazz lost to the Nets on Wednesday in Utah, but Jefferson sees the areas Collins can help the Nets. He knows how Collins battled with every ounce he had despite being completely outmatched talent-wise against Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan in back-to-back NBA Finals on the Nets in 2002 and 2003.

"When I played with Duncan in San Antonio, he was like, 'I hated playing against Jason Collins and his brother [Jarron] because they were just out there to hold you and grab you," Jefferson said.

While the Nets may only go as far as Deron Williams takes them, it's arguable Brooklyn's most indispensable player is Garnett. It's easy to see how the Nets' defense can suffer when Garnett, their defensive quarterback, isn't barking out directions like Ray Lewis did when he played in the NFL.

With seven more back-to-back sets of games to play this season, including four in April when the Nets will fight for playoff positioning or possibly the Atlantic Division, Kidd will need a big man he can trust to help direct his defense.

Kidd's vision is always one step ahead of what is on the surface. He understands the historical significance of Collins' signing. And he and the Nets, from Russian ownership down to the veterans in the locker room, all embrace Collins and what his signing means off the court.

The Nets discussed everything that comes with signing Collins and are prepared to handle the media attention that will follow in every city. As for Collins, the Nets and the NBA could not handpick a better person to break a barrier.

Collins deftly handled the media before playing against the Lakers. And every step he takes from here will be a first in one of the four U.S. major professional sports.

What if he hears something offensive from fans on the road? Jefferson says Collins has already heard everything in the book and will handle it like a professional.

The two longtime friends came into the league together in 2001 when they were drafted by Houston and dealt to New Jersey in a draft-night deal. For as long as they have known each other, the two joke like they are brothers. Jefferson says Collins' skin is as thick as his broad 255-pound frame.

"There is nothing a fan can say [to Collins] that I haven't said to him already as a friend and he is still my friend," Jefferson said laughing hard. "He comes back [at me]. Even the last time I saw him, I was hurt playing for Golden State and he was starting for Boston and I go to say what's up to him in the line.

"And the first words out of his mouth are, 'Who would have thought that after 13 years you wouldn't be playing and I'm still starting?'" Jefferson continued. "And he ran off. That's always been our relationship. A lot of back and forth."

Jefferson understands that history was made Sunday night in Los Angeles. And even though Collins may have friends in higher places now due to his historic announcement last spring, Jefferson still sees Collins as his silly brother who knows how to win and will do all the little things to again help the Nets win.

"I think everyone knew there was going to be a gay athlete," Jefferson said. "Even with [Missouri football player] Michael Sam, it was just only a matter of time. Every sport has had one, every sport most likely has one currently playing. ... But it takes a lot of courage to come out [like Collins did]."

Added Jefferson: "I don't care what it is that you do. I don't care who it is that you are with, I don't care how it is that you dress, I don't care what it is that you drink. I don't care what it is what you and your wife do in your bedroom. At the end of the day, you are going to have to win games.

"And Jason Collins will help you win games. That is all that matters."

Ohm Youngmisuk has covered the Giants, Jets and the NFL since 2006. Prior to that, he covered the Nets, Knicks and the NBA for nearly a decade. He joined ESPNNewYork.com after working at the New York Daily News for almost 12 years and is a graduate of Michigan State University.
Follow him on Twitter »  Ohm's chat archive »

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