LOS ANGELES -- What I can tell you for sure is that no one was really talking about it. Even in the middle of this lost night-terror of a season, the streets around the Staples Center and the bars in downtown were talking about the Lakers. They were not talking about the historic aspect of what wound up being the team's 37th loss of the season. The streets were flecked with gold jerseys and thick with them closer to the arena, and I was listening for it because I didn't know what it would sound like.
But I didn't hear anything out of the ordinary. I heard Lakers fans bitch about Pau Gasol and their bosses and significant others, and heard them call Jordan Farmar and Nick Young by their first names. No one called Kent Bazemore "Bazed God" -- I mean, there was me, but I don't count -- but there's time for that.
No one at or around this Lakers game seemed especially upset or excited or really any type of way about Jason Collins becoming the first openly gay man to play in an NBA game. All of which makes sense: For all the thousands of conversations at and around NBA games, precious few involve the veteran pick-setting big that the visiting team has just signed to a 10-day contract.
The work that Jason Collins does is not the sort of thing basketball fans talk about. Collins was there on Sunday night, as he has been for his entire long career, to give some fouls and set some picks and play the sort of humbly virtuosic defense he plays. When he does all that right, as he generally does, his work on the court is visible only in a sort of intentional absence -- in negative space surrounding someone else's success, in what and who Collins displaces to make other things happen for his teammates.
As he has grown into the sort of valuable and supremely unglamorous basketball player that he is, Jason Collins has simultaneously faded from the game. This is not just an abstract thing: Collins' statistical contributions have dropped, from modest early-career highs to zero. Some of that is just the decline that age and attrition bring, but it can also be seen as Collins further refining his rough craft. When he is at his best, he is invisible. He's good at what he's good at, but he is not a player who fans talk about.
More on Jason Collins
More on Jason Collins
Collins is, now, a person that people talk about because he is his sport's first openly gay player and because he put the last quiet years of his career at risk by being open about who he was. In the long, limping march of tolerance in this country and its games, Jason Collins is a significant figure because he was brave enough to be first. In this case, as on the picks and charges taken that are his gig, Collins did his modest work simply by being a large human being standing in the right place. There wasn't dudgeon or theater or any inauthentic salesmanship -- a pinwheeling flop in the service of drawing a charge doesn't count -- so much as there was Jason Collins and his big body and his oblique skills, and there were teams that could use him.
There was nothing to insist about. One of the most useful 7-footers not in the NBA happened to be a gay man. Collins believed that some team would need him and he stayed in shape. The Brooklyn Nets eventually needed him, and in his first game with his new team -- his first team, now coached by the first point guard ever to pass him the ball in the NBA -- he was ready to play. Collins put up the sort of stat line he generally puts up: 11 minutes and five fouls, two rebounds and two turnovers, one steal and one missed jumper from the elbow that he seemed to take mostly because it would have been impolite not to take a shot so laughably open. He apologized after the game for not having drawn a charge in those 11 minutes and said that he would in the future. He will. No surprises, here, anywhere down the line.
And neither, really, is there any surprise in the silent assent of the crowd to the idea that Jason Collins, history-making galoot, was primarily just a backup big man in a basketball game. The ovation that he received when he entered the game was appreciative and suggested some cognizance of how meaningful that second-quarter substitution really was, but it was appropriate and in scale. There was still a game going on. This was a great moment, a big deal, but also it was a backup coming into the game to give another backup a rest. The next time he came in, it was barely a rustle.
So what is there to talk about? What would you expect to overhear in the stands when Joel Anthony or Aaron Gray or Nazr Mohammed comes into a game?
Of course, of course that is not all that this was, or is. Kelly Dwyer is right when he writes about all the big things implicit and embraced in this small moment of basketball. Bethlehem Shoals might also be right when he writes that without Jason Collins, there would be no Michael Sam, without whom there might not be the next athlete who refuses to lie about who he is so as not to upset his idly reactionary bosses, and the next. This is all true, and it is all meaningful, and Jason Collins deserves all that applause and more for being a part of it.
But then Collins deserves the chance to inhabit the enlightened anonymity that he cultivates on the floor. His job is to disappear into the oscillations and surges and stagnations of the game, into his job's least obvious and ostentatious tasks, which also happen to be the ones at which he is best. He has earned that applause. He will earn the silence that follows, too. Jason Collins will do what he does, how he does it and as himself.
The Lakers fans around me, frustrated at their skeletal team's halting and flubby comeback attempt, noticed Collins only in the abstract -- he was there in their groaning that Chris Kaman and Pau Gasol seemed suddenly less effective. But that, so quickly after that first moment, was it. Jason Collins had already disappeared back into his work and the game, assimilated as naturally and as totally as ever. He was, as ever, present, but not overly so. He was back, and back to changing the outcome by doing one small thing after another. All of them so resolutely invisible, so very big.