In his brief time as a member of the Boston Celtics, Jason Collins did little to stand out. He did his job as a backup center, perhaps the most unglamorous of any NBA position, and when the game was over he went home. When he played, which was rarely, he did what he's done his whole career. He soaked up minutes, committed fouls and tried to stay out of the way.
He did, however, make an impact on his team. The Celtics didn't want to trade Collins to Washington in the deal that brought back Jordan Crawford. They wanted to move Chris Wilcox instead, but when Wilcox invoked his Early Bird rights and blocked the trade, Collins was added to the deal to make the cap numbers work.
Doc Rivers went out of his way to praise Collins after the trade, calling him one of the best guys he's ever had in a locker room. Rivers went further with a powerful statement Monday afternoon when Collins announced that he was gay in a piece in Sports Illustrated.
"I am extremely happy and proud of Jason Collins," Rivers said. "He's a pro's pro. He is the consummate professional and he is one of my favorite ‘team' players I have ever coached. If you have learned anything from Jackie Robinson, it is that teammates are always the first to accept. It will be society who has to learn tolerance. One of my favorite sayings is, 'I am who I am, are whom we are, can be what I want to be, it's not up to you, it's just me being me.'"
All of this is important, because as the first openly gay athlete still in the midst of his career, Collins is no one's idea of a stereotype. In that way, he's just like every other gay person in the world. We have gay doctors, politicians, executives, friends and neighbors, and all of them are unique in their own way, just like everyone else.
Now, we have a gay athlete, and Collins' message is powerful specifically because it is so personal. In his SI column, Collins wrote of wanting to come out not to make a bold, political stand, but for himself and his own peace of mind.
I've never sought the spotlight. Though I'm coming out to the world, I intend to guard my privacy. I'm making this blanket statement in part to keep rumors and misunderstandings at bay. I hope fans will respect me for raising my hand. And I hope teammates will remember that I've never been an in-your-face kind of guy. All you need to know is that I'm single. I see no need to delve into specifics.
Collins wants to keep playing, and as a free-agent backup center of able body, he should continue to find employment in the NBA. Every team needs a tall guy willing to do the unglamorous work for the minimum, and that's been Collins' stock-in-trade for a dozen years.
There's no reason to think he won't be able to continue his career, and the response from the NBA has been encouraging. Commissioner David Stern sent out a statement of support, as did the Wizards. More importantly, players ranging from Kobe Bryant to Zaza Pachulia have also voiced positive messages of caring and respect.
It says a lot about where the league is now that Collins has been so embraced. Surely there will be low chatter in the corners of some locker rooms and some unfortunate talk on the court. It's happened before and will continue to happen. But those ignorant voices have become more marginalized today.
Jason Collins didn't have to do this for anyone but himself, but in doing so, he made a profound statement. This is who he is and it's up to us to offer him the same respect and empathy that we demand from others.