Jason Collins has a week and a half to prove himself to the Brooklyn Nets.
He signed a 10-day contract, one of the toughest deals in sports because it gives non-superstars almost no time to impress their coaches and teammates in hopes of sticking around.
With this group, Collins did that long ago: The Nets locker room is filled with former teammates who have already accepted the league’s first openly gay player and his on-court habits, which are the ones that matter most to them.
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“Guys already know what to know to expect from me. It’s like, OK, he’s not going to magically have a 40-inch vertical (leap) and shoot 3s,” Collins said.
That made it the ideal place for his historic return to the NBA.
Perhaps, as numerous players insisted after Collins came out in a Sports Illustrated article last April, athletes were ready to accept a gay teammate. Maybe Collins would have been welcomed anywhere he signed.
But maybe not. As the bullying scandal involving the Miami Dolphins proved, the locker room can be a place where abusive language can divide a team and threaten to derail a season, to say nothing of the fallout for the players themselves.
The loudest voices with the Nets, however, belong to the team leaders, and they’ve already made up their mind about Collins.
Old teammate Jason Kidd coaches the team. Collins played with Joe Johnson in Atlanta and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in Boston, and they are now the respected veterans in Brooklyn.
“I know those guys over there in Brooklyn, KG and those guys, played with him in Boston, and they’re going to welcome him with open arms,” said Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins, who also played with Pierce and Garnett with the Celtics. “It’s a veteran locker room, so they’re very mature, and they’re going to accept him.”
Added Clippers and former Celtics coach Doc Rivers: “It’s a perfect place with Kevin and Paul. He was with us in Boston, so they know what he can do defensively.”
Collins played 6 ½ years with the Nets, where some in the organization still call him “Twin,” his nickname when he played for them and reached the NBA Finals with Kidd in 2003 and 2003. One of his first calls when he came out last April was to Kidd.
“You look at all the connections that Jason has,” Kidd said, naming not only Jason Collins’ former teammates but also some who played with his twin brother, Jarron, “and also being that he played with the Nets before, so I think this is a great opportunity for him.”
Brooklyn proudly boasts of its diversity — Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier playing for the Dodgers — and the Nets’ locker room makeup fits. Right next to Pierce and Garnett toward one corner of their room at Barclays Center are Russian Andrei Kirilenko and Mirza Teletovic from Bosnia.
They are owned by a Russian, Mikhail Prokhorov, who clearly doesn’t share his country’s anti-gay policies. Prokhorov isn’t afraid to take chances, firing Avery Johnson last December after he’d been Eastern Conference coach of the month in November, and later hiring Kidd when he had no previous coaching experience.
Signing Collins is another risk, but only because he’s 35 with limited offensive skills and hadn’t played in the NBA since finishing last season with Washington.
As for his sexuality? Well, there was a time when only whites were trusted to coach and more than a third of the league’s coaching jobs are now held by blacks, so the NBA has seen the benefit of embracing groups who previously felt shut out.
“Twenty years ago or 30 years ago, I wouldn’t be standing here, probably,” said Toronto coach Dwane Casey, who is black. “If you’re going to exclude one group of people, you’re going to exclude more than one group. I think it’s great for the league.”
The next gay athlete may not have the benefits that Collins enjoys. Perhaps Michael Sam, the Missouri football star who is expected in May to become the NFL’s first openly gay player, will end up with a team that isn’t quite ready for him — or maybe he doesn’t find a team at all.
Collins had already spent 12 years in the league by the time the world knew he was gay. He’s a well-regarded Stanford graduate who just attended the State of the Union as a guest of first lady Michelle Obama and has made friends around the league — and particularly inside the Nets’ organization.
“They have good group of guys here and again, either my brother or myself has been teammates with a lot of guys in this locker room,” Collins said, “so they’re very familiar with what you’re going to get from the Collins twins.”
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